Indie Oxford Interview: Zahra Tehrani
Today on the blog, our awesome guest blogger Ruairí MacAonghusa catches up with Zahra, the director of Young Women’s Music Project, a local educational charity that creates a supportive space for young women to come together, learn new skills and gain confidence as a result. Ready to find out more? Over to Ruairí….
While you were perusing the line up for this years Common People, you might have come across the act known as the Young Women’s Music Project. I got together with Zahra Haji Fath Tehrani to talk through the ins an outs of who YWMP are, and what they do.
“Hi Zahra” a patron chirps from across the shelves as I meet with the director of the Young Women’s Music Project in Cowley Road’s record store favourite, Truck Store. Having lived in East Oxford for her entire life, Zahra is pretty much part of the furniture, and after having played the drums for more than half of her life, a set of drumsticks likely feels like no more than an extension of her arms.
With a preference for such a collaborative and place holding instrument as the drums, it can be no surprise that Zahra would come to perform a prominent role in building and maintaining a community for young women in Oxford. “I managed all of the bands I was in when I was young” she tells me. “I really loved bringing people together, it was really important for me.” It was through playing the drums that Zahra first became involved with YWMP. “I started going to Ark T center at around 14 and there I met the founder of the project. Then when I hit 16 she invited me to be a trainee, so it was like my first job.”
Zahra took over as director of YWMP when the founder, Kate Garrett, passed away. With the roll of director, she took on a challenge to incorporate a broader range of style and genre to combat a lack of diverse musical representation in Oxford and in turn, the task of consolidating the musical interests and tastes of a variety of young women between the ages of 14 and 21. “It’s not always the easiest thing,” Zahra admits. “We try to make our bi-monthly sessions really diverse, so there could be a really electronic session with stuff on iPads and laptops, and then there’s stuff where it’s a whole band. So everyone is heard, and everyone gets to try something they might have never tried before.”
“More than anything, more than the music, it’s about having a community for them. They all nurture each other, there’s a real sisterhood there.”
YWMP defines itself as an educational charity, welcoming all sorts of budding musicians regardless of ability or experience, and inviting them to pick up new skills and understanding of their craft all the while encouraging and learning from each other. “It’s a really non-judgmental environment, so they have the freedom to mess up, and that’s something that we really push them to do.” In providing a space to make not only music, but mistakes as well, YWMP has cultivated an environment where young women feel comfortable sharing their experiences openly with each other. “More than anything, more than the music, it’s about having a community for them. They all nurture each other, there’s a real sisterhood there.” That sisterhood and sense of solidarity transcribes itself into the group’s music as they share in expressing what it means to be a young woman coming of age in East Oxford.
Zahra also emphasizes the importance of teaching young people their worth as musicians. Teenage girls in particular, can often be their own harshest critics, and when it comes to performing live the one rule that Zahra enforces is: “never apologise.” She explains that “If you say to an audience ‘this is a new song and I’m probably going to get it wrong’, you’ve already set yourself up to fail.”
For their performance at Common People this year they’ve put together what Zahra describes as “a mixture of noise experimental stuff with poetry on the top from Robin Blakk and some full songs written by Jen Berkova and Suzy Bowtell.” It’s a composition she admits to finding daunting to present in the face of the acoustic singer songwriter trope that women are so often slotted into. “But I’m trying to get out of that mindset of performing to please others. I spent so much time worrying about what people think, but really if it makes me happy that’s all that matters and that’s what I’m trying to show the group.” She backs up a fearless head on approach to experimenting with music by quoting Björk as having said “if I please myself I might please 5-10 people, but if I try to please everyone I won’t please anyone.”
You can catch the Young Women’s Music Project performing to please themselves at Common People on Sunday 27th May.