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Making Music in a New World

by HAMED ALEAZIZ in Oakland

19 Jun 2010 14:06Comments

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Mohsen Namjoo and Abdi Behravanfar in concert in Yerevan, Armenia. 2007. Photo by bayamim via Flickr.

U.S. now home to Mohsen Namjoo's innovative sounds, evocative lyrics.

[ profile ] Tucked in an unassuming recording studio in a corner of Oakland's industrial district, where rumbling trucks pick up shipments from the docks, sits one of Iran's greatest modern musicians, Mohsen Namjoo. Or, as the New York Times has dubbed him, "Iran's Bob Dylan." On this cold, June evening, Namjoo, an artist in exile, is rehearsing for an upcoming show in Los Angeles.

Hunched over his chair, a cup of tea in one hand, his eyes closed and head bobbing, Namjoo is in full force, blaring his unique, soul-lifting voice into the microphone, "Ghoozeh pooshtet beeshtar shoud, shounehat oftadeh tar" (the hump on your back has grown, your shoulders haven fallen more).

Softly, he repeats a set of lyrics about the unfortunate fate of being born in Iran and living there as a young man, "Ein keh zadeyeh asiahee rou meeghan, jabre geographahy, Een keh lenghdar havahee, sobhoonat shodeh cigar ou chaee" (the fact that you are born in Asia is called a forced destiny, you're up in the air and your breakfast has become cigarettes and tea). Perhaps there is no better man to communicate this message than Namjoo, who at every turn was denied the opportunity to be an artist in Iran.

His quest to create music was fraught with discouragement from professors, refusals from censors, and a violent interruption by the Basij during a performance. All Iran offered Namjoo was black-market success and an existence starved both financially and aesthetically. Ultimately, he was compelled to move to the United States to be an artist.

"If you want to hear what Iranian music will sound like in 30 years, listen to Namjoo," says Babak Payami, famed director of Secret Ballot and Namjoo's producer and manager. For Payami and many others, this skinny 33-year-old with an olive complexion and unkempt facial hair has turned Iranian music on its head. "It's unheard of, the stuff he plays. He plays blues scales on the setar and classical Iranian folk songs on the guitar," Payami says. His catchy blend of classical Iranian music, with lyrics from the culture's greatest poets, and Western jazz, blues, and rock has given Namjoo an expansive fan base. His YouTube hits are in the millions. Even the widow of Ahmad Shamlu, the famous Iranian poet, applauded Namjoo for his adaptation of one of her husband's classic poems, "Biaban" (Desert).

Like Bob Dylan, Namjoo infuses his own lyrics with subtle political content. Like Dylan, as well, he is loath to acknowledge the fact. "I have many songs that aren't political," he says. "I use many poems that have no relation to politics."

Regardless, Namjoo has become the most resonant voice of his Iranian generation. His critiques center around the Islamic Republic's war on popular youthful endeavors: music, politics, arts, and literature. In one of his more famous lines, he describes the collective disappointment of reform efforts in the early 2000s. "What belongs to us is an apologetic government," he sings. "What belongs to us is a losing national team."

In his late teens, Namjoo gained admission to Iran's most prestigious educational institution, Tehran University, to study music. At the same time, he became "acquainted with American rock stars and blues." His unorthodox musical methods met with resistance at the school. Bucking traditional norms eventually led to his expulsion from after two years. "I didn't like their dogmatic space," he says.

According to Payami, Namjoo's iconoclasm is the root of his appeal: "He is a very unique artist who is never comfortable with the status quo. His rebellious and organic approach to music puts him on the dangerous edge of creativity where he is constantly at odds with the past and the present."

Refining his musical experimentation after leaving the university, Namjoo formed his own band. He spent hours at home writing, arranging, and recording his genre-defying music. "In Iran, you record your music and you hand it to someone who sells it on the black market," he says. In the country's heavily censored pop culture, the black market is the only place to go for secular music and films that have not been approved by the government, and it issues no sales reports. As a result, Namjoo was unaware of his burgeoning popularity until he heard his music while riding in Tehran taxicabs.

Despite his black market popularity, music was not paying the bills. This led him to write for Seda o Sima, the national television network, about the government's two favorite topics: martyrs and the 1979 Islamic Revolution. "I tried to write songs for them. When I sat down to write I found myself saying, 'No, you can't write about that; that is forbidden.'" Namjoo kept writing and rewriting lyrics but nothing seemed to work. Over and over again, Namjoo found himself at odds with those judging the "morality" of his lyrics and music. "Their concern is not Islam but rather, it is a kind of -- and I'm sorry for saying this -- shit bureaucracy."

