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Interview: J. Ralph discusses creating the Song “Dust and Ash” for Documentary ‘The Voice of Ash and Dust’

Composer J. Ralph is no stranger to the awards season. Over the last 10 years, J. Ralph has become one of the most successful and influential composers for documentaries, with 3 Academy Award nominations for best original song. His songs are notable for their calls to activism, and J. Ralph has helped raise awareness for various charities and causes. He has worked on 8 Oscar nominated/winning documentaries, from Man on Wire to The Cove. His latest project was working with Iranian American filmmaker Mandana Biscotti to tell the story of Iran’s greatest musician, Maestro Shajarian.

Maestro Mohammad-Reza Shajarian passed away in 2020 due to cancer, but his life’s work carries on after him. The Voice of Ash and Dust was largely created while Maestro Shajarian was still alive, and is a discussion of what it means to speak up for a silenced people. It delves into the power of music as both art and culture. J. Ralph both created the original song, Dust & Ash, as well as the score for the film, which largely features the work of Maestro Shajarian.

In my discussion with J. Ralph, he spoke to the power that Maestro Shajarian had on his own life:

“Before the film, I wasn’t aware of Maestro Shajarian’s music. But after working on Jim: The James Foley Story with Sting, his daughter Fuschia Sumner, who produced The Voice of Ash and Dust, brought this film to my attention. And I was instantly blown away by Maestro Shajarian’s humility, character, and talent. His transcendent vocals that are akin to an ancient voice, speaking to you and transporting you to another world. And the contrast between the majesty in his life and musical recordings with his humanitarian spirit really inspired me.”

When asked about the importance of giving Nora Jones and Maestro Shajarian’s daughter, Mojgan Shajarian, the lead vocalist part for Dust & Ash:

“It’s illegal in Iran for a woman to perform solo on a record or in public. The government there wants the woman to be inferior to the man in song. So we tried to create this prominence with Nora Jones, giving her the dominant position there. And so, our duet ultimately ended up sounding really cool just with with the two voices as a duality; a super voice of male-female energy with the female leading and then ultimately transitioning into Mojgan Shajarian in the third verse. It makes the bold, strident proclamation of hope and resolution to fight for the rights of all the people that are being marginalized there.”

Watch the full conversation below.

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Written by benjaminwiebe

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