Yona “Younes” (Jonah) Dardashti was born in 1909 C.E. to a religious Jewish family of the Oudlajan Neighborhood, the “Jewish ghetto” of Tehran. When he was 7, his mother Morvarid “Pearl” Khanom passed away. Two years later, at the age of 9, he also lost his father Yeshoua “Joshua” to an untimely death. His paternal uncle accepted to raise him, his three brothers and their only sister.
Yona “Younes” received his early education at the Alliance Israélite Elementary and High School of Tehran. He was then drafted to fulfill his years of obligatory military service. Afterwards, his mastery of French allowed him to work at a European company, before he would land a government job in the Railroad Department.
Yona Dardashti demonstrated his artistic talents at the age of five, when he imitated his father who sang at home on occasion. Recognizing the little child’s gift, his father introduced him to the radeef-ha and maqam-ha of Persian song and music tradition, summarily comparable to “tonal-melodic organized forms” and the “modes” in standard music. Yona was born into an artistic family, who deemed a beautiful musical voice as an inherited talent and a gift of God. His passion for singing was so strong that he often sat down to take voice lessons with his father rather than going out to play with other kids. Once he was robbed of the grace of a father, he continued to learn music by listening for hours to gramophone plates.
Ever since he was a kid, Yona’s passion for singing had an impact on every aspect of his life. Perhaps doing so helped him fill the vacuum of parents and ease the pain of their loss in his heart. Given the warmth and charisma of his voice, and considering the important role that singing played in the performance of prayers and ceremonies in the Jewish synagogue, especially in the reading of the Torah, he spent much time learning the Torah and other scriptures. No wonder, his first public performance consisted of reciting portions of the Torah by his Davidian voice.
He recited the Torah with his exceptionally pleasant voice and eloquent tunes, before the large congregation of the Oudlajan Synagogue, at the Jewish neighborhood of Tehran. His fame spread soon and far throughout the community. Thereafter, Yona made an effort to study systematically the components of the Persian traditional music, including its dastgah-ha (modes) and goushe-ha (tunes), side by side his general education at school.
Before long, given his deep religious beliefs, the synagogue council appointed the young Yona as the cantor of the Oudlajan Synagogue. Particularly on the days of Selichot, or the High Holidays of Rosh Ha-Shanah and Kippur, Yona’s warm voice and passionate recitation of the Hebrew texts thrilled the hearts of the congregation.
In the early 1920’s, Yona advanced his studies in music by taking lessons with Maestro Mousa Nay-Davoud. In 1926, he performed his first concert at the Grand Hotel, accompanied by Yahyah Khan Zar-Panjeh on Tar, a Persian plucked instrument, giving a successful performance of an Avaz (song) in the Dashti dastgah, close to the Phrygian mode. The performance grabbed the attention of a number of masters and authorities of Persian traditional music. Later on, he performed in a gathering before Lady Ghamar ol-Molook Vaziri, a famed singer of the time. She was so moved by his voice that she kissed him uncontrollably and called him a genius.
Early in 1961, Radio Iran invited him officially to collaborate on their musical projects, and soon enough, Yona’s live performances on prime time radio began to earn him a far wider fame across the Iranian society. Yet, sabotage and obstructions carried out by some of those in charge of the shows, and the prejudiced treatment that he received, disappointed Yona so far as he immediately stopped collaborating with the radio. However, the insistence of fans and friends made him renew his collaboration, and thence, for the next 15 years or more, his pleasant voice on the radio earned him a special niche among the greatest singers, so far as he was nicknamed The Radio’s Nightingale.
During his many years at the Iranian Radio, Yona Dardashti offered a large body of fruitful collaborations with such master musicians as Ebrahim Mansouri, Jalil Shahnaz, Yah-yah Zarrin-Panjeh, Morteza-Khan Nay-Davoud, Abbas Zandi, Morteza Mahjoubi, Hossein Ya-Haghi, and many other famed Iranian artists.
