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Photographer: Erich Woodrum

Yvette Saatchi Perez ’89 has been a New York City-based musician/composer for 20 years performing in numerous rock bands and new music ensembles, most notably in the avant-pop group Birdbrain.

When Perez, who is adopted, connected with her Iranian birth father in 2009, she started learning about the rich cultural heritage of the country, including all about the popular music of Iran in the ’60s and ’70s—Farsi funk. (Farsi is modern Persian, the official language of Iran.) Farsi funk incorporates elements of Western disco, funk, and Latin beats, with Middle Eastern melodies and poetic lyrics

“I love how it incorporates so many different cultures at once,” says Perez, “but it’s also distinctly Persian in a lot of ways.”

Yvette felt such affinity with the music that in 2011 she founded the Farsi funk band Mitra Sumara, which roughly translates to “the light of our friendship,” and just recently, the band put out its first CD, Tahdig.

Here Perez talks about Mitra Sumara, the new CD, and her personal journey to learn about her heritage.

What is the history of Farsi funk music?
Farsi funk, which was the popular music of Iran in the ’60s and ’70s, takes its influences from all around the world. The pop music scene in Iran at the time was huge. There were incredible worldwide stars (Googoosh, Soli, Leila Forouhar) who didn’t hit the United States, but they were all over Asia, Russia, and parts of Europe. Some of them are still alive, and a few of them still tour.

How did you come to form Mitra Sumara?
I started the band in 2011, about a year after meeting my Iranian birth father. I was adopted by American parents, but I always knew I was half Iranian. It was always important to me to find my Iranian roots. While I was searching for my father, I was also learning about Iran’s culture. After meeting my father, we would talk about Iranian music, specifically the music of the ’60s and ’70s, as it was a very creative time. I was inspired to start a band to revive this music. I wanted to do a take on Farsi funk that had a more contemporary spin and to encourage Americans to view it in the same way as Brazilian pop from the ’70s or salsa. I wanted to try to put it on the map in a new way to a broader audience.

And you perform the songs in Farsi?
Yes. I’m not fluent, but I can sing in Farsi. I’ve been studying Farsi seriously since I started the group. I think it’s a beautiful language.

How have audiences responded?
It’s been an interesting journey because we’ve been able to play at a wide variety of venues from small, curated experimental jazz venues in Brooklyn (like Barbès) to an Iranian café in New York to bigger venues like Brooklyn Bowl and the Smithsonian Sackler galleries and Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. For me, the shows are all different but are all wonderful because they really build community.

Explain what you mean by “building community.”
Building community is what I was ultimately hoping to do when I created Mitra Sumara. Iranians from all different generations have come to see us. Some had to immigrate to the United States during the revolution. Some are much younger, but have heard their parents or their grandparents playing Farsi funk at home. These songs have a lot of meaning for Iranian families, and so to hear this music in a different context sung and played by American musicians is profoundly meaningful. And the Americans who come are like, “Wow, I didn’t know that music from Iran was so cool!”

When did you first contact your birth parents?
The first time I spoke to my birth mother, who is American, was when I was a senior at Smith. We have not maintained a relationship, but I’ve been very lucky with my father. He’s introduced me to other members of the family, and I even found that I have three half siblings. It’s been this whole epic journey since then. We’re all half Iranian and half American, and each of us has a different identity story and a desire to reclaim the identity that was taken away.

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What can listeners expect from your new CD, Tahdig?
We worked with producer Salmak Khaledi, who is a member of 127, Iran’s most respected underground rock group. Tahdig is a collection of some of our favorite songs. It offers contemporary takes on these songs with updated beats and contemporary production, giving them a newer, funkier feel.

How has Smith influenced your career in music?
I feel like I had a lot of really great musical experiences at Smith. I was a student in the music department. My adviser was John Sessions, who unfortunately passed away two years ago. He taught me about the post-war composers, like John Cage. That was his specialty. I found his intellect to be super amazing and engaging. I spent a lot of time chatting with him outside of class, and he had a big impact on me. At that time, I feel like the best-kept secret at Smith was the electronic music studio. That studio and the class there had a great impact on me and my sense of musicianship.