Iran and the Mournful Pop Narcotic

Richard Gehr

By Richard Gehr

on 01.30.12 in Spotlights

The music of Iran has never made much of an impact on the West. It certainly doesn’t lack a vibrant classical tradition, as albums by Hossein Alizadeh, Kayhan Kalhor and Mohammed Reza Shajarian will attest, and with Azerbaijanis, Bahtiari, Baluchi, and Kurds each contributing their own styles of folk music. But unlike that of India, Africa and the Arab world, the appeal of Persian music appears to have eluded us. For when it comes to cultural imports and exports, the United States has never been on the losing side of a trade imbalance; and for much of the 1960s and ’70s, until the Islamic Revolution changed everything for its citizenry, our interaction with Iran was a heavily traveled one-way street.

With Iran’s democratically elected theocracy flexing its nuke-aspiring muscles, it’s often forgotten that Iran was one of the Arab world’s most liberal nations for a quarter-century, ending with the 1979 overthrow of Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, its autocratic America-supported Shah. No performer reflected that sense of relatively relaxed cosmopolitanism more than singer, actress, and Iranian superstar Googoosh, who was born Faegheh Atashin in 1950 but picked up her Armenian boy’s nickname early on. As the ’60s slid into the ’70s, the chameleon-like celebrity was a short-skirted gamine with a pixie hairdo. She would eventually become the region’s most iconic pop performer until her decision to remain in Iran after the revolution resulted in 20 years of artistic silence. She was well aware of the changes that took place after the revolution. “In the midst of these mercurial settlings,” she sang, “my name was as common as ‘hello.’”

Googoosh’s music is virtually inseparable from her stylish optics and melodramatic back-story, which includes childhood exploitation and a string of unhappy marriages. The music on the 40 Golden Hits of Googoosh (her best anthology) ranges from the Bollywood-inspired hit “Man Amadeh-Am” (I’ve Come), in which she sings of how “love came and pitched a tent in the desert of my heart,” and the swinging-strings grief of “Hejrat,” to her disco sensation “Talagh” (Divorce). In her pain and yearning, Googoosh provided an irresistible mirror for a changing society. Nostalgic Iranian expats flocked to her shows in droves when she once again performed – strictly outside her homeland – in 2000, and today she reportedly resides amidSouthern California’s substantial Iranian-American community.

As much as the current totalitarian regime would like to erase its traces, pop music once flourished in Iran. The garage rock of the ’60s eventually gave way to a variety of outside influences, as demonstrated on Pomegranates: Persian Pop, Funk, Folk and Psych of the 60s and 70s. The wrinkle is that there’s as much input from Asia, Africa and other parts of the Middle East as from the West. Zia Atabi’s terrific opener, “Helelyos,” begins with mouth percussion, horns, and a jaunty whistle that wouldn’t be out of place on an avant-kitsch Bollywood soundtrack before grabbing onto a groove borrowed from southern Iran’s Bandari region. This excellent compilation also introduces us to the snazzy Iranian sitar slinger Abbas Mehrpouya (don’t miss his Hindustan-meets-afrobeat hit “Soul Raga,” from his sole album) and Marjan’s slinky blend of Azerbaijani folk and West Coast psychedelia, “Kavir-e Del.”

Just as the pair of Googoosh tracks on Pomegranates should send you back to her 40 Golden Hits, the moody minor-key piano chords and roots-reggae guitar licks of Kourosh Yaghmaie’s “Gole Yakh” (Ice Flower) should wet your whistle for Back From the Brink: Pre-Revolution Psychedelic Rock From Iran, a double-disc dip into that estimable singer-songwriter’s extensive discography. One of Iran’s first rockers, Kourosh played the santoor hammered dulcimer as a child, and his music references the Persian folk tradition as much as it does the Doors and James Taylor. Often accompanied by his two brothers, Kourosh Yaghmaie (pronounced yak-ma-EE) released only a handful of singles during the ’70s. Come the Revolution, however, he remained in Iran and continued to record and release cassettes via the cultural underground.

Iranian quartertone modes meet Western rock on Back From the Brink, which is remarkably diverse once you get past the general mournfulness of Kourosh’s delivery. You can hear the Beatles in “Baroona” (Rains), Isaac Hayes’s “Shaft”-y guitars in “Entezar” (Waiting), and, maybe best of all, the Doors’ groovy faux-Middle Eastern wah-wah wailing in “Ghazal” (Gazelle). Other song titles translate as “Thistle,” “Sulk” and “Heartbroken Town Girl.” Which may explain, finally, why so little Iranian music has broken through to the West. It’s heavy, mournful stuff. And the revolution that followed did little to change that.