Haale: Living In Another Place

By Team JamBase Jun 10, 2008 6:00 pm PDT

By: Dennis Cook

Inside a mind under no one’s spell
There is an open road
The air is clear, the land is wide
I’m calm, I’m flying

Haale by Matt Kilmer
Most attempts at cross-cultural musical marriages result in a mushy mess, a bunch of Putumayo compilations on shuffle, all the polite, “exotic” bits filtered down for Western ears. Haale is a joyful, darkly curved exception. Based around the songs and multihued voice of Haale Gafori, the band’s name is both her own and the gifted, open-minded musicians she’s gathered into her vision, which weaves the vibrations of her home in downtown NYC – Patti Smith and Television surely float in her ether – with the Persian culture of her upbringing. Tough and seeking, bold and reflective, there’s absolutely nothing timid about Haale’s hybrid, which flows like hot mercury or pungent smoke, singular shapes impossible to pour into standard molds. Hard rock drones ride Middle Eastern percussion, while she glides between English and Farsi with a voice that’s part PJ Harvey, part Nina Simone – resolutely powerful but capable of great, cathartic fracture.

It took all of two-minutes of their performance at Bonnaroo last year for me to figure out that Haale was something different. As if someone had raised the band with “Kashmir” playing in their nurseries, Haale roared towards the heavens, unafraid, beautiful and a little scary; there’s not many of us confident enough to bum rush God. On the heels of two excellent 2007 EPs, Morning and Paratrooper, Haale’s full-length debut, No Ceiling (released in March on Channel A Music/Music + Art), picks up the fire of that performance and places it in wonderfully constructed lamps that light the way towards some of the first truly international music of the 21st century, a marriage made on Earth with an eye tilted skyward at all times.

Pop No Ceiling into iTunes and the genre comes up as “Unclassifiable.”

Haale at Bonnaroo 2007
“I like that! It’s indicative of my personality. My friends have always said I have all these different sides [laughs]. So, I have this very playful child and this older shamanic character, so I guess it’s true,” chuckles Haale. “I feel the songs on this album are each their own little city, their own little land. It’s definitely more my personality to sort of dance through many cities.”

As the world loses its fences, by and by, Haale’s proliferate sensibilities make more and more sense. As we stroll around listening to music libraries on credit card sized machines, jumping willy-nilly from The Ramones to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, artists like Haale that connect the dots between these disparate elements will be the ones who help us formulate an understanding of what a truly worldwide culture might look like.

“You put all these CDs on shuffle and you have this journey,” says Haale. “We’re doing this in a very different way than the usual model. Record labels are crumbling. We haven’t felt like we’ve had a hard time getting gigs or anything. Somehow the fact that we are, musically, in this ‘unclassifiable’ space, we’ve been doing gigs from Bonnaroo to small rock clubs to the Carnegie Hall/David Byrne experience [Byrne officially “presented” Haale in a recent spotlight concert]. We can fit into wildly different venues, and take advantage of playing music in these varied settings just so we can get on a stage, wherever it is, and play. That’s riding us through pretty well, where the ‘unclassifiable’ nature of it is proving to be an asset.”

This Is The Sound

Haale by Nader Davoodi
There’s a very inviting atmosphere on No Ceiling. There are a lot of distinctive flavors but all them clearly originate from a unified vision. What could be a slur of languages and styles becomes warmly interlocked in Haale’s music. It’s international in tone but anchored to a very American sense of inclusiveness and exploration. For all the bad things associated with the U.S. of late (or perhaps forever), there is an indomitable drive to push further, break down barriers and forge ahead towards the next shore. The image of the melting pot hasn’t stuck for nothing, and it’s here that new musical forms frequently begin.

“One of my major goals going into this album was to make sure Haale’s voice and lyrics stood out,” says percussionist-producer Matt Kilmer. “With a lot of the indie rock I’ve been listening to in the past few years, it’s impossible to hear what people are saying. The way a lot of rock is mixed these days you don’t hear the message of the music so much. You hear the beat, and that’s great, but I feel Haale has a great, even an important, message for our times. I really wanted to focus on making her heard well. One of the things that makes this project so appealing to me is there’s substance. I kind of hate to use that word because it sounds a little generic sometimes, but there actually is substance to this music and message. We’re driving around on tour now and it’s getting harder and harder to tell the towns apart because every town has the same stores. This isn’t an anti-corporate album or anything but it does have the message of ‘Look inside. Find a deeper meaning of things than going to Starbucks and reading the tabloids.'”

