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Bta'arof | Not(e) from the Orient on the Repackaging & Reselling of Persian Pop


01 Nov 2012 23:01Comments
ahabthearab.jpg The heterogeneous nature of the pre-1979 Iranian groove is often obscured by Western bids to cash in.

[ music ] Back in 2008, I received a text message from a record-collecting acquaintance of mine asking if I had gotten a copy of the new Waking Up Scheherazade LP compilation. "You gotta get this record," my friend said, "but whatever you do, don't read the liner notes." I had not yet picked up the LP but had spotted its cover -- which boasted of "Arabian Garage Psych Nuggets From the 60's and Early 70's" -- on a recent flip through the new arrival bins at a favorite record store in New York City.

With my interest piqued, I snagged a copy on my next trip. Scanning the back cover, I was surprised to see the familiar name of Kourosh Yaghmaei -- the Iranian master of fuzz guitar and somber psych melodies -- among the names included on the list of "unheard Arabian" tracks. Certainly, the Kourosh song on the compilation ("Del Daare Pir Mishe," transliterated on the album as "Dil Dasa Per Mesha") was a longtime favorite of mine; I had been introduced to it by my mother, herself a rock 'n' roller, in my youth. Just as certainly, however, it was neither "Arabian" nor "unheard."

My attention eventually turned to the liner notes that accompanied the vinyl. It didn't take long for me to notice what my friend had warned me of:

It's amazing that in the record collecting universe, the world of 60's rock & roll...gets bigger and bigger as time goes on. Different areas are mined by our Sam Spades and Christopher Columbuses, new worlds are opening all the time and we are discovering tons of amazing unheard music in the most remote places.... We are just now realizing to what extent the western teenage world had an effect on these 'old worlds.' As far as Arabian/Islamic lands go, it might creat [sic] a fantasy of old time deserts, camels, sheiks, sultans, harems, flying carpets, or more recently war and terrorism, but we don't ever think of beat/garage/teen rock & roll...until now that is.

Despite its 2008 release, the sort of Orientalist fantasy projected by the compilers of Waking Up Scheherazade isn't surprising: flying carpets, sleazy harems, and coy Scheherazades have been among the most lasting and recalcitrant tropes of Middle Eastern and Muslim life in European and American pop music culture. In 1962, for example, American singer Ray Stevens scored a major hit with a song entitled "Ahab the Arab" that jauntily describes Ahab, the "sheik of the burning sands," on a quest with his camel Clyde to find Fatima, a dancer in the Sultan's harem. The song reached number five on the Billboard chart, and brought Stevens such inordinate success that he performed and rereleased it a number of times, well into the 2000s.1

The success of "Ahab the Arab" came not long after a series of albums by the so-called "Sultan of Baghdad" Mohammed El-Bakkar and His Oriental Ensemble. This series, cowritten by New York record executive Sidney Frey, featured barely clad ladies on their covers.2 Before either "Ahab the Arab" or the "Sultan of Baghdad," however, came the granddaddy of all Islamo-sploitation hits -- a Tin Pan Alley standard entitled "The Sheik of Araby." Written in 1921, "Sheik" was recorded and performed countless times by artists as disparate as Gene Krupa and the Beatles; it was even referenced in The Great Gatsby.

Despite their similar trappings, there is one substantive difference between these earlier hits and Waking Up Scheherazade. The former were largely American novelty songs written and produced for American audiences, whereas the latter were largely recorded in the 1960s-1970s by Iranian and Arab artists for Iranian and Arab audiences -- audiences whose aesthetic worlds were far removed from the one conjured by Scheherazade's bootlegger.

wakingup.jpg Waking Up Scheherazade is not the only compilation of its kind to recently appear. Over the course of the past three years, there has been a deluge of releases of classic-era Iranian pop, rock 'n' roll, funk, and soul on the vinyl market. These releases -- which include unauthorized compilations such as the Raks Raks Raks LP and collections of obscure groups such as the Rebels and funky sitar legend Mehr Pouya, as well as authorized and licensed reissues of superstars such as Googoosh3 and Kourosh Yaghmaei4 marketed to hipsters the world over -- sit in record stores and online sites among similarly packaged gems and rarities.

As a music fanatic and longtime record collector, the sudden appearance of compilations featuring Iranian pop music took me by surprise. Over the years, thanks to generous family members and my own voracious appetite for trawling dusty record crates, I had managed to find a handful of scratchy, old Iranian 45s -- the vinyl format of choice in prerevolutionary Iran. But I had seen the Iranian pop scene go largely unnoticed by the burgeoning reissue labels that were unearthing wild sounds from across the globe.

