Archive for the ‘World Music’ Category

Iranian Music: An Unexplored Territory

February 19, 2009

Photo by David Yaghoobi.

Why Iranian music has not taken its place on the world stage.

Tehran, Iran
Hafta Music Society | vitrine

Traveling was once the affair of adventurers, tradesmen, explorers and conquerors. On the road for many years, these travelers stayed in different places and had to familiarize themselves with the culture, tradition, art, literature and way of life of the peoples they encountered. They were usually accompanied by servants, guards, carriages, horses, cattle, food and various goods. They also carried with them entertainers — musicians, poets, storytellers, comedians and dancers. They were veritable cultural envoys of their times.

The dialects, manners of speech, new musical instruments, handicrafts and customs of these travelers influenced the way people of different lands saw their own cultures. Music was an important way through which cultures influenced one other.

As one of the key posts along the Silk Road, Iran has played a significant role in cultural commerce. There are ample records of musical instruments traveling from the Iranian plateau to China from the seventh century AD onwards. The flow of music and poetry from Bukhara and Samarkand to the eastern and western parts of the plateau shaped the music and poetry of the region.

With the emergence of new modes of transportation and communication in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, cultural relations underwent major changes, leaving Iranian music, compared to that of the region, on the margins of musical exchange. Did the cultural Airbus fly over Iran in such haste to overlook its rich legacy? What reasons lie behind this omission?

Exoticism in music and the global trend toward new discoveries

In today’s world, where geographical borders are cleared in minutes or hours, rather than months or years, musical styles such as ChaChaCha, Mambo, Salsa, Raga, Saga, Tropic Music, Qawwali, Afrobeat, Griot, Fado or Conga are no strangers to the ear. Central African music has met the South American Aymaras and ragas of India chime to the tune of Scandinavian polkas. The world has always been eyeing new discoveries in music. AfroCuban elements, Bossa Nova rhythms, non-European instruments, including oud and pipe, and Sufi music have a clear presence in pop, rock and R&B. New names such as Desert Blues, Fusion, Bollywood Music, and Sufi Trance have become part of the music lexicon.

Why is it then that we don’t hear the name of tar among the wide array of musical instruments that inform the so-called World Music Scene? The same goes for the Shur scale in Persian music. The rhythmic chahar mezrab is unknown to many. Musical modes that saw continuous expansion from the fifteenth century to the seventeenth are today left by the wayside. Meanwhile, Indian music, which shares numerous features with its Iranian counterpart, enjoys tremendous popularity the world over. Leaving aside aesthetic considerations, I want to offer some reasons for the disparity between the two musical traditions.

Why did the world take note of Indian music?

India, like other countries of the colonial world, accepted and incorporated many features of the colonial mainland. The infiltration of the English language may be taken as the most obvious example. It allowed for momentous interactions between the colonizer and the colonized. Migration to and from the colonies and the slave trade further blended traditions. Nowhere can we see this cultural fusion better than in music.

By the end of World War II, Europe and the United States entered a new phase of international challenges and crises. The division of Germany, France’s problems in Cambodia, the onset of the Cold War and the nuclear showdown, the appearance of a threat named Cuba as a symbol of communism just a few kilometers south of the U.S. border, the emergence of a superpower like China, the Vietnam War, McCarthyism, women and civil rights movements in the United States, all plunged the Western world into a vortex of confusion from the 1950’s onward. The threat of World War III loomed large. The world was on the verge of a meltdown and with it a thirst for peace and calm intensified among a new generation.

Who spoke of peace? What could turn the minds away from torrential crises that hit the shores of the post-War world? The political philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi, with its Hindu and Buddhism undercurrents, Eastern mysticism, Sufism, incense burning, Hare Krishna, sexual freedom, psychedelic drugs, among others, offered a way out. For the Western youth, the East, its culture and traditions, its music, was an escape.

Many factors played a catalytic role in popularizing Indian music: The Buddhist propensities of iconic figures like John Lennon and George Harrison, the use of sitar in “Norwegian Wood” from the Rubber Soul; Ravi Shankar’s confluence with Yehudi Menuhin and the production of West Meets East; the mystic magnetism of Jim Morrison and the Doors; the popularity of Psychedelic and Hard Rock and the taste of eastern melodies in the music of Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, and other rock bands; concerts such as Woodstock and Bangladesh; the friendship between Zakir Hussain and John McLaughlin, and the musical theories of Peter Gabriel after his separation from Genesis are only the most immediate.

If in the beginning minor influences of Indian music caressed the ears of European audiences, today its music as a whole is recognized and appreciated. Considered exotic per se, audiences can easily sit and listen to its different tones (in different moods) for several hours. In other words, the transitional phase helped familiarize the audience who was a stranger to India’s musical tradition. It even helped promote the music of neighboring regions, like Tamilnadu (Susheela Raman) and Pakistan (the Qawwali music of Abida Parveen and Nusrat Fatih Ali Khan).

The same can be said about Francophone or Latin American music.

So, why did the world overlook Iranian music?

Iran has been at the crossroads of commerce and at the crossfire of wars and confrontations since time immemorial. Two major conquests (the Arab and the Mongolian) were instrumental in determining how people of the Iranian plateau would face the outside world. Although the country never became a “colony,” its people learned strategically how to serve the invading armies without relinquishing their integrity. In recent history, Imperial Russia and the British Empire tried to parcel the land between them. They met with some success but never achieved total political control.

