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Ariana Delawari talks new album, 'I Will Remember'

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Moments after musician Ariana Delawari set foot in our studio at NPR West, the space was transformed.

ARIANA DELAWARI: This is a scarf from Afghanistan that was my mom's.

CHANG: Did she wear it often?

DELAWARI: She did. This was, like...

CHANG: Along with her guitar, she laid out traditional Afghan clothing and photos from her trips to Afghanistan over the years.

DELAWARI: This is me in 2002 at the inauguration of a girls' school.

CHANG: Oh, my goodness. This is shortly after your parents moved back to Afghanistan?

DELAWARI: Yeah.

CHANG: Oh, wow.

And she brought a large, framed portrait of a young girl whose face is covered with cloth.

DELAWARI: So this was a gift from my sister. And this was right after the fall of Afghanistan. This little girl has a...

CHANG: She has a cardboard cutout of a guitar in her arms.

DELAWARI: Yeah, so when the country fell, she had to destroy her instrument for her safety.

CHANG: Delawari grew up here in Los Angeles, but her ties to Afghanistan run quite deep.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CHANG: Her father was born and raised there. Her mother was half Sicilian, half Afghan, and both of them spent years inside and outside the country working to improve the lives of Afghan people. They took in friends and family, people who had fled Afghanistan after the Soviet invasion in 1979.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LAILY JAN")

DELAWARI: (Singing in non-English language).

Our home became a source of celebration. So we had live Afghan music, food and potlucks, and it was so special. I think the rest of my life I've always wanted to recreate it in some capacity.

CHANG: For Delawari, her own activism often comes in the form of art. She spent years traveling the country and produced a documentary film about the experience. And her debut album, out in 2009, features elder Afghan musicians whose music was reemerging after years of suppression by the Taliban.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LAILY JAN")

DELAWARI: (Singing in non-English language).

CHANG: Her newest album is out today. It's called "I Will Remember." The music in this album came to Delawari as she was mourning the loss of her mother, who died in 2020, and the loss of Afghanistan, which fell to the Taliban again in 2021.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WITH YOU")

DELAWARI: (Singing) And at the edge of the earth, I would be with you, I just thought we'd have another day...

It's so sad because the truth of our culture is full of art and expression. And to think that it's all back to square one and that artists in the country, like, the people of the country created this whole change and movement to bring art back, and now it's suppressed again. But the spirit of the people - no way. Like, Afghans - we are resilient. We have a history of being warriors. You know, Afghanistan is the center of Asia, and that's, like, the most prime real estate of the planet. And so, if you're...

CHANG: (Laughter) I like that.

DELAWARI: ...Like, at the center of what everyone wants access to, you become a warrior. But who wants to be a warrior, right?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLOOD AND THE FAME")

DELAWARI: (Singing) The blood and the fame, a nation born in shame...

CHANG: I am wondering, how has your love for Afghanistan helped you think differently about your own relationship with America? - because I was struck by some of the lyrics in the song "Blood And The Fame."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLOOD AND THE FAME")

DELAWARI: (Singing) I don't want to fake a pride in racism, I don't want to fake a pride that's two-faced...

CHANG: Can you tell me who you're speaking to there? - what you're speaking about exactly? Is that about America?

DELAWARI: Yeah, I wrote that song at a time when there was so much going on with police brutality, with Indigenous people protecting their land and water and all of these causes that we have here. And I just was feeling disgusted with my American identity. And I'm here. I can't physically be in Afghanistan the way that I was. And I'm now really contemplating how to approach my American identity with my Afghan understanding and what my contribution can be here because we all have these different stories. And so how do we weave them into a new dream together?

CHANG: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BALKH")

DELAWARI: (Singing) I am the doorway to eternal space and time. I am the key to a freer mind...

CHANG: A lot of this album is also about the memory of your mother. How has making the album helped you process your grief, your mourning for your mother?

DELAWARI: You know, I wanted to honor her. My mom was such an incredible mind and spirit. She was one of 12 children.

CHANG: Wow.

DELAWARI: So my mom had no money, faced so much racism and Islamophobia, and so she was so passionate about the underdog - whatever it was in society. I mean, I remember, like, every single time I'd go to a restaurant with my mom, she would have a pep talk in LA with all the waiters. Are you an actor? And she had a Jersey accent. She'd be, like, whatever you want to do with your life, you can do it. Do it. You can - you - your dreams can come true. Then...

CHANG: Yeah.

DELAWARI: ...She would go over to the manager and say, I just want you to know that this busser was outstanding. And she just had this - (crying) she had, like, a deep passion for other people's dreams coming true.

CHANG: Even people she didn't know well.

DELAWARI: Everyone.

CHANG: What a gift her life was to so many people.

DELAWARI: Yeah, it was different than my father, who had more of the prestige of being recognized for his work. She wasn't recognized for her work.

CHANG: But for her, it was about recognizing others.

DELAWARI: Yeah, exactly.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARIANA DELAWARI SONG, "EACH STEP")

DELAWARI: A lot of the things that she taught me about revolution, about honoring the earth, about each other - that theme, I tried to carry through the whole album, but one song, "Each Step" - I woke up. It was, like, the first of the year in 2020, and I knew - I just had this feeling I wasn't going to have her for very much longer. And I wrote that song thinking about her. And whatever our lives are or aren't, what matters is the people we love.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EACH STEP")

DELAWARI: (Singing) Life with you has been the greatest gift I've ever had, and someday when we're gone, I promise I'll pass it on.

CHANG: Before Delawari gathered all her photos and artifacts that she had brought into the studio, she left us with a song.

DELAWARI: (Playing guitar, singing) I heard, I heard a voice, and it told me, and it told me to sing, and it told me, and it told me to sing, to sing, to sing freely...

CHANG: That was musician and activist Ariana Delawari. Her new album is called "I Will Remember." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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