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Persian Rock Comes of Age
By Saeed Ganji
saeed@tehranavenue.com
May 2006
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Nothing can connect with today's youth as easily and transparently as rock music. Towards the end of the ‘60s, when I was ten or twelve, this music was at the height of its flight, and what an awesome time we had with it. That novelty and freshness, and specially the particular social conditions that gave birth to this music, such as the Vietnam War and the vocal opposition to it, or the hippie movement, many of whose leaders were musicians, the whole thing, was like a modern social renaissance in which music had a most central role. All these electric-guitar virtuosos have come and gone; still, the picture of {Jimi Hendrix}, with his emotional and sarcastic rendition of the American anthem, during the massive Woodstock concert, is forever etched into our memories.

There were very few Iranian musicians who could even come close to satisfying our group’s somewhat sophisticated taste in music. We had {Farhad}, {Fereydoun Foroughi}, and few songs by {Dariush}, and {Kourosh Yaghmai}’s Gol-e Yakh. We really liked these and to some degree could even listen to them the way we preferred to: quite seriously. Interestingly enough, despite obvious differences in their styles, I also liked (pavement singers) {Susan} and {Aghasi} -- God bless their souls -- but only for casual listening, like in an automobile. I also found Iranian classical music fascinating, but it took years before I could understand and enjoy it. The same is true of (Iranian pop "diva") {Googoosh}, or even the BEATLES. Western classical music is one of the few things that I still haven’t learned to enjoy, but who knows, maybe next year. How our taste operates is a mystery, but I think it must remain flexible. Not even an eighty-year-old can be proud of a finalized, unbending taste, in anything.

When the ‘70s reached its halfway point, things changed suddenly. The war had ended, and the hippies, as if needing to rest after ten-years of heavy partying, slowly left the scene. All those great bands had either broken up or stayed on but didn’t have anything much to say. Some of rock’s greatest musicians had in fact given their life in the process. Making things worse, the pendulum of public taste had changed course, and suddenly popular music of the day had turned out to be pop and disco, which, for me, just didn’t do anything. Personally, I opted to listen to all kinds of other things, from jazz to Indian, African, and, of course, Iranian, but the taste for rock never left my palate. With Iranian revolution in full swing, rock music, despite its revolutionary credentials, was now deemed illegal to perform or even listen to back home.

Even now, after all these liberalizations, when you look at Iranian musicians, who are, generally speaking, quite abused, you’ll notice that the worst off amongst them are the rockers. For example, a band such as O-HUM, despite using lyrics written by (the classic Iranian poet) {Hafez}, is not even permitted to perform a simple live concert or publish its very good album, and ends up distributing it for free on the net (www.o-hum.com). So, if you’re like me, even though there’s a lot of good western rock to enjoy, still, you’re wondering, why isn’t there any good Iranian rock that relates to my experiences?

Well, what do you know? It seems that after a 40-year-long delay, Iranian rockers have finally found a way to stand up and be heard. The first bit of good news appeared in stores about two years ago, in the form of a band named BARAD (www.HermesRecords.com), a HERMES Records productions, which offered an ethnic-infused sort of rock that was thickly and deliciously infused with folk influences from the Persian Gulf region (you can listen to snippets of the songs mentioned in this article here). Although complex, Barad’s musicianship was balanced and allowed for the beautiful melodies upon which the music took center-stage. Barad had created a music that at once was very rock and very ethnic. This fusion, unlike some previous attempts by other bands, takes place at the inception, coursing through the veins of this music, and is not just a brainy, logical undertaking. In other words, like a perfectly simmered stew, you no longer have individual ingredients, but a whole new brew. We don’t have very many successful examples of this level of cultural synthesis in Iranian music, except for AXIOM OF CHOICE and NIYAZ. It was so sad to see Barad break up.

About a year ago an album started circulating from hand to hand in Tehran by a band named KIOSK, which, at the first glance, because of its eerie resemblance to the music of DIRE STRAITS, sounded ridiculous. However, if you listened to it more carefully, you realized that it was actually an interesting effort, a little like an “idiot-savant”. What’s, I think, admirable in Kiosk is how uniquely down-to-earth and accessible its lyrics are. Again, as far as I know, we don’t have very many works that attempt to do this except for the album Eskenas, by {Shahkar Binesh-pazhuh}. For example, in "Ordinary Man," which is also the album’s namesake, we hear:

I haven’t seen that movie / No, I haven’t read that poem
I’ve never met that guy / And I’ve never been abroad
I know exactly who I am / I’m just an ordinary man

In other words, even though the style of the music, down to the accent of the guitar and vocal, are perjured, at least the lyrics discuss very Iranian, and in fact, personal subjects. So much so that they take you inside the singer’s mind, and let you relate to his world, his experiences, and how he feels about them, as if you were paging through his diary. This sort of naked plain-talk, as a style of writing lyrics, is sorely missing from our music, with its never-ending “spiritual” and “philosophical” points of view, which although technically beautiful, have become too cliché, and hence completely irrelevant, specially if you happen to be stuck in traffic when you hear them. For example, having “girl trouble,” doesn’t always have to be about one’s destiny or the divine providence. Some times it’s about money, and the fact that you can’t find a damn job! Who says these subjects are off-limits in music? As “Arash”, the lyricist, says, in the song "Malayeri Zorba" (Malayer being a province in Iran):

The dark of night is defeated in your eyes / And the face of the moon looks jealous next to yours
Spend this night with me, here / It’s too late to think about hitting the road
Your voice whispers like a song / And your eyes are full of stars
Wow, Isn’t that impressive? / What poetic lies I can wax!!!

The next great Iranian rock album is by a group named NABZ, which is formed by two young Iranian-Americans residing in the San Francisco Bay Area, and had a very nice song submitted for TAMO (TehranAvenue Music Open) two years ago. Their new album is called Yellow, Green, Blue, and it’s also a very good, mature rock album. Their forte is in creating a very special mood, a particular emotional space, which is quite unique. This is achieved through a fairly complex arrangement of instruments and sounds, which evolve constantly. But this complexity is actually completely concealed from the average listener, and that’s the beauty of Nabz’s work. The album’s style is basically alternative rock, although some times there are obvious tendencies towards modern pop in it. It’s like a cross between PORTISHEAD and DEPECHE MODE, but there is no replication going on, and the integrity of this work is unquestionable.

Another very interesting aspect of Nabz’s style is the high degree of emotional correlation between the lyrics and the music, to the point that one can really feel that there is purpose to this music, and it is to deliver the words ever more appropriately. Their lyrics always have a personal twist to them, and are mostly about modern man’s quest for creating meaning out of life’s disappointments, which give the entire album a very human and thoughtful ambience.

And finally, just recently, O-HUM’s new album, called Aloodeh (Polluted), again, in the US, was released, and, as expected, this is also very good. You must be familiar with their first album, Nahal Heyrat (Sapling of Wonder), which has been available for free for quite a few years. Both these are modern rock and roll albums, and are based on poetry by Hafez, or, as they call him, the “great Hafez”. O-Hum’s song writing is quite interesting, because it uses simplified versions of traditional Iranian melodies as glue, around which many different layers of rhythmic instruments interact, creating a very intense and pulsating music that is full of energy. Like works by ROLLING STONES or U2, it’s fantastically suited to, along with a cup of coffee, help you shed your drowsiness on a weekend morning. You can even exercise to it, vacuum the house, or climb mountains with it!

Of course, whether or not Hafez’s poetry is suited for this music, I think, is subject to discussion. Hafez is all about extremely poignant, complex metaphors that usually only reveal themselves when read, or rather, studied, slowly, and in complete quiet. This is at the opposite end of what rock and roll aims to do, which is why it is usually accompanied by words that are immediate and avoid delicate, time-consuming intricacies.

Despite the completion of these very good and successful Iranian rock albums, we still can’t say that the issue of rock music in Iran is resolved. Yes, these are all artistically sound, beautiful, highly professional masterpieces that successfully capture the Iranian angle while being a pleasure to be heard. But there remain other problems. To mention, only one of these four albums was released in Iran, which bring us back to the old discussion about government policies and the need for new guidelines, which is, still, no where in sight. The problem here is one of mindsets, and the failure to realize that content, in this day and age, cannot be controlled. Relying on censorship dates back to the time when by controlling the means of production, you could actually decide what people heard (or watched or read.) Whether this, in itself, accomplishes anything is not the subject of discussion, not any more, with digital revolution in full swing. All that this mentality achieves, now, is in creating an increasingly hypocritical society, an ailment that, as we can plainly see, is in itself a severe disorder. At the end, people will listen to (and read and watch) what they want, no matter what anybody thinks, so why make it illegal to begin with?

The next problem has to do with the fact that the audience for rock music is still a small portion of the society, creating different problems, the biggest of which is probably economical. This predicament is solvable, but it needs time, because, after all, we do often show good taste, when given the chance. I wish that there were radio programs for introducing rock music, which is in fact more artistic and in some way worthy than pop music. But this will need courage. I’m not sure why, I just know it does!

We should also not forget the several other good efforts that have surfaced in the past, such as the album Trial and Error by {Babak Riahipour}, which we reviewed recently. There have been two very good heavy metal albums released by {Farshir Araabi} and the band {Kahatmayan}, or other works by bands such as {Meera}, {Avizheh}, and {Rumi}. But I think that the more others, we owe a debt of gratitude to O-Hum, which, despite its legal problems, accomplished what it wished to do, and, instead of reviewing the long list of difficulties, focused its attention on possibilities.

1/ Barad: Track 01, "Leyva"
2/ Barad: Track 05, "Within"
3/ Kiosk: Track 01, "Everydayness"
4/ Kiosk: Track 08, "Bent Rules Blues"
5/ Nabz: Track 05, "The Smallest Particle of Sand"
6/ Nabz: Track 09, "Moment"
7/ O-Hum: Track 01, "The Pain of Love"
8/ O-Hum: Track 06, "Listen to the Ney"



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