by Patrick Ogle
Iranian Underground Musician Comes To The USA.
Namjoo became an underground hit in his homeland and, last year, was the only musical artist to perform at the Venice Film Festival. Unsurprisingly the connections between different area of art and performance seem to be common.
Namjoo was trained, from the time he was a child, in traditional Persian music. In this context he earned an apprenticeship with masters of this music in the Northeast of Iran. Later he attended Tehran University's music program and studied more classical music. Over time, Namjoo ran into resistance both from the musical community and from restrictions imposed on artists by the Islamic Government. But he did what artists in many nations and in many times have done; Namjoo moved underground and fit into that scene in Iran and wound up gaining an audience both in Iran and abroad. He, himself, didn't realize how "successful" he was until he would hear taxis playing bootleg copies of his music (all the while he was in fiscal dire straits). In this he bears a striking resemblance to Boris Grebenshikov whose career was curtailed in the former Soviet Union (both have also been compared to an American songwriter who shall remain nameless lest the comparison jinx Namjoo).
"It is important to differentiate between classical and traditional music. The reason I engaged with Traditional music was because I understood that it is in fact very flexible and organic. My problem was with the people who engaged with Traditional music as they would with classical music, with a rigid and inflexible. In my country Iran, the musicians who specialized with Traditional music, believed that the scales and structure of Traditional music is not subject to change and evolution. This resulted in a stagnant body of work over many years that gradually disenfranchised their audience," he says. "But the basis of my education during my formative years was the same school of traditional music. I was not educated in the western music and my instrument was the Setar, not the Guitar. Albeit, I tried from the very outset to expand the horizons of Traditional music, not out of resentment but deep passion for traditional music. To give an example, Iranian Traditional music is like an ocean full of pearls at its depth. I found that traditional musicians in general, were not capable divers and pearl hunters."
When it comes to the plight of artists in Iran and the various restrictions placed on them Namjoo does care to answer simply or even feel a concise answer possible.
"The answer to this question is very elaborate and I cannot provide a short and concise reply which will do justice to the essence of the problems facing artists in Iran." says Namjoo.
He is working on a paper that will, at some point, be released as a book through Stanford University. The book will focus on the history of Iranian music after the 1979 revolution. It should be ready by the end of the year. Namjoo has not returned to Iran since 2008 but he keeps in touch with friends and stays informed. He describes his homeland as a vibrant and ever changing society, always in flux. There is more below the surface than what we see on the news or the internet.
"I can say that after many years of learning technique and attention to detail in music, I understood that ultimately, it is the emotional connection that communicates with the listener not the technique," says Namjoo. "Many might be impressed by the technique of a musician in a jazz club but ultimately what remains with human beings is not the technique but the emotional charge conveyed by the musicians’ interpretation."
And the musicians who influenced him? Those whose emotional charge conveyed something to him?
"I recall influences from very traditional masters who lived anonymously in a small village in Iran to someone like Mark Knopfler or Muddy Waters," he says. “The amazing similarity between their music, not just from a conceptual or cultural standpoint but from a musical standpoint. It is those similarities that fascinated me and motivated me to try and discover these musical similarities."
Not many people have the background to pick out similarities between traditional Persian music, American blues and English pop. Asking about influences is a tired line of questioning but when the artist comes from a small town in Iran and he speaks of Muddy Waters it is worth noting. Yet Namjoo's work is not some flaccid attempt at "World Music" either.
"What I am trying to get at essentially is to blend and intertwine musical traditions. World music is to arrange side by side, musical instruments from various parts of the world with less attention to the musical blending and relationships," says Namjoo. “I therefore cannot subscribe to the world music model. I am less interested in the musical harmonizing of instruments from various parts of the world as I am in finding the emotional and musical relationship between various countries in the world."
Namjoo also has a background in theater and film, in part because making the sort of music he wanted to make in his homeland was impractical.
"Film music and theatre was my main occupation during my years in Iran, given the limitations and economic impracticality of making records under those circumstances. The music for A Few Kilos of Dates for a Funeral was a suggestion by my roommates who were making that film but I only acted in that film and did not find the opportunity to make the music for it, he says. “Since leaving Iran I have done more film music namely a recent work called neighbor by a young director, Naghmeh Shirkhan that will be released soon. I look forward to continuing my work in film and am currently working on a few proposals that are in development."
His most recent musical work, Oy, is available now.
"Oy was produced as a result of a combination of factors. It was my first album produced since I left Iran and in a way, it was a nostalgic experience for me. Oy was also the beginning of a collaborative engagement with an Iranian-Canadian filmmaker who is also a dear friend of mine," says Namjoo. “After a chance meeting with Babak Payami while he was the Creative Director of Fabrica Media, (the communication arts research centre of the United Colors of Benetton group), he agreed to produce a series of albums and concerts of my work. Oy was produced under the auspices of Fabrica. The experience was very pleasant and Mr. Payami and I decided to continue our collaboration for future works under the auspices of Payam Entertainment Inc.”
Namjoo doesn't yet know what his reception in the USA will be like overall--hard to tell after one show. He plans to keep busy here and elsewhere.
“I have a large body of unpublished work from my years in Iran that I will be recording over the next few years," he says. "Some of them will be experimental while others are albums of collections with various musical and lyrical themes.”
Look for this music, and Oy at the Mohsen Namjoo website. And keep an eye out for tour dates.