Songs like roaring laughter

26 Nov 2010

■ Ann De Craemer
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Nov. 25, 2010

It was called ‘Loknat’ and I listened to it a thousand times. It was the first Iranian song sneaking like an earworm into my brain, determined to stay there for days in a row. Not that this really bothered me: I confess that I adored this song of the popular, young and handsome Benyamin. Looking back, I know why I liked it so much: I had just started learning Farsi and I loved just about any song that was sung in that sweet sugary language. I was so voracious for new words that the musical quality was not my main concern. ‘Loknat’ by Benyamin had a simple text which I could understand almost completely without having to run to the dictionary, and that made me very happy. Moreover, Benyamin was stuttering in his song, something which was rather familiar to me at the time, not because being in love (which I very much was) stopped me from speaking, but because all these new Persian sounds were gymnastics for my tongue and mouth. The first Persian line that I ever sang out loud without stuttering was this one by Benyamin: Donya dige mesle to nadare, nadare na mitune biyare (The world has no one like you, it hasn’t and it will never have). I had never been so proud in my entire life.

That was six years ago. Today, I still love Benyamin, but not primarily for his music. I love him like people love their first boyfriend or girlfriend: you realize that he or she was really not your type, but you still have a warm feeling about them because they handed you the key to the world of love, which opened up an entire new universe for you.

Benyamin did the same. He opened the world of Persian music for me, a path of discovery that I haven’t left ever since. Of course, I got to know the classical Persian masters like Mohammad Reza Shajarian, who made me cry in the streets of Isfahan a couple of days before the 2009 elections, and who can still make me cry when listening to him at home in Belgium. My best friend one day handed me an album of Marzieh, adding: ‘Listen to