“I went on the road with Lauryn Hill in 2005 on a European tour, and I took all the money I made from that and bought myself some recording equipment and holed up in my place. I have a studio apartment in Brooklyn right by Prospect Park, and I set up shop there,” says Kilmer. “Since it’s in the middle of Brooklyn in a Caribbean neighborhood, people are blasting Bob Marley all the time; really just loud EVERYTHING all the time [laughs]. And that’s where I learned the craft of recording.”

Kilmer’s attention to detail and diligence in unearthing interesting sonics benefits the album on many levels, starting from his rhythms at the bottom.

“On the song ‘Off Duty Fortune Teller’ the backbeat is actually four or five different instruments put together, layered to get a crunchy, wider sound,” Kilmer says. “The South Indian rhythmic system was a huge doorway into deepening my inner pulse as a drummer and as a musician in general. I struggled when I first started playing percussion because I didn’t really have a percussion tradition of my own. One of my best friends, an amazing percussionist and drummer named Tony Escapa [Al Di Meola, Ricky Martin], is from Puerto Rico. We were living together and I was semi-jealous because being from Puerto Rico he’d been hearing this music since he was a kid. Then I started playing a lot of Arabic music when I was playing with violinist Simon Shaheen. But, my own personal experience came out of rock music and American jazz.”

Continue reading for more on Haale…

I had this heritage that I wasn’t really digging into. I pulled the dotar down from the wall and started playing. I’ve always sung in Persian but I thought I’d be about 50-years-old when I recorded in Persian.


Photo of Haale by Aarona Pichinson

You Need Nothing But What’s Inside

You address yourself to me so that I may read you, but I am nothing to you except this address; in your eyes I am the substitute for nothing, for no figure (hardly that of the mother); for you I am neither a body nor even an object (and I couldn’t care less: I am not the one whose soul demands recognition), but merely a field, a vessel for expansion. –Roland Barthes

The massively influential French critic (and partial papa to semiotics) quoted above might well have been talking about the listeners potential relationship to Haale’s work, which is undeniably a “vessel for expansion” if ever there was one. This music offers a gateway to something far deeper than casual background accompaniment. Theirs is a door of perception swinging wide, and while many of us might not understand every word, the underlying meaning – and “the pleasure of foreign tongues” as Barthes once put it – is evident. Haale calls out to the universe, and by gum she might just get a response if she keeps it up like No Ceiling and the band’s intense, almost ritual concerts, which seem hell-bent on shattering barriers and preconceptions at every turn.

This is a band for Obama’s America – earthy and lofty, inclusive but also celebratory of personal history. As the political landscape continues to shake up, ripples throughout the culture will be felt, and music has long been a telegraph service for things to come.

“The dollar is down, the economy is crumbling and all these horrible wars. I think [if elected] McCain will attack Iran. It’s so disturbing,” says Haale, who faces the challenge of getting Persian art and culture across to a country that’s more backwards than ever in its general attitudes towards the Middle East. So often, Americans forget that Baghdad is the seat of civilization, the place where written language and mathematics got their first real foothold. “I remember when the Patti Smith album Trampin’ came out, and it had this song [“Radio Baghdad”] where she says, ‘We discovered the zero and we mean nothing to you!’ She’s howling and it’s powerful and amazing and true. It’s incredible the disrespect for life and culture and history.”

Haale is also very much a child of Rumi.

Today, like every other day, we wake up empty and frightened
Don’t open the door to the study and begin reading
Take down a musical instrument
Let the beauty we love be what we do
There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground

“I was in the pine forests of France staying with this instrument builder and his wife at their house way, way out there. It was wonderful, jumping in and out of brooks and doing these vocalizations in the woods. On my eleventh night there, I saw this instrument on the wall called a dotar that I hadn’t seen the previous ten nights, which was kind of a metaphor for my life. I had this heritage that I wasn’t really digging into. I pulled the dotar down from the wall and started playing. I’ve always sung in Persian but I thought I’d be about 50-years-old when I recorded in Persian [laughs]. When I had the dotar in my hands, I thought, ‘This is it.’ The instrument builder was a very sweet man, and at the train station he put his hand on my shoulder and said, ‘Find your sound.’ It was such a dramatic moment! I got on the train with tears in my eyes,” says Haale. “When I got back to New York, I got a setar and I started singing some of the songs I’d heard growing up, slowly incorporating them into sets, here and there. Then, the task became weaving things together.”

“It became a journey of just being myself, really. The truth is I really am of these two places,” continues Haale. “It became this natural thing that I had to do. Even though 9/11 happened and suddenly there was this whole anti-Middle Eastern sentiment happening, it was something I felt I had to do. I’d felt it at different points growing up, too, but it became a choice of being real or not.”

Here’s a glimpse of Haale performing at the Numoon Festival in Rotterdam last year.

Haale tour dates available here

JamBase | Worldwide
Go See Live Music!

JamBase Collections