Looking for roots with Adrienne Shamszad

Persian-American singer/songwriter performs Saturday at Freight & Salvage with a stellar band and her mentor, acclaimed Iranian vocalist Mahsa Vahdat. Photo: Golnaz Shahmirzadi

For some people the warp and woof of culture and identity serve as a tightly knit garment as comfortable as one’s skin. For others, complicated family stories and disruptive historical forces sever the thread of heritage, creating a sense of loss that can motivate a quest for wholeness.

Oakland-reared singer/songwriter Adrienne Shamszad, who makes her debut as a Freight & Salvage headliner on Saturday, grew up in a family where half of her birthright felt conspicuously absent. Her Iranian-born father immigrated to the Bay Area as a teenager in the 1960s and never returned. With a tiny Iranian population in the East Bay and Farsi not spoken at home, she came of age with the persistent and growing feeling that Persian culture was the answer to a soul-nagging question.

It’s a connection she’s sought to mend via Persian poetry and music, and the songs she presents at the Freight embody her ongoing efforts to immerse herself in a culture that resonates for her like a homecoming to a welcoming land. “Growing up there was no download of culture from my dad,” she says. “I think the Persian culture is so old and such a dominant gene in my blood and spirit, and there was this significant chunk that was missing from my own life. I grew up with a sense of deep longing.”

Co-presented by Diaspora Arts Connection, the concert features a band reflecting the confluence of her musical paths, with a stellar cast of musicians known for their versatility and improvisational brio. Accordionist Rob Reich, who’s also a brilliant composer and jazz pianist, has been performing around the Bay Area in recent months as the leader of the Circus Bella All-Star Band, which accompanies the antics of Circus Bella.


Shamszad connected with him about 10 years ago when they put together an instantaneous arrangement of the Etta James hit “At Last” for a variety show, and they’ve been collaborating ever since. “He is unfailingly intuitive and present, somebody who’s watched me grow as a musician,” she says. “I want him to be part of every project, even out of his comfort zone. He fits in anywhere. He’s one of my favorite musicians in the Bay Area. I want to share him with the community.”

The band’s rhythm section tandem features bassist Schuyler Karr and percussionist Josh Mellinger. Shamszad performs several songs solo, backing herself on piano, setar or guitar, and the group is joined on several other pieces by setar master Atabak Elyasi and Syrian-born percussion master Faisal Zedan.

“She’s such a great musician, and her voice is beautiful,” says Zedan, who’s known collaborating with artists drawing on various combinations of Balkan, Arabic, Turkish, and Persian music. “She’s able to produce the Persian voice but from an American perspective.”

Shamszad will also be joined on two piece by the artist who’s played the most significant role in her recent evolution, the Iranian vocal master Mahsa Vahdat. Since settling in Berkeley several years ago she’s gained a new audience in the United State through her extensive collaborations with Kronos Quartet. Iranian composer Sahba Aminikia introduced her to the celebrated new music ensemble (which performs at Yoshi’s on Aug. 11), and Kronos features Mahsa and her sister Marjan Vahdat on the arrestingly beautiful album Placeless (Kirkelig Kulturverksted).

Shamszad first came into contact with Vahdat in the summer of 2016 at a workshop led by Kitka. While struck by the beauty of her voice, Shamszad didn’t immediately feel kinship with Persian classical music. It wasn’t until hearing her with Norwegian jazz pianist Tord Gustavsen that a door opened. “Her voice is so captivating,” Shamszad says. “Being able to hear it in the context of a multi-ethnic musical arrangement made me realize I wanted to do that.”

For the past year she’s studied with Vahdat with the support of a Living Cultures master-apprenticeship fellowship through the Alliance for California Traditional Arts. “Persian vocal embellishment fits my body,” Shamszad says. “I love the language so much and I have a good ear for how things are pronounced. We fell right into this wonderful groove. Her teaching style is very direct and masterfully feminine. With a lot of musicians there’s a lot of ego attached to it. It can be kind of a hostile work environment. Mahsa doesn’t do any of that. She’s so clear about what her intention is, to have women’s voices singing these songs and the next generation gets to carry these songs forward.”

Music has been central, organizing force in Shamszad’s life since childhood. Her mother taught her a few blues songs on guitar to get her started at 12, and she quickly progressed to writing her own tunes. Songwriting help her get through difficult high school years. “It was my life, my safety, my meditation,” she says. “I was a really negligent student. I’d show up for class and say, I didn’t get that assignment done but I wrote these three songs and I’ll play them for the class. I really used my music to get out of and into a lot of situations.”


She performed around the North Bay during two and a half years at Sonoma State, but it was her involvement with the Meher Baba spiritual movement that gave her music focus and numinous presence. The fact that the Indian-born Baba hailed from a Parsi family of Persian heritage seemed to resonate when Shamszad started her studies with Vahdat.

“It’s almost like I’ve had a guide through this part of my spiritual development, embracing this part of my culture with songs and music centered on prayer and praise for the beloved, or God, or the creator,” she says. “Having that partnership and guidance is very inspiring, and I’ve been able to find my ow voice through it. My Persian roots were walled off, but they were right next door.”

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Throughout Louis Armstrong’s life the legend of his birth was too perfect to resist. The most influential and generously ingenious figure in American popular music claimed to have been born on July 4, 1900. It wasn’t until years after Satchmo’s death in 1971 that New Orleans music historian Tad Jones found Armstrong’s baptismal record. establishing his birth year as 1901 and his most likely birthday as Aug. 4 (some questions remain).

On Saturday, the accomplished jazz and blues vocalist Rhonda Benin celebrates Pops’ 118th birthday at Ashkenaz with a talent-packed seven-piece band. Sponsored by Jazz In the Neighborhood, the concert features an open dance floor and a pre-show talk about Armstrong by Berkeley jazz historian (and saxophonist) Richard Hadlock, who knew Satchmo and played with his Louisiana contemporaries Kid Ory, Pops Foster and Danny Barker.