Q&A | Head to Head with Abdi Behravanfar, Khorasan Blues Pioneer
by FATEMEH SHAMS and ESKANDAR SADEGHI-BOROUJERDI in London
12 Jan 2012 22:49
On the importance of always changing, and never backing down.
[ interview ] Abdi Behravanfar was born in 1975 in Mashhad, Khorasan, in northeastern Iran. By most standards, he began pursuing a career as a musician rather late in the day, but he quickly acquired an avid following among Iranian youth with a sound that melds popular Western styles -- rock, country, and blues -- with the rich heritage of Iranian folk music. His audience is a generation hungry for music that breaks with the past, understands the common frustrations of the time, and eschews the gaudy frivolity of the Tehrangeles pop scene.
This interview provides insight into Behravanfar's development as a musician, including his years of collaborative work with singer Mohsen Namjoo; it also charts the trials and tribulations of Iranian musicians and the underground music scene. Struggling under hostile conditions in an environment rife with censorship, such artists continue to undertake daring and potentially subversive work, even while striving to make ends meet.
The following is an edited translation of an interview originally conducted in Persian.
When and where did you first get seriously interested in music?I was 23 years old when I bought a guitar. The reason I bought it was the result of a number of bitter events that had occurred in my personal life. I was after something that would save me from the tragic state of affairs in which I found myself. All those bitter and traumatic events that I wished to [push to] the background occurred during my years as a university student, and led to my giving up my degree in industrial engineering at Azad University in Tehran. Financial hardship and my emotional well-being at the time caused me to return to my hometown of Mashhad. It was during those dark days that I became acquainted with a man by the name of Mr. Farhadi, an encounter that changed the course of my life. He was a professor at the Polytechnic Institute of New York University and had a profound familiarity with Western music. After a short time we became very close and spoke a great deal about music. One day, during just such a conversation, Mr. Farhadi in complete seriousness said to me, "Abdi! Instead of studying engineering, you must buy a guitar!"
So before this encounter you hadn't considered playing the guitar or becoming a musician?
Well, I had. From my childhood, I wanted to play guitar but my mother in particular had a problem with this instrument and was never prepared to buy one for me. She didn't have an issue with the keyboard or other musical instruments, but she didn't like the guitar. In any case, after meeting Mr. Farhadi and his insisting I buy one, I gathered together some 50 or 60,000 tomans and bought a second-hand, rickety guitar.
So after buying the guitar you immediately started to work and practice?
In truth, no. The guitar gathered dust for a year and I would only look at it. I was preoccupied with my own personal afflictions, which compelled me to put my studies to one side. During my time as a student in Tehran, I got to know a man by the name of Fleming Khoshghadami, who was a professor of music. Khoshghadami would play three instruments simultaneously: guitar, harmonica, and the tambourine strapped to his leg. Before the Revolution, he would play street music...
In a video posted online, you appear to be playing one of your famous songs, "Sar beh Sar," in the street. Was this due to the influence of Khoshghadami?
Yes, we played that song under Esteghlal Bridge in Mashhad. When I got to know Fleming he made children's music, but his real interest lay with country blues. At that time I still didn't know the difference between the acoustic and classic guitar. I told Fleming I wanted to learn the blues and soon began learning from him and we became good friends.
You said that because of the personal problems you underwent, you were unable to finish you studies and you returned to Mashhad. Upon your return, how did you pursue your music career?
After I abandoned my studies, I returned to Mashhad and brought my guitar with me. Those were difficult days. I had no financial security and had to somehow hang on. I was alone in a large, empty house, without a penny to my name and a broken guitar. During this time it occurred to me to start copying my massive CD archive. My archive included everything from 1923 to 2000 -- rock, metal, blues, et cetera -- and I would copy and sell CDs for those people in Mashhad who were serious about music.
In the conservative and religious environment of Mashhad, this couldn't have been an easy task. Were there sufficient customers for your CDs?
