Friday, August 31, 2007

A Dylan on the Persian Lute, With a Songbook of Sly Protest

September 1, 2007
A Dylan on the Persian Lute, With a Songbook of Sly Protest


He plays the setar, a traditional Persian lute, and is a master of classical Persian literature and poetry. But the sounds he draws from the instrument, along with his deep voice and his playful but subtly cutting lyrics about growing up in an Islamic state have made Mohsen Namjoo the most controversial, and certainly the most daring, figure in Persian music today.

Some call him a genius, a sort of Bob Dylan of Iran, and say his satirical music accurately reflects the frustrations and disillusionment of young Iranians. His critics say his music makes a mockery of Persian classical and traditional music as he constantly blends it with Western jazz, blues and rock.

Mr. Namjoo, 31, is a singer, composer and musician, but most of all, his fans say, he is a great performer.
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“I wanted to save Persian music,” he said in an interview at one of his studios in Tehran. “It does not belong to the present time and cannot satisfy the younger generation. The fact is that Persian music is very close to other styles, and it is possible to mix in other styles with a little shrewdness.”

His blending of Western and Persian music produces unexpected moments that jar the traditionalists but are thrilling to his fans, who are mostly young artists and intellectuals. His music sounds Persian, but the melodies take away the melancholy that often suffuses classical Persian music.

But it is Mr. Namjoo’s lyrics, his fans say, that make his music so important. He sings old Persian poetry, such as works by the 13th-century mystic poet Rumi or the 14th-century poet Hafiz, with its connotations of love and lust. But with his mastery of Persian literature, he is able to write his own lyrics into the accepted forms, adding layers of meaning.

“The first time I listened to his music I found it unexpected,” said Mahsa Vahdat, a 33-year-old singer. “It started with a laugh for me and ended with a cry. His music and his lyrics express the bitter situation of my generation and they represent the society we live in.”

Defying Iran’s cultural police, he does not shy away from contemporary issues.

“What belongs to us is an apologetic government,” he sings in a song called Neo-Kanti. “What belongs to us is a losing national team.” Those were references to the widespread disappointment with the government of the former reformist president, Mohammad Khatami, and the constant losses of Iran’s soccer teams.

“What belongs to us, maybe, is the future,” he adds, in a voice that is more resigned than hopeful.

In another popular song he sings, “One morning you wake up and realize that you are gone by the wind, there is no one around you and a few more of your hairs have gone gray, your birthday is a mourning ceremony again.”

After throwing in an unexpected Western melody, he goes on in a lower voice, saying, “that you are born in Asia is called the oppression of geography, you are up in the air and your breakfast has become tea and a cigarette.”

Atabak Elyassi, a musician and a professor of music at Music College at Art University in Tehran, said there was protest and satire in Mr. Namjoo’s music. “In the meantime, it is very Iranian,” he said, “because he constantly points to issues that are about the lives of Iranians.”

Mr. Namjoo was raised in the religious city of Mashhad in northeastern Iran, where he started learning classical Persian music when he was 12.

As he grew older, he said, he listened to Western music and became interested in Jim Morrison, Eric Clapton and the Irish pop singer, Chris de Burgh. He read philosophy and Persian literature, and developed a fondness for a strain of modern Persian poetry that stresses phonetics over the meanings of words.

But what changed his approach more than anything, he said, was his experience in the theater. When he was admitted to the University of Fine Art in 1994, he was told that he had to wait a year before starting classes. So he decided to pass the time studying theater.

“A musical instrument is a medium for a musician to play music,” he said. “So is the voice of a singer, it is like a medium to sing through it. But neither of them is involved in building relations with a living creature.

“But when I studied theater I learned to connect with my audience, and that was when my poems changed,” he said.

It is hard to gauge Mr. Namjoo’s popularity, for he has come of age in a time of intense pressure on Iranian music.

Most music was banned after the 1979 Islamic revolution, with only religious and revolutionary songs deemed appropriate. To this day, women are not allowed to sing. Over time the restrictions were eased, first on classical Iranian music and then, in the mid-1990s, on pop music. But after the election of Iran’s current, conservative president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005, music came under a cloud once again.

The authorities canceled a concert of rock and jazz music in Tehran in July. In August, more than 200 people who attended a private rock concert in Karadj, 30 miles west of Tehran, were arrested. The public prosecutor in Karaj, Ali Fallahi, called the concert “satanic,” local news agencies reported.

Mr. Namjoo himself has not yet been able to give a live, public performance, and he has not received a government license to sell his CDs. But he is able to perform privately, his CDs are sold on the black market and, in an inexplicable twist, his songs are played on Iranian radio stations. As of three weeks ago, his manager said, 1.6 million people had downloaded his music from YouTube.

In July, he did receive an invitation to a government ceremony to sing a few songs in praise of Imam Ali, the martyred son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad and the man whom Shiite Muslims consider Muhammad’s legitimate successor. Yet, the room was filled with artists and musicians, rather than government officials.

Because of his cutting-edge style, Mr. Namjoo is under another kind of pressure. Most classical musicians are purists, insisting that the music not be altered in any fashion. They dismiss Mr. Namjoo’s music as absurd because of the way he has incorporated Western influences.

If you take Iranian classical music on one side, and Western music on the other, said one critic, Reza Ismailinia, who runs a small art gallery in Tehran, “then I think Mr. Namjoo’s music is like a caricature in between, or a kind of fantasy.”

But many disagree with Mr. Ismailinia.

“I think he will be remembered as a courageous artist who opened a window toward creating something new and for going beyond traditional barriers,” said Alireza Samiazar, the former director the Contemporary Museum of Art in Tehran. “I think his contribution to our music will be great.”

Undeterred by the critics, Mr. Namjoo says his next ambition is to study music abroad.

“I want to be challenged and get acquainted with Western music,” he said. “I was accepted too easily here.”

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