Namjoo would often attempt to get his music officially approved by the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, the governing board that decides whether individual cultural works of every type are admissible. Once, he came across a cleric at the ministry who was reviewing his music. "He said, 'Maybe your music is OK. Maybe it is popular, but when I sign this letter, this permit for you, it can possibly mean me losing my job, my desk here,'" Namjoo explains. Finally the man said, "If I give this permit to you I may not be allowed to be a cleric." Namjoo is still appalled by the incident. "Their concern is not ideology, but rather their lives."

Nevertheless, he kept trying to work within the system. When he was 22, still at university, he tried to put on a show in Tehran with a group of friends. For six months, they practiced day after day perfecting the songs they hoped to eventually perform. Playing a concert in Iran requires, once again, permission from the Ministry of Culture. "They told me you have to record your set -- all of your work. 'Give us the tape.' We didn't have a recording studio or even complete equipment to record."

A few days before the submission deadline, he frantically decided to record the music by himself on a tiny tape recorder. The day before the deadline he double-checked the recording. "When I played the tape...there was nothing on it. It was blank. It didn't record," Namjoo says. He sensed the months of work were all for naught. It didn't mean he wouldn't have a little fun, though. "So I just gave it to them the next morning. As a kind of parody or joke."

Namjoo left the Ministry and called his friends to tell them the show was off. Two days later he received a call. "They gave me permission," he laughs. "Their concern is not music, not poetry, not ideology -- Islamic or non-Islamic -- it's just bureaucracy. Someone just signed the papers and one of them was mine."

His run-ins with the government weren't always so humorous. After two years of military service, required of all Iranian men after the age of 21, Namjoo went to Mahshad to sing for one of his good friend's bands. Following a successful first show, the band decided to play another. It didn't go as well: "The Basij, Hezbollah, they came into the concert hall and said this is over. They took our songs and said, 'Go home. You're finished.'"

Now residing in Palo Alto, Namjoo is far removed from those sorts of headaches. As a fellow at Stanford University's Humanities Center, he is writing a paper on Iranian music in the post-1979 era. In June 2008, while he was in Austria, Namjoo was sentenced in absentia to a five-year prison term for "tarnishing the Qur'an" -- he had used verses in his song "Shams." Like many Iranian artists, including his manager Payami, Namjoo is now relegated to a life abroad for an unknown amount of time.

"Number one, I miss my family, my friends, and my general everyday life," he says. To survive mentally, Namjoo made a pact with himself. "When I came to America, I decided to not miss or think about Iran anymore. I need to focus on getting my inspiration from here." Either way, he doesn't seem himself as Iranian "slash" anything. "If I was here for 30 years, I would still be Iranian," he says. A pause, and then he continues, "Right now, I can say that I hope that I won't be Iranian slash..."

The longing for his home country is clear when he discusses last year's post-election protests. "I was sad that I missed it. My friends, fellow writers and artists, said, 'Oh Mohsen, you missed it.'" He says, his voice a little shaken, "An artist needs that type of inspiration."

For now, he is focused on practicing for his show in Los Angeles on Sunday, June 20. His 11-member band includes both Iranians and Americans whom he calls "geniuses." Pacing around the rehearsal room and checking on the tangled, multicolored wires sprouting from the soundboard, Namjoo is keyed in. He walks over to the guitar, bends down and puts his head next to the strings during a song, and raises his thumb. His voice, mixed with an epic combination of accordion, piano, keys, guitar, drums, and bass, is ready. His theatrics, eyes closed one moment, hips swaying side to side the next, are perfect.

Namjoo's musical abilities have made a strong impression on those in his band. "It's been an eye-opening experience for me working with him," says Sheida, an opera singer in Iran before the Revolution and now a teacher in the Bay Area. She describes the inspiring "way he works and plays with Persian poetry. Daring to do such a thing is really magnificent. He has broken the rules, if you will, the rules for us as musicians, as Persians, to be able to see something. It's for us to see the clear vision of one's feelings and not to be bound to clichés and those tough structures of our poetry and classical music."

While the Los Angeles show, and the others that follow it, are bound to please his American fans, how will his new, foreign life in Palo Alto, California, affect his future music and lyrics? "Only time will tell that," he says.

Copyright © 2010 Tehran Bureau

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