The appearance of these compilations, not to mention their popularity among record collectors and fans of obscure sounds, raises a number of questions: What is the history of Islamo-sploitation fantasy in pop music, and at what point and to what ends has it merged with the marketing of pop music from around the globe? How can we understand the recent rush to reissue both popular and underground Iranian grooves? What does the "discovery," appropriation, and repackaging of Iranian music mean for the legacy of this popular culture?

Iranian music is not alone on the reissue scene. For those uninitiated to this niche market, a brief history lesson is in order. The past two decades have given rise to a number of labels that cater to an expanding market for those fanatical about rare and obscure music.5 Yet this is not the first wave of interest in so-called "world music"6 (including music from Iran) by American and European audiences.7 In the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, a number of recordings by Iranian musicians -- usually on instruments such as the tar, santur, and dombak -- were released by labels looking to market "authentic" classical and folk forms to cosmopolitan music fans equally eager to experience "traditional" cultures for themselves. This obsession with "authentic" cultural experience has marked Western audiences' interest in global sounds until the present day.

googoosh.jpg Largely curated by an emerging subclass of anthropologists known as ethnomusicologists, exemplary records of this type include an Iranian classical music series released by French record label Musiques Traditionnelles Vivantes. Notably, the series included records by luminaries such as setar virtuoso Dariush Talai. The overall vibe here is of a barely preserved but dying authenticity. Talai and his cohorts are presented as relics from an earlier age, to which listeners are granted access through vinyl. The notes to Talai's first French release claim that "the last of the ancient masters are in danger of passing out of existence, and their knowledge vanishing along with them." Given this framing it is perhaps not surprising that, despite being released in 1979, the notes provided by the Musiques Traditionnelles Vivantes series offer significantly more in the way of ancient Persian history than they do on the turbulent revolutionary context in which Iranians -- musicians included -- then found themselves.

By the mid-1980s, this ethnographic era gave way to a veritable pop phenomenon: the so-called "world music" craze. Through the 1980s and 1990s, Western pop stars such as David Byrne and Peter Gabriel produced and marketed music forms from Asia, Africa, and Latin America to increasingly appreciative audiences. At the same time, these stars used the global sounds that they were championing elsewhere in their own music -- often without properly crediting or compensating their sources. This trend provoked mixed responses. On the one hand, corporate record chains and mom-and-pop shops alike began to feature "world music" sections for the first time, throwing Afrobeat CDs next to Bollywood soundtracks next to Bob Marley's Legend. On the other hand, some scholars and music fans protested that the nascent market was a dehistoricized and "thinly veiled form of musical imperialism."8

In 1995, an LP/CD release called Cambodian Rocks on the New York-based label Parallel World marked an epoch-making shift in the world music market.9 With fuzzed-out music by Rolling Stones-influenced 1960s-era Cambodian garage bands compiled by an American English teacher in Japan, Cambodian Rocks featured decidedly pop music, influenced as much by the indigenous forms long championed by ethnomusicologists as by James Brown, Ennio Morricone, and the Kinks. This collection differs from professionally curated albums like the Musiques Traditionnelles series in another important way: the compilers of Cambodian Rocks (and as a result, their listeners) had no idea what any of the bands or songs were called. They had even less of an idea as to how they might find information about the scene from which these songs came. But information was beside the point. The influence of Cambodian Rocks among collectors serves an exemplar of the emergent aesthetic preference for the truly esoteric. The music on Cambodian Rocks, however, was mysterious only to its compilers and self-made market. Indeed, many of the songs featured on the compilation were already well known to Cambodian audiences.

In subsequent years, the marketing of mystery -- a variant on ethnomusicology's quest for the exotic and unknown -- has come to overlap with the logic of a different record collector tendency: the fetishization of the rare. Hip-hop heads looking for the perfect unheard beat rub collector elbows with garage rock aficionados searching for Beatles influence under every stone. It is in these complicated economies that reissue labels run (mostly) by enthusiastic -- if often underinformed -- young Americans and Europeans churn out records of varying quality promising the listener previously unheard musical terrain. It is in this context that the classic age of Persian pop music has recently been introduced.

