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Notes from Underground

19 May 2009 12:11No Comments

Photo/LGOIT.com

Mr. Mojo Rising: Mohsen Namjoo, the star of Iran's underground music scene.
By GOLNOUSH NIKNEJAD in Dubai

[Tehran Bureau] On a drive home from dinner not too long ago, I was introduced to the music of Mohsen Namjoo. The setting for the first song, Biaban, or Desert -- was appropriate: nightfall in Dubai. A mix of fog and construction debris had settled thickly over the desert city. From the comfort of the passenger seat, scenes of a semi-cloaked metropolis rolled past the window. As my friend fumbled through his CD collection for the perfect soundtrack, he described "an underground Iranian musician" whose songs were a mix of traditional and modern; they spoke the language of the great Persian poets, but had "a strain of Jimi Hendrix running though them."

I didn't want to be rude, but I dislike most Iranian pop music. Even in the 1970's, when my aunt watched Rang-a-Rang, the popular music video program on TV, I fled from the room. For my dear friend, I held back and smiled politely.

As the song began to stream through the loudspeakers, a playfulness in the opening of Biaban faintly recalled the faux-American 1960's melodies of Serge Gainsbourg, not the Iranian pop of Los Angeles. But I was not won over until Namjoo began to deliver the lyrics:

Biaban ra sarasar meh gerefteh ast

Biaban ra sarasar meh gerefteh ast

Cheragheh qaryeh penhan ast

Mojee garm dar khooneh biaban ast

Biaban ra sarasar meh gerefteh ast

Biaban, khasteh

lab-basteh

nafas besh-khasteh

dar hazyaneh garmeh meh

aragh mirizadash ahesteh az har band

The translation, which does not do it justice:

Mist has blanketed the desert, all over

Mist has blanketed the desert, all over

The village lights are hidden

A warm wave pulsates through the desert veins

Mist has blanketed the desert, all over

the desert, weary

tight-lipped,

breathless,

slowly perspires from every pore in the delirium of the mist

The lyrics are from an Ahmad Shamlu poem called "Mist." It was published by Shamlu in "the choking social and political atmosphere dominating Iran after the 1953 coup d'etat that resulted in the overthrow of the popular prime minister, Mohammad Mossadeq, and the subsequent suppression of political movements in Iran," according to Ahmad Karimi-Hakkak and Kamran Talattof in their book on Nima Yushij.

Anyone can lift great poetry and sample it to song, but that would not begin to do Namjoo justice. Even when the lyrics are not his own, he delivers them with the authority of someone who wrote it, or as my friend put it more passionately, "as if he were there at the moment of creation."

Another immediate favorite was "Toranj." The haunting howl in the beginning of that song is transcendental. A few playful notes at the piano, and then boom!-- it's as if the hypnotic beats of a nearby zoor-khaneh flowed in and gripped him. The lyrics, as later explained to me, are a combination of Hafiz and Khajooye Kermani. The seamless rearrangement of the verses underscores Namjoo's mastery of Persian poetry. Unlike others, however, he doesn't put the masters on a temple and go down on his knees. He seems to play and live among them. When the inspiration hits, they are also infused with his own lyrics. To the untrained ear, it's often hard to tell where one leaves off and another takes over. Overall, what is created is essentially his own. If he is sampling, after all, he is getting at its DNA and splicing it.
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