You might find it hard to believe, but I always had customers in Mashhad who were serious about music. There was a whole underground distribution network for CDs. It was also in this way that I came to know most of the musicians based in Mashhad. I would also find customers for myself. For instance, if there was someone who was a fan of Marc Anthony who purchased CDs from me, I would then go on to introduce and sell them the various other different types of music I kept in my archive.
You mentioned that by means of this underground distribution CD network, you first got to know musicians in Mashhad. Did these acquaintances result in any group or shared ventures?
Many of the musicians in Mashhad regarded my house as their hangout. There virtually wasn't a musician in Mashhad who didn't know that house. I fought and was harassed a lot because of that house and faced a lot of hardship to keep it alive as a hangout.
What kinds of problems did you face? Did you have issues with your fellow musicians or with the closed atmosphere of Mashhad?
No, I had serious problems with the police and the neighbors. Our neighbors had no understanding of our difficulties and the limitations we faced, and because of the noise would report us to the police. Imagine, in the middle of practice, the police would ring the door and storm the house. One of our neighbors was intelligence, and upon returning home from work reported on our house. The police, under the impression that we had established a subversive political cell, raided us. It took a while until I finally found a way to avoid the attention of the police. They were normally after two things: alcohol and the mixing of boys and girls.
They never found what they were after and so didn't have an excuse to arrest us. I remember during one of these skirmishes the policeman said, "Pack up your stuff, let's go!" I replied, "Let's go, mister." He then looked around and said he didn't have any evidence a crime had been committed. It came to nothing and they left. I didn't have any money with which to bribe the police and they themselves realized after a while that there was nothing going on and nothing to be found in the house. Because of this, they eventually left us alone and entirely to our own devices...That house after a while was no longer my home, but my domain and turf. I had fought for that turf and even fought people with a shovel and pickax to hold on to that house. Many called me psychotic for holding on to that house. Later on, one of the names of a piece of music I coauthored with Namjoo was called "Chronic Psychosis." To continue to hold on to that house I was forced to argue with a hundred different people and as a result was often in a hysterical state. I had to play my music, make money, and fight with people. After a while, my music archive was stolen, which was another major disaster. But despite all these difficulties, bitterness, and limitations, I continued to play my music and refused to give up. When we jammed was the only time we felt liberated from all the difficulties and restrictions around us. Sometimes we wouldn't eat for two days, and we were hungry all the time; we would just jam and forget our hungry stomachs. For my friends who came to the house and me, playing guitar was a way of distancing ourselves from the wretched surroundings in which we were struggling.
It seems from this candid portrayal of your bitterness that in a certain respect there weren't any obstacles or restrictions preventing you from speaking through your music when needed.
Look, I can't escape from my being an Iranian with a Muslim identity. My name is Abdollah. Wherever I go in the world, whatever deal I wish to make, till I mention my name, I'm unconsciously tied to an identity, a heritage, and geography that I didn't have a choice in deciding myself. In opposition to this force of fate in which I'm caught, I certainly can't remain silent. Insofar as the president is an ordinary person of the country, I can address him in my work, in a way that isn't political maneuvering. [Behravanfar has written a song, "Love," in which he addresses President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.] I never considered myself a political person and I don't want to be political. When I address so-and-so in the country through my music, I don't think specifically about the person occupying a specific office. I think he's part of me. I myself and many like me had a hand in elevating him to where he is. My point is that we made the misery in which we are today embroiled; a single person isn't responsible. Some might think that song obscene or avant-garde, because many of those around us don't want to accept the current obscene and abhorrent realities. We repeatedly recoil and reject them.
What year did you officially form your first band?
Our first group, Uranus, was formed in 1999-2000. Our first gig was in the technical faculty at Ferdowsi University in Mashhad. There were three members in the band: a drummer, guitarist, and someone playing the baritone horn. That gig didn't prove very successful and the members of that group changed over time. I first met Ali Baghfar, who played in a metal group, Barbod. I later met Navid, who was a 14-year-old bass player, who overflowed with raw talent. These two guys became the permanent members of the group until I left Iran. We worked together then and continue to work together.
