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¡ Revolution Zendebad !

The Persio-American Romance and Its Discontents —


The suspicious and sometimes shameful gazes which Iran and America have lately been exchanging across the negotiation table are not always staged. Nor are they needlessly pragmatic. They are links in a very long chain of speech that began early in America’s history and very late in Persia’s [1], and continue today at secret seaside meetings in Muscat, in the trees inhabited by chattering neo-con jungle fowl, and, best of all, in that poetic Morse code we call the formalities of the state.

It is difficult to say who more badly needs to hold the grudge, those who profit from sanctions or those who profit from circumventing them. And while it’s too soon tell who will be in worse company, the mullahs who sit around on tile floors in Qom debating menstruation, or Sheldon Adelson and his atomic bull drum beaters, the men on the streets of Teheran chanting ‘Death to America’ are struggling with exactly the same traditional/modern growing pains as lower middle class America. After all, Death to America doesn’t mean Wipe Out America, it appeals to the same mistrust of the same remote, tyrannical government American conservatives fashionably love to hate.

The history of mistrust is also, always, the history of a romance. Teheran was once a city of cabarets and jazz clubs, recording studios and dancehalls. It is difficult maybe to believe now, but miniskirts and radio crooners, disco lights and psychedelics were parcel to Persian sensibilities for decades before the Revolution. Neither a Second World War British invasion (military not musical) nor an MI6- and CIA-orchestrated coup of the Mosaddegh government could whittle away Iranian youth interest in American culture. Although contemporaneous American interests in the Persian world were mostly exoticised and kitschy, the mutual hostility that exists now was simply not there. And in spite of what happened in 1979-81 it is difficult to think of two countries who have more in common.


That outside of Beirut the Arab World did not take so easily to disco culture and harmonic amplifiers is perhaps why Iran’s rock n’ roll era has for thirty-five years been locked in a very dark closet. Most all Asian countries supported the recording of their folk styles on 78 RPM discs, mostly manufactured and distributed in Europe. Iran’s flight to cultural modernity was ignited by a series reforms, initiated by Reza Shah Pahlavi in the 1920s, aimed at reducing the influence of Islam and increasing progressive trends, such as they were. These reforms permitted Iranian entrepreneurs to open up record pressing plants and recording studios. The last 78 RPM disc was produced around 1958, and by the mid-1960s the 45 had replaced the LP as the média du jour, and through it local scenes were born. Viguen, an Iranian of Armenian origin, is credited with releasing the first pop record, one which straddles characteristic Persian vocals and American instrumentation. Mohammad Nouri, Manouchehr Sakhay, and Artoush also released records in the late 1950s that forecast a sea change in popular music. While these and other early Persian jazz/pop records were clearly influenced by tasnif, a classical metric vocal gesture durable enough to sustain poetic flourishes [2] there is also something very familiar to American sensibilities.

Tigers, “Take Leila Away”


Then, in 1965, young men and women all across Asia discovered the Ventures, the Shadows, the Animals, and later the Beatles and Rolling Stones. These were the years of Iranian garage rock, as practiced by bands such as The Golden Ring, Moha Jamin, The Rebels, and The Littles. Not much may be said in terms of innovation, as stylistic emulation and cover versions of British Beat and American rock seems to have been the m.o. With Moha Jamin and Takhala Ha came the real gems of this period:  proto-garage punk bridging Eric Burdon with The Saints, and striking that perfect balance of competence and ineptitude which accelerates the intensity.

Moha Jamin, “Raks Raks Raks”

Most of these early Iranian rock records did not sell well locally, at least compared to classical and folk records of the day. Little or no press supported their efforts and live shows were sparsely attended, few festivals, and certainly no dedicated music shops. To listen to many of these early records, it is almost difficult to hear anything Persian in them, they are so deliberately Euro-American 4/4 beat played on imported drum kits, electric guitars and tube amplifiers. Only the Farsi language lyrics locate them. With The Rebels came a shift to a 3/4 beat, even in their Beatles covers, but still it is very much a scene reminiscent of a Long Island high school gymnasium. The influence of R&B and Motown records is evident in 45s released by bands like Shamaizadeh and Morteza, who really bit the head off the symphonic film-funk chicken. Then along came Googoosh, a young lady (and student of Viguen’s) whose stripped-down funk chansons sung in Persian came to define a new Iranian love affair with popular music that in spite of what would come, never ended. Googoosh’s short haircut, as she appeared in the jacket photo of her album Epitaph, inspired women of all sorts to cut their hair likewise.