Undoubtedly, Yona Dardashti can be considered a guardian angel of the authentic tradition of Persian classical music. He entered the musical arena at the time of extreme prejudice against this art form, when a bunch of bigots and ignorant people had banned vocal and instrumental music and deemed it against the religion of the country. Thus, to protect and revive the Iranian musical heritage, as with his compatriot Jewish artists who adored the Iranian traditional music, Yona chose to sing. His demonstrated talent and genius soon registered his name as one of the greatest and most honorable members of the traditional Persian voice and music.
The art of Yona Dardashti flourished alongside major social and political changes in the world around him. To sing, to play, and to listen to music, these gradually shed their taboos and were no more considered sins. Still, certain contradictions, pressures and restrictions remained, as to sing and to create music were not fully considered as arts. Nevertheless, this immensely talented and mostly self-taught traditional singer succeeded in many respects to offer several innovations to the circle of Persian traditional music, and to produce a strong current in the vocal arts.
Yona Dardashti had both a warm and strong voice and the proper singing technique. In general, he followed the School of Master Taj Isfahani, an outstanding and well-known singer from Isfahan. He learned the overall framework from Taj Isfahani, while what he learned from the subtle performances of Reza-Gholi Zelli and the mature and influential method of Adib Khan-sari, combined with his own warm voice, allowed him to create his peerless, memorable and lovely music.
In one his earliest most important works, the young Yona performed alongside three masters of Persian Tar, namely, Morteza-Khan Nay-Davoud, Abdol-Hossein Shahnazi, and Yahya Zarrin-Panjeh. Sadly, the performance was not recorded. Most of Dardashti’s creations belong to the years before 1969, as beginning with the late 1960’s, after a quarter of a century work, Yona diminished his artistic activities for unknown reasons. Thereafter, he sang for himself, or on occasion for friends, spending most of his time traveling to the Holy Land.
In 1979, following the Islamic Revolution in Iran, Yona decided for various reasons to stay in the Holy Land, even though it pained him to be away from his homeland.
Yona Dardashti spent his retirement in the Holy Land, concentrating on philanthropic affairs. Together with his wife and supported by various Iranian Jewish organizations, he went on to found the Rishon LeZion Synagogue. To raise the funds, he made several trips to the United States and personally offered several concerts of Persian traditional music before the Iranian audiences in America. He managed to dedicate the proceeds of these concerts to cover a considerable portion of the cost of the synagogue project. After the founding of the synagogue, and in recognition of his and his wife’s services, he was named the Honorary President of the Rishon LeZion Synagogue.
Years later, Yona Dardashti’s voice continues to echo with freshness and beauty. He is considered one of the last singers of the Iranian Golden Age of Voice, well known in our time among the music aficionados of the Isfahan School of music, to date ringing with particular authority.
Although Yona Dardashti’s name has paled over time among the general public, the memory of his warm voice revives the hearts of musicians and music lovers. Dardashti’s fame did not spread as far as those of Banan and Ghavami, two of the greatest singers of his generation, and not many people today might remember him. At the peak of his fame, however, the late Allameh Jalali Homayi Isfahani wrote of Yona:
“Day by day, those in love with his [Yona Dardashti’s] Davidian voice increase in numbers, a voice that was hidden like Jonas in the whale’s mouth. He should justly be named, after Taj Ansari and Adib Khansari, among the greatest of artistic singers.”
Yona (Younes) Dardashti was a loving, informed, modest and simple artist. Unlike many other contemporary artists, he had no physical or psychological issues. He died in good health in January 1994, at the age of 85.
Yona Dardashti avoided any talk alien to the authentic musical and national art of Iran, and he could not bear absolutely any insults to the Iranian culture. Although he spent the last 15 years of his life away from Iran, he remained active in performing traditional Iranian music and continued to introduce classic Persian literature. May he rest in peace.
Among Yona Dardashti’s everlasting output we may recall his performances of Saghi-Nameh, Bayat Isfahan, Bayat Turk, Segah, Monajat “Prayer”, and more.