What is the story behind your meeting Mohsen Namjoo?
I first met Mohsen Namjoo through Reza Khakshur around 2000. At that time, Khakshur bought CDs from me. One day he told me he wanted to introduce me to someone and we went to Namjoo's house together. That day was the first time I saw Namjoo play the setar. Until that time my style of music was another style altogether -- guitar, drums, keyboard, and the baritone, but I hadn't worked with traditional musical instruments all that much. Mohsen played setar for me and sang "Az Hush Miravam" and "Begu Begu."
That night I felt awful and still when I recall it, I feel terrible. My whole life appeared before me like a flashback, because of the image that sat before me: Mohsen with his tattered military fatigues [Namjoo was doing his mandatory military service at the time], playing setar and reciting such poetry had a transformative impact on me. I had brought my guitar and played the songs "Sar beh Sar" and "Jangal." The next day Mohsen called my house and gradually starting coming to our hangout. We began with Iranian folk singing and later Mohsen brought his setar and after a while our group was established, comprising a guitar, setar, drum, et cetera. Another one of the group members, Saman Rajabi, who sold tiles for a living, also joined us and played guitar. He also played the keyboard.
This group you speak of is the same group known as MUD?
Yes, it's the same group. Later its name became MUD.
Why did you choose the name MUD? The tribe Mud or "mud" in the English sense of the word?
In order to get legal authorization, our group needed a name. For instance, one of these names was "Dish Dish," which is the name of a really dilapidated and rundown part of Mashhad. One of the names was MUD, which has the [second] meaning you stated. The miserable condition we were living in had filled our minds. We played a lot.
Which were the first pieces you performed with MUD?
We performed the pieces "Shayad," "Duzakh," "Vang Vang," and "Jangal," which we worked on until our first concert at the Golestaneh Hall in Mashhad in 2002. There was also the song "Dar Gozar," which isn't on the album, and "Sug," which come out on the album Kokheo Kalakhet.
Our second gig was in 2003 at the Helal Ahmar Hall in Mashhad; because of an attack by the Ansar-e Hezbollah [a hardline fundamentalist vigilante group], the second night was canceled. "Vagh Vagh-e Sag" and "Jereh Baz" in the second part of the program were among our best performances. I'm still obsessed with that performance and it continues to have a special place in my heart. To think that Ansar-e Hezbollah and the security forces were staring right through us while we performed "Vagh Vagh-e Sag." It was a surreal experience!
After that MUD was banned from performing for three years and this devastated and depressed the members of the group to no end. The one thing Namjoo did after this incident was to make it possible to record "Vagh Vagh-e Sag" in the New Wave Studio over the course of some four hours. This is the only thing remaining from that period. After the attack and prohibition on performing I returned to Tehran. The prohibition on our performing caused a great deal of buzz around MUD. We tried to arrange a performance in Birjand, but again they didn't give us permission to perform. After that and due to a great deal of psychological strain, the members of the group got into arguments with one another.
The piece "Vagh Vagh-e Sag" at the time it came out was perhaps among the most avant-garde songs around. Could you explain a little further, if possible, how you wrote this song?
I myself, Mohsen, and Mostafa Yavari wrote the song "Vagh Vagh-e Sag" together. Here I need to digress and explain about Mostafa. We met Mostafa in 1992. He was a poet. The poetry of "Bagh-e Vaba Gerefteh" and "Faryad-e Feshordeh" [songs from Behravanfar's first solo album, Shalamroud] was Mostafa's. I still have some of his poems and sing them. In 2003, after the cancellation of the concert, because of depression he died a tragic death. From 2002 until 2003, our music was really under the influence of Mostafa's poetry and personality. The darkness and bitterness of his poems exuded the very darkness and bitterness of his being. Mostafa was very alone and a genuine poet. He was ahead of all of us in this respect. He had a profound understanding of classical poetry and rock and heavy metal. He first joined the group with the intention of singing. But after a while he wrote and we played. Even now I've kept three or four of Mostafa's poems that I've sung for my new album [still unreleased].
What effect did the experience of your two years in Armenia [beginning in 2006] have on your music?
I experienced a calmer and more peaceful environment during the time I was in Armenia. I went to the Armenian Conservatory, which was seeking a standard jazzman; since that wasn't what I was after, I put the idea of working with them to one side...
While there I became familiar with the Armenian Institute, headed by John Hodian and his wife, Bet Williams, who worked on country music and blues. I gave them a copy of Shalamroud and implored them to listen to it. Ten days later, we spoke again. They were very happy to hear this genre of music inside Iran. Hodian told me that from your wailing it's obvious that you're protesting, but after listening to this album it's still not clear where in Iran this music comes from. It was interesting that I'd never really seriously considered that where I came from must comprise part of my music. I told him I came from Mashhad. He recognized the music of Khorasan and told me to go and impart the color and scent of Khorasan to my music so that my place of birth comes through to him.
After I returned to Iran, through Reza Khahshur, who had seriously researched the music of Khorasan and had also introduced Namjoo to Hajj Ghorban [a famous classical musician and vocalist], I met Ali Gholamrezaei, known as Almajughi, who lived in the village of Almajugh in Ghuchan. I learned the dotar [a traditional two-stringed lute], but after a while I used to go just because I wanted to chat with him. Almajughi is 74 years old, and has memorized 37 uncensored ancient Iranian tales. From hearing these stories, I came to realize our lives from thousands of years ago until this day have been censored. One of my wishes is to introduce Almajughi and speak about his work before his death.
What led to your decision to leave Iran?
In Iran, it wasn't so much the ruling system or government or anyone in particular that provoked my decision. I was enthusiastic about local music, but it just wasn't possible to work with the many restrictions and prohibitions. The atmosphere had become polluted. The closest people to me had become those farthest away. I couldn't comfortably speak. Half of the work I wanted to do came to nothing. Eventually I decided to leave and take the most important things I was working on with me. One of the most important of these is the introduction of the 3,000-year-old music revived by Almajughi, which nevertheless has very modern elements to it...
Do you have any new music coming out?
A few songs of Almajughi that we began working on a year ago are due to come out on CD. Its compilation began in Iran and will soon be finished. There are also a few Khorasan love songs that I've reworked with jazz, as well as a six-hour story from Almajughi that I want to work on and some poems I wish to compose songs out of.... I also have some solo tracks along with some songs I did with Ali and Navid.
Do you think over time that your leaving Iran will dissipate the spirit of rebellion that pervades much of your music?
Yes, totally. But I had no choice. I struggled to stay and work within the country. For instance, I would play in coffee shops, with all the headaches it would cause. You have to perpetually put up with being insulted. The atmosphere was also increasingly suffocating by the day. I knew beforehand that my absence from the country will bring about what you're saying. But I'm bringing some of that protest and anger along with me because it has deposited itself within me. It was the same when I went to Armenia. I thought to myself a lot as to what I can do, and how to endure that atmosphere, but I didn't see any other choice...
The style of underground music that became famous was the product of a few people, and even when we were in Iran we were changing. For example, the music of Mohsen Namjoo inside Iran was in a state of constant change. Change is part of the artist's being. It's important that the person doesn't back down; where he finds himself isn't all that important. The nature of the change may differ and depend on whether the artist is inside or outside of Iran, as you say, but heeding the current circumstances is something inescapable.
Fatemeh Shams is a doctoral student in Modern Middle East Studies at Wadham College, University of Oxford.
Eskandar Sadeghi-Boroujerdi is a doctoral student in Modern Middle East Studies at Queens College, University of Oxford.
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