Although his music has been haunting my headspace for the past several weeks, I can’t pretend to understand the poetic, classical or political context in which Iranian singer-songwriter Mohsen Namjoo works. The main problem is that Namjoo, who was born in 1976 in the town of Torbat e-Jam in northeastern Iran, sings in Persian, and only a handful of songs from his six albums have been translated into English. He also composes from deep within the Persian classical tradition, brilliantly and subtly blending it with both black and white blues. For all that, Namjoo still speaks to me loud and clear in a festival of different voices.
If Namjoo must be compared to a musical resident of our hemisphere, that person would be Brazil’s Caetano Veloso, with whom the Iranian shares a mutual concern for love and society, a passion for both traditional and nontraditional music, a history of political banishment for their art and adoration by both the masses and intelligentsia. And just as Veloso has chronicled the history of Brazil’s ’60s-kindled Tropicália movement, Namjoo, whose own work dips into the era regularly, provides an insider’s analysis of Iran’s 21st-century “underground” music scene in essays and lectures.
Namjoo was in “unplugged” mode when he stepped onstage at Manhattan’s Asia Society recently. Dressed in sandals, flared jeans and a long-waisted shirt, he carried the setar, a three-stringed long-necked lute, he would play all evening. Drummer Yahya Alkhansa, who notably, perhaps symbolically, played traps rather than traditional Persian percussion, joined him. The duo performed pared-down versions of songs Namjoo had recorded originally with full bands, thereby shifting the emphasis to his remarkable classical and extended vocal techniques and a relatively rudimentary setar style.
ZZ Top met 14th-century Iranian poet Hafez in “Del Miravad” (The Heart Slips), a cross-cultural boogie that found Namjoo yelping and growling in registers high and low like Captain Beefheart singing John Lee Hooker. Just as blues singers reconfigure familiar stanzas for their own purposes, Namjoo samples and re-edits verses by Hafez, Rumi, Saadi and other Persian poets in his songs, sometimes adding his own words. In “Del Miravad” he choogled out to Persian lines like “O master most generous/ In gratitude to your health/ One day bestow your grace/ Upon this dervish of no wealth.” Namjoo, however, is rich in references, and a later song, “Morghe Shayda” (Lovesick Bird),” was based on an Arabian rather than Persian scale while borrowing its musical guts from the opening riff of David Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World.”
A week after his Asia Society show, Namjoo discussed underground music in Iran at the museum with the help of an interpreter. He spoke about his musical background, noting that his first exposure to Western rock was the Doors’ “Break on Through,” which he appropriates, along with “People Are Strange,” in the jazzy vocal trippiness of “Ro Sar Beneh” on both his remarkable 2007 studio album Toranj as well as in a longer, stranger live version on his audacious 2012 live album, 13/8, recorded in Berkeley with a jazz quartet.
If Islamic culture lacks a Dionysian carnival tradition, as Namjoo believes, his passion for the Doors is pretty easily understood. As a recording artist in Tehran, Namjoo was required to submit his songs to the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance for approval. Every album was obliged to include songs praising either Islam’s Messiah or Ibn Ali (the Prophet Muhammed’s cousin and son-in-law), and Namjoo paid his dues accordingly. In 2009, while touring in Italy, he learned that he’d been sentenced in absentia to five years in prison for an allegedly “contemptuous recitation” of Quranic verses in his song “Shams.” He denied the charge, apologized unsuccessfully and has resided in the United States since.
Thanks to the Internet, permission to produce music was no longer necessary, or even possible, and Namjoo found himself an involuntary “underground” musician when his first and unfinished album Jabr was leaked without his knowledge. (On stage, he insisted his new songs not be filmed.) He ended the show with the 14-minute title track of his 2011 live album Alaki. Reminiscent of Leonard Cohen in its epic accretion of detail and obliquely melancholy minor key, “Alaki” (meaning phony) is ultimately hilarious. Namjoo, who wrote the entire poem, delivers his verses in increasingly absurd voices. “O! The ’60s were very fun (phony nostalgia, phony nostalgia)/ There was manhood in the old days, (phony figures, phony physiques)/ When we were children, there was homemade bread (phony flavors, phony flavors)/ Now men only have mustaches (phony mustaches, phony mustaches)…”
Namjoo’s music speaks to an expatriate community that would prefer to still live in Iran but refuses to toe the fundamentalist line. His music is funny, deep, ironic and border-erasing in the best of ways. What he really needs is a proper introduction to the West, a righteous translation that could also serve as an introduction to Iran’s rich and vibrant musical culture past, present and future. Tehran’s loss, meanwhile, is Brooklyn’s gain.