In 2013, Bat For Lashes’ Natasha Khan, producer Dan Carey, and kraut-psych band TOY collaborated on “The Bride,” a cover of Amir Rassaie’s “Aroos Khanom,” which Carey discovered on the 2013 compilation Zendooni: Funk, Psychedelia And Pop From The Iranian Pre-Revolution Generation. Earlier this year, all three reunited to form the group Sexwitch, and they released their self-titled debut album — made up of covers of 1970s folk and psych songs from Thailand, Morocco, and Iran, plus one from the U.S. — on Carey’s Speedy Wunderground label last month. And in a new piece on The Talkhouse, the site where musicians write about other musicians, Afghan-American artist Zohra Atash (of Azar Swan and Religious To Damn) is accusing the project of cultural appropriation.
“Through the portal of six cover songs, we enter a Mean-Disney-era dystopia of imperialist, witch-burning othering where gender, cultures and archetypes are whittled down to the lowest common denominator for the sake of slapdash art,” Atash writes. “I’m fine with cultural appropriation as long as you appreciate and respect the music — even on the ‘I have a few compilations’ level,” she says. “But this record is as culturally sensitive as the last time Natasha Khan homogenized a disenfranchised people by claiming some nebulous affinity with Native Americans and regularly wore feathered war bonnets and played a shaman stick live. With Sexwitch, she is implicitly linking the East with the most un-feminist The Malleus Maleficarum portrayal of ‘witch’ — some nocturnal unhinged beast — and it’s insulting. Asia is not one big country full of primal dancers and/or terrorists. We are living in a world in which tensions between East and West are reaching an apex. So forgive me if I’m not psyched — ha! — that you think the East is your blank canvas.”
Although she also criticizes Khan’s “over-the-top attempts at heavy-melisma Eastern singing styles such as mawwal and alap,” Atash’s main problem with the album is its alleged sloppiness in properly crediting the covers’ sources:
Aside from the vocals — and the lack of heavy-lifting curating material for the record — there’s one fuck-up so egregious here that it calls into question the authenticity of the whole project: the fifth track, “Ghoroobaa Ghashangan,” which is said to be a cover of a song by Iranian star Ramesh — one that comes from Sexwitch’s beloved Zendooni compilation. Contrary to what the Sexwitch press release and liner notes say, this does not sound like Ramesh’s “Ghoroobaa Ghashangan.” I’m a long-time Ramesh fan, so I was bewildered. After the first listen, I threw on Zendooni, and I realized that they did, indeed, cover a song off the compilation, but it wasn’t Ramesh’s track — it was a song by a much-less-known artist, Pooneh, called “Hamishe Tanha.” With this track, Pooneh is covering the late and beloved Turkish artist Bar?? Manço’s interpretation of folk musician and ba?lama master Ne?et Erta?’ “Gönül Da??.” My blood went red-hot; I actually yelled out, “Khak da-sarit!” It’s a phrase in Farsi that doesn’t have a translation in English, but it’s very poetic.
Carey claims to have listened to Zendooni a lot, but I’m incredulous. How is it possible, in two years, to not have learned anything about the artists, the music or even the song titles off of one compilation?
The only way I could continue listening was by checking all of Sexwitch’s songs against the originals. I bought the Kassidat: Raw 45s from Morocco, another source of inspiration, and immediately noticed a second error, this time with the band’s cover of “Ha Howa Ha Howa,” which Khan has said was originally sung by Cheikha Hadda Ouakki. Well, according to the credits on Kassidat and Discogs, the song was sung by Bennasser Oukhouya and Cheikha Hadda Ouakki. This means someone at Sexwitch HQ thought it was cool to erase one of the singers’ credits because they felt like it. There’s no discernible similarity melodically, harmonically or rhythmically to the original.
You can read Atash’s full piece here. We reached out to Sexwitch’s rep for comment and haven’t heard back yet, but we will update this post once we do.