Facebook R&B crooner Mario has been relatively quiet on the music front for…
- Posted on Nov 11th 2008 11:00AM by Steve Hochman
So it was with some sense of wonder that he handed over a bag across a restaurant table. Inside were stacks of CDs, about 20 of them, fresh from the markets and street stalls of Tehran. He'd just returned from his second trip to Iran in recent months, his first visits to his native country in more than 11 years, and the bounty he presented was evidence of the dramatic changes that had happened while he was away. There was a four-CD set of archival ethnographic recordings from various regions of Iran released via the Mahoor Institute, several sets of experimental/modern classical and film soundtrack compositions released by the wide-ranging Hermes Records label and some street-stall-purchased burned MP3 discs of uncertain provenance containing everything from contemporary Iranian pop and a disc of Persian folk/classical star Sima Bina to lengthy recordings made in the field from tribal dance events, all blaring zirne and burbling hand drums. It was an impressive variety even by Los Angeles standards. For him, based on the Iran he'd left behind in the '90s, it was unthinkable.
"I knew a lot of things had changed during the years I hadn't been there; the way the government treats musicians and composers is completely different," say the friend, a graphic designer and photographer who asked that his name not be published in order to protect his family in Iran under what is currently a climate of mixed freedoms and fundamentalisms. "But I didn't know to what extent."
When he left in the '90s, the mood was thawing under the more secular hand of President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. But even with the somewhat revived attention to Islamic law under current president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, music expression is much freer than when he left. For some insight into the strictness of the past, just listen for the simple sound of a drum.
"Traditionally, the tombak was the main drum in Persian music for years," he says of the hourglass-shaped hand drum that was ubiquitous in Iranian classical and folk settings. In the early '80s, though, the Islamic rulers under the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini targeted the tombak as part of the cultural reformation.
"According to Islamic law, any ghena music -- music that is more lyrical -- has an effect on you as alcoholic drink has," he says. "The clergy thought that if they changed from the tombak to the daf [a large frame drum] it would make it less lyrical and replace the sound with a more epic feeling. Persian music was allowed but less tombak and more daf, and a lot of revolutionary propaganda injected into it."
The showing of musicians on TV was prohibited and the music departments of schools were closed. Even after things started to change, music was a realm of fear and suspicion.
"When Khomeini died, I was in art school," he says. "The music department was closed after the revolution. They opened again but couldn't even call it the music department. They called it 'sound arts' at the beginning, for two years. And it was without any students. Reformists in the government were afraid of the hard-liners."
It finally changed in the last year or so that he lived there, with a new mayor of Tehran embracing the arts and arts education. And while gone, he heard news that increasingly "people could play music in restaurants, pop concerts began, and then rock concerts began, and things really changed -- electric guitars were played in concert."
On return, he found that there are still restrictions: "Iranian TV still doesn't show musicians. The standards for TV are still the same as were set by Khomeini. But in real life it's better."
"There are now professional music magazines, and I didn't think things like that could happen in Iran. There is a coffee shop I went to that is dedicated to music. People from the music business go there and hang out -- you go there and on the table is a menu for the coffee shop and a menu describing the music that is played. That was really great. There were people from Hermes Records there who could answer questions and people from a Web site called TehranAvenue.com who set up an Iranian music festival online."
And perhaps most gratifying and surprising to him was finding two rather disparate areas of music thriving.
"The first thing that came to my eyes when I returned was that people were able to make money selling modern experimental music. With the long ban on music and so limited resources, I couldn't imagine that anybody could develop his or her talents in that environment. But there were some people even from my generation, those dark years, still making music. There's a composer, Peyman Yazdanian, and they are selling some CDs of his work from the '80s. He's from my generation, and some of his works I heard were composed in the darkest time of Iranian music. That was shocking to me."
And on the other end of the scale: "There is a wave of nationalism coming back, secular nationalism that is a revival of early-20th-century movements. I don't like the nationalistic language of this, but it has caused some interesting things I didn't expect. One of the CDs I brought is a collection of recordings from around Iran, not just music but the calls a shepherd makes to his sheep, or cries made over a grave in south Iran. No one even before the revolution bought things like that. But now these CDs are selling. Everywhere, people were buying that. I bought it and really enjoyed it. It was completely new for us. I didn't know there were different types of crying in different parts of Iran!"