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Habibi’s Hypnotic Music

It’s easy to fall under the spell music of Habibi with lyrics in English and Farsi on their new EP, Cardamom Garden.

Habibis Hypnotic Music
Photo by Bailey Robb

What is it about Habibi that makes their music infectious? It could be their own infusion of Middle-Eastern psych, Motown soul, ’60s pop, garage, surf, and folk. Or is it their Iranian-American lead vocalist, Rahill Jamalifard, who sings in English and Farsi? Or maybe it’s their stance on wanting to tell their story in their own words — after all, it would be too easy to label them “an all women band” and corner them into a discussion about the current political climate.

In the simplest words: Habibi knows how to write songs that stick, like their song “Nedayeh Bahar” (“song of spring” in Farsi) on their new EP, Cardamom Garden, released March 2. The breezy surf-guitar riffs lend perfectly to Jamalifard’s meditative melodies, in which she warns about life’s unexpected mishaps. In the chorus, she sings “And when she’s gone / the wind sings her song / it sings along,” which could easily be a mantra for the lasting allure of their music. At the song’s conclusion, she gently chants in Farsi, her first time singing in her native language for the band.

This remarkable mix of music genres and languages was born in Brooklyn, where Jamalifard met Lenaya “Lenny” Lynch (guitar and vocals) at a defunct jazz café back in 2011. Both originally from Detroit, they connected through their mutual adoration of Iranian culture (Detroit has the largest Arab American community in the United States) and psych music. Through mutual connections and local bars, Karen Isabel (drums), Leah Beth Fishman (guitar/vocals), and Erin Campbell (guitar/bass) joined Habibi, whose endearing name means “my love” in Arabic. So far, the band has released three EPs and one studio album.

For Lenny Letter, I interviewed both Jamalifard and Lynch about growing as a band, songwriting in two languages, and details of their new EP. In May of this year, Habibi will be on the road for the first time in Europe.

Sabrina Cooper: What sets you apart from being just another band from Brooklyn?

Rahill Jamalifard: I definitely think our sound is unique due to a lot of outside influence and the different backgrounds among us. I don’t think any other “rock band” is singing in Farsi and has a Puerto Rican drummer who is as much influenced by tribal percussion as she is Moe Tucker.

SC: What was the songwriting process like in terms of composing lyrics in Farsi versus writing songs in English?

RJ: Harder, more challenging. But also very exciting and inspiring. It’s like being given a different garden of flowers to pick a bouquet from.

SC: Who was on your mind when you wrote the lyrics and melody to “Gypsy Love”?

RJ: “Gypsy Love” is a very personal song for me; the character, “she,” is a female I referenced often on our first record [the self-titled Habibi]. The song is like a part two of the song “Sweetest Talk” and a continuation of her journey. The woman is a combination of my incredibly strong female ancestors: part warrior, part bandit, independent and free. Also, a projection of who I wish to be — a dream of who I am.

SC: How do you think you’ve all grown over the last seven years, from when you first started the band in 2011 back in Brooklyn?

Lenaya “Lenny” Lynch: I think maturity definitely comes into play. A woman of 26 and a woman of 33 are both great and magical, but I would rather be that older one right now. You feel more confident in who you are, your musicianship, and what you have to say. Also, history means a lot, and when you've known each other and worked together this long, you do become a well-oiled machine and get a certain rhythm and camaraderie that makes it all a fun time.

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SC: The BBC recently reported that music-festival organizers in the UK are pledging fifty-fifty gender balance by 2022. What do you think the industry could be doing proactively in order to promote more women in music?

RJ: To quit lumping every girl band together, quit pigeonholing female lineups as “girl bands.” Don’t write stories that feed into the current upheaval of political and gender/identity turmoil; let a band write their own story, if they even chose to. I get it, we are a band of females, but don’t put your agenda on me. I see and experience that a lot.

LL: Agreed. I never wanna be asked ever again “What it’s like to be in a girl band?” Like with Hollywood, it’s classically hard to get movies made centered upon women because men continue to think that those movies won’t sell as well. We have seen a huge wind of change with that in the last couple of years. It’s the same with music. Don’t assume that all-women bands won’t rock your show or won’t sell your show.

SC: And when you tour together, do you have certain rituals before you head out onstage? Or post-performance?

RJ: We don’t really have rituals. I always end up having to pee right before we walk onstage (the plague of never-ending nerves). Post-performance, I usually need a cigarette and some fresh air. Good-luck charms are what’s left of my bracelets and rings — always nice to feel those, like trusted armor before a battle.

LL: We really need to get a group huddle going on or something! Didn’t realize that we don’t really have a preshow ritual, besides text messaging each other all of our outfit choices. I usually need a glass of wine before and after, and I have a little mantra where I say “I am Suzi Quatro” three times fast looking in a mirror in the dark.

SC: What new audience are you hoping to reach after the release of Cardamom Garden?

RJ: I mean, anyone out there who sincerely loves music and is open to broadening their world to songs sung in different languages and has the capacity of appreciating cultural diversity and its influence through music.

LL: I’d love for it to reach the ears of some young Iranian girls or girls in the Middle East in general who wanna play music.

Sabrina Cooper’s DJ name — if she ever became a DJ — would be “mini scooper.”