On another record digging expedition -- a few months after buying Waking Up Scheherazade, but before the wave of Persian pop reissues had truly begun -- I stumbled across an unexpectedly familiar face on the cover of a new LP. I was prepared to flip right by the album, but the sight of the woman staring back at me was too uncanny; I knew this face. It took me a few moments to register what I was looking at. It was a double LP compilation titled Pomegranates, and the face peeking out at me from between Aretha Franklin and Jane Birkin reissues was none other than iconoclastic 1960s-1970s Iranian pop icon Ramesh. I flipped the album over and found a number of the heavyweights of Iranian pop on the Persian-language track list: Googoosh, Kourosh, Ramesh, Dariush, and Marjan, among others. I skimmed the record for more information and noticed that unlike the unauthorized Waking Up Scheherazade -- which is released by the fictitious "Ali Baba and His 40 Records" label -- the Pomegranates compilation is officially licensed by London-based Finders Keepers Records from copyright holders Taraneh and Caltex Records.

pomegranate.jpg Pomegranates comes replete with appreciably more sophisticated liner notes than those of Waking Up Scheherazade. The notes begin, "Like many other countries, the Sixties and Seventies were a time of tumult in Iran, bringing growth (via petrodollars) and freedom (under the banner of socioeconomic development) while exacerbating inequalities within the country." Compiled by Iranian Americans Arash Saedinia and Mahssa Taghinia (the latter of whom also wrote the liner notes), Pomegranates is, according to Saedinia, an attempt to produce an album that would appropriately introduce and contextualize the aesthetic world of prerevolutionary Iranian pop for a generation of young diaspora Iranians whose only access to the music was through shoddily produced CD reissues. Three years after the record was released, Saedinia stated that with Pomegranates, he and Taghinia had "wanted to reclaim the music and give it the kind of care it deserves."10

The reissues that followed in the wake of Pomegranates have too infrequently fulfilled the promise of this compilation. Instead, they have largely followed the template fashioned by earlier trends in global music excavation. Compilations such as Persian Funk (Secret Stash), Persian Underground (bootleg -- "Persianna"), Zendooni (Pharaway Sounds), Rangarang (Vampisoul), and Raks Raks Raks (bootleg -- "Raks Discos") give the listener mixtape-style collections of prerevolutionary Iranian music, alongside reproductions of art from the original vinyl, and liner notes of varying quality. The liner notes featured on the majority of these releases cater mostly to audiences (if not compilers) who tend to have little knowledge of 20th-century Iranian history. The narrative evinces wide-eyed wonder that such sounds could ever be produced in an Iranian context. The notes to Persianna's collection of songs by 1960s beat band the Rebels exclaims that the songs "will have you scratching your head in disbelief as to how this sound found itself within Persian record stores in the 1960s and 1970s." This disbelief is coupled with a swashbuckling musical adventurism, with compilers patting themselves on the back for being Columbus-like discoverers of "new old worlds" of music.

Why do these compilers -- many of whom are, after all, well aware of the popularity of rock 'n' roll, soul, and funky beats the world over -- profess such disbelief at the pop world of 1960s and 1970s Iran? A further reading of the liner notes reveals that their incredulity lies in part in their perception of postrevolutionary Iran. The Persian Funk comp -- probably the most fly-by-night release among the ones I mention here -- displays a historical perspective typical for these reissues: "It seems hard for most westerners to imagine today, but in the middle part of last century, the Iranian government was very supportive of the western way of life...the Shah and his organization encouraged art, music, and film in Iranian society."11 The notes remain conspicuously silent on the Pahlavi state's "support" of art, music, and film through the rigorous censorship and imprisonment of artists who protested measures taken by his regime. In either case, the implications of this quote are clear: the listeners of the compilation are assumed to be "westerners" who can't imagine that pop (or for that matter underground) culture could exist in Iran. The notes on the Rangarang compilation drive the point home: "it may seem hard to believe, with the Islamic Republic of Iran swathed in controversial breaches of human rights...but a little over 30 years ago it was all glitz and glamour, rock and roll."

Certainly, no history of Iranian pop music could ignore the cataclysmic change brought on by the 1979 Revolution, after which few of the musicians featured on these reissues stayed in Iran. Those who didn't flee -- notably, Googoosh until 2000 and Kourosh Yaghmaei through the present day -- were not able to record or perform their music in the Islamic Republic. Regardless, the merger of the assumption that Iranian pop emerged as a consequence of Western pop music with massive historical blind spots (created by rose-colored nostalgia for the "glitz and glamor" of the Pahlavi era) has created a dangerous political amalgam. On the one hand, the product mirrors an imperialist logic whereby "Eastern" pop culture could never be imagined to exist without the influence of "Western" pop culture. On the other, it reinscribes the most retrograde forms of nostalgia found in the Iranian diaspora.