These are some of the reasons why Iranians, unlike Indians, did not surrender entirely to the invasive culture; instead, they raised their defenses. Even when France, Germany, and more recently the United States, tried to achieve control in seemingly less hostile manners, they were met with resistance. The situation led to national traditions and customs being taken into basements. Iranian modernists chose to “coexist” with foreign influences or, better said, accept the outward appearances of the Western culture. Those who kept true to their ethnic culture chose to lock it in, while modern intellectuals blindly followed the Western model.

In major population centers there are no identifiable Iranian enclaves amidst the different immigrant neighborhoods formed around religious and ethnic registers. Sometimes it is even hard to recognize an Iranian by his/her looks, as Iranians seemingly melt into their surrounding pot. Meanwhile, westerners living in Iran enjoy the famous “Iranian hospitality.” Iranians, contrary to Indians, have prided themselves in playing the role of a host rather than the vanquished. Could it be that the combination of this social softness and the habit of taking traditions into hiding has structured Iranian music as well?

Since the beginning of the twentieth century, Iranians who had the opportunity to study in Europe brought back many offerings of Western culture into the country. In music, attempts were made to establish a “scientific” framework for Iranian classical music based on European notation and instrumentation; however, little has come of these attempts. In pop and rock music, too, the same tendency can be observed.

Today, we see strong traces of non-Iranian influences in the contemporary music of Iran. What’s more, the pattern of mass migration, especially after the Islamic Revolution of 1979, has given birth to a generation of Iranians with feeble links to their musical past. Iranian music in exile may use Persian words but it rarely tries to build on the rich repository of its existing musical repertoires.

In the past century, the Qajar preoccupation with the lure of modernity, the Pahlavi attempt to create a secular state a la West, and the Islamic backlash of 1979 has created an identity crisis for Iranian music. We can identify three main tendencies among Iranian musicians: Those who want to preserve traditions at all expense and by ignoring outside influences, those who fully submit to the Western ways in the hope of achieving salvation from traditions, and those who allow for outside influences to shape their music without losing sight of traditions. The first two have been instrumental in obscuring Iranian music from the world stage. Only the third advocates exchange and dialogue between cultures. At the same time, the global mass media has been less interested in what Iranian music has to offer than in exoticizing musicians who belong to the third group, as if they were jewels in an ancient ruin called Persian music.

What does the future hold for us?

The world is looking for the Exotic. But exotica has a short lifespan, it has a date of expiry, though it will eventually leave its mark on the global music scene. World music is in dire need of new material. Ears are desperate to hear new sounds and voices, desperate for new roots, different traditions, and new forms of knowledge. With their current social conditions, many regions around the world show potential for introducing their music and culture to the world. Iran, Afghanistan, Asia southeast, the newly independent countries of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan are only some of them.

One can visibly see this desire to reach out among Iranian musicians, especially those who have been exposed to Western music through the ages, from the Medieval period to the Classical and more contemporary ones. The Franco-Persian Nour Ensemble, for example, has tried to combine Spanish Cantigas and Gregorian Chants with Kurdish and Persian repertoires. Having performed their music live in Europe and in Tehran since 2000, the Ensemble is actively looking for what has been missing in the evolution of music East and West of the globe. The introduction of notations and the systematization of classical music in the West led to the elimination of certain aspects of music supported by oral traditions. Iranian music, on the other hand, preserved most of its oral, improvisational qualities. As such, Nour tries to introduce into Western music what it had abandoned since the middle ages — the art of improvisation. Collaboration between nice musicians, four of which are French nationals, has thus far led to the release of an album called Alba.

Examples of such cross-cultural music can also be found in the works of a rural band like Jahleh. Jahleh is a clay pot used as a water container in some villages of the Hormozgan province in the Persian Gulf. Next to such folk instruments as ney jofti (a double reed-flute) and dohol (bass drum akin to the Indian mridanga), jahleh gives the music a timbre unique to this region. At the same time, the band makes great use of blues, rock, rap, and reggae rhythms and melodies to bring diversity to the music of the port city of Bandar Abbas, itself greatly influenced by the musical traditions of Ethiopia and Zanzibar.

The Paris-Tehran Project is the name of a 2003 live recording of a joint concert by French jazz players of the Alain Brunet Orchestra and classical Iranian musicians of the Shargh Ensemble on the occasion of the Day of Music celebrated in France on 21 June every year. Hermes Records and the Cultural Center of the French Embassy in Iran organized the concert, which was originally intended to be in three parts. In the first two, musicians of each group were to perform separately, coming together on the stage of Niavaran Cultural Center in Tehran for a third time in a jam session. However, the two groups had such chemistry between them that musicians decided to skip the first two parts.

Backed by ancient history, regional and ethnic diversity, various traditions and customs, and a rich literature, Iranian music surely deserves to be recognized, heard and seen. Today, the world of music awaits a newcomer and Iran may be the landing place for the cultural Airbus.

Ramin Sadighi is the founder of Hermes Records. This article was first published in the The Warwick Review in September 2007. The magazine’s Vol. 1 No. 3 issue was dedicated to Iran.