Morteza, “Morteza”

With the brooding psychedelic sound of Kourosh Yaghmaei finally came the high-functioning and fully satisfying hybrid of Persian and American sounds. His four 45s are among the finest, and strangely only, popular musical products of the 70s. It is unclear, at least to me, why so few records were released after 1971, in an otherwise culturally fertile era prior to mass marketed cassette tapes and heavily restricted access. Maybe commercial failure seemed assured, maybe the availability of imported 45s and LPs ground down the impulse to rock out on one’s own. Or maybe mystical dream was simply over.

Kourosh Yaghmaei, “Ghazal”


All of this was not so very long ago. And yet so little is known, so few records have survived, so many are known to be altogether missing, and the story is only partly told for the musicians of the era having moved into other occupations, fled Iran, or are simply unaware we would like to talk to them. The fate of musicians after 1979 is, however, well documented. Perhaps in part thanks to the infamy of the Jashnhaa-ye 2500 Saaleh (and its being in collaboration with the Third Annual Shiraz Arts Festival), Iran’s popular musical heritage was declared haram, at least in part. Entire record collections and libraries were burned by pious revolutionaries. Musicians were forced to pen government-commissioned war hymns, martyrdom symphonies, or to play programmtically happy folk music. Kourosh Yaghmaei wrote childrens books for seventeen years before being allowed to release music again. Googoosh locked herself away for twenty years before finally fleeing to Los Angeles. Many others have disappeared altogether (not in the Pinochet sense) and others, like Giti Pashaei who stayed in Iran, died alone.

Googoosh, “Talagh”

Thirty-five years after the Revolution the question of whether music is halal or haram has not been answered, and because of this each performance must be legally sanctioned. But how this should work even this isn’t very clear. The result has been a both the genesis of a generation of underground musicians and the exodus of bands and media producers to Europe and America, mostly southern California. But also, as in the case of the Yellow Dogs, Brooklyn. The subject of Iranian ‘exile music’ and the ways in which diasporic cultural production is helping to define its past, identity, and political future of Iran, is the subject of several papers and one English language book. No less than six recent releases reissue some of the scarce surviving 45s issued by Iranian record labels in the 60s and 70s. Alexis de Tocqueville had it half right when he wrote that regimes destroyed by a revolution are almost always an improvement on their immediate predecessors. If he didn’t distinguish political and cultural revolutions or recognize these have separable courses and expiration dates, it just wasn’t his concern.

Something else he could not have foreseen is the relationship between technology and speed of the devaluation of revolutionary ideals into security states, and the constant seeking for more and more revolutions to shatter the harder and harder lines taken by yesterday’s optimists. And the only thing, now, less remunerative than holding the hard line is the diminishing returns that come from holding the hard line. How to keep the embers of the Iranian Revolution alive even as you yourself are secretly watching Madonna videos is the unanswered other half of Tocqueville’s observation. And the advice for starters is simply, don’t make such an open fool of yourself. Instead, have another revolution.

One roasting hot winter I was driving a Toyota daily between Ruwi and al-Ghubra. An plainclothes Iranian man from Isfahan, who wore dark-tinted sunglasses at all times of the day and night was living through the wall from me in government housing. He would not take meals with me, or say anything about what he was doing there. Though I knew very well what he was doing there. I sometimes saw him through the window of al-Failaq in the evenings, walking properly among white-robed Omanis, with an air that could be perceived as sanctimonious. This was about three years after Ahmadinejad had, again, banned ‘indecent and Western music’ (even Freddie Mercury) from public broadcasting in Iran, and so when the man from Isfahan took a ride with me in the car one morning, seemingly under great strain, I tuned the radio to an Arabic religious broadcast and we headed for the coastal road. Along the way, as he listened to the sermon he muttered, ‘This is fine, fine,’ Then he turned and whispered hotly, almost desperately, ‘But I really like heavy metal.’


[1] The Treaty of Commerce and Navigations between Persia and the USA was signed in 1856. Persia’s first ambassador to the United States was dispatched the same year.


[2] The relationship between poetry and music in Iranian music of all genres is paramount.


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