Among the major problems in the historical narrative presented by these releases is the strict but unexplored dichotomy presented between "Western music" and classical Iranian forms. The success of this era of Iranian pop is viewed as the express result of a culturally liberal political atmosphere that allowed musicians to learn from British beat bands and American soul singers, and then apply what they had learned to a classical idiom. Like most pop music from that era, however, the story is neither so neat nor so linear. Pop musicians in Iran were influenced by the lush Italian pop of the Ennio Morricone school (Googoosh in particular was taken by this influence), the beats and rhythms of Bollywood and Indian pop, the fuzz guitars of Turkish psych, and the nearly global appeal of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones among countless others.12 Despite what some of the people reissuing these records would have the listener think, the story of Iranian pop music is not linear -- from West to rest and then suddenly crushed -- but rather, like the music itself, one dominated by too many melodies and countermelodies to be captured in full in any one document.


1. Fans were so enamored of Clyde the Camel that Stevens brought him back for an appearance in a novelty Christmas song released just a few months after the initial success of "Ahab." Four decades later, Stevens attempted to replicate his greatest success with a 2002 recording titled "Osama, Yo Mama."

2. El-Bakkar, a Lebanese-born musician and actor, had first found fame portraying the Oriental rug salesman in the long-running Broadway production of Fanny. His Fanny costar Nejla Ates was featured as the nearly nude exotic beauty on his album covers.

3. The Googoosh compilation is released by Finders Keepers Records, a London-based label.

4. The Kourosh reissue is, as far as I can tell, the only Iranian artist retrospective that went straight to the source -- the musician himself -- for authorization and information. Released by hip-hop-linked reissue label Now-Again, which is based in the United States, the reissue's packaging features numerous previously unseen photos and extremely informative liner notes put together with major contributions from Yaghmaei himself. To hear Now-Again label head Egon discuss the process of getting in touch with Yaghmaei and compiling the reissue, listen to the podcast interview conducted by Wax Poetics magazine.

5. Examples of current labels include the aforementioned Finders Keepers Records, Sublime Frequencies Records, and Mississippi Records, among others. Both Finders Keepers and Sublime Frequencies have websites that list their releases. For an important scholarly article on the emergence and success of these labels, see David Novak, "The Sublime Frequencies of New Old Media," in Public Culture 23, no. 3 (2011): 601-34.

6. The term "world music" is credited to 1950s Wesleyan University-based ethnomusicologist Robert E. Brown. As a catchall category in American and European markets, "world music" (and its closely related cousin "world beat") gained popular traction in the 1980s.

7. For a comprehensive history of some of the trends outlined here, see Timothy D. Taylor, Global Pop: World Music, World Markets (New York: Routledge, 1997).

8. Novak, "The Sublime Frequencies of New Old Media," 604.

9. All information on Cambodian Rocks has been culled from Novak's article and from the Cambodian Rocks page on the Discogs website. Novak contends that this release in particular marks a sea change in the production of "world music" for American and European audiences.

10. This quote is from a conversation I conducted with Saedinia in July 2012. In that conversation, Saedinia further maintained that "with Pomegranates, we really did try to do something that would be a robust exploration of the music, giving [listeners] a lot of the different flavors. After discovering the music ourselves, we had a strong impulse to turn Iranian kids on to the music as well as introduce it to fans of global pop sounds."

11. Persian Funk goes on to inform the reader that "in 1979 religious leaders throughout Iran grew angry with what they perceived to be the Shah's attempt to wipe out Islam from their country. This sparked the Iranian revolution that put the anti-western Ayatollah Kohmeini [sic] in power."

12. The curators of some of these releases often unwittingly reveal their ignorance of these myriad layers of influence. For example, Mehr Pouya -- whose LP Jumbo Africa was recently bootlegged -- played an instrument that was not indigenous to Iranian classical music, the sitar. The notes to the reissue of this record seem to be unaware of this, and instead blandly state that "Abbass Mehrpouya was one of Iran's top sitarists before passing in 1993." Of course, this claim is not untrue, but it nonetheless gives the impression that the sitar was common to either Iranian pop or classical music -- it wasn't. I would argue that the globalized impulse that influenced George Harrison of the Beatles and Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones to experiment with the sitar is likely part of the reason that Mehr Pouya also did so during the same years as Harrison and Jones.

B|ta'arof is a print magazine about the collective history and experience of Iranians across generational and geographic borders. This article was originally published in the Fall 2012 issue. For more information, please click here.

Copyright © 2012 B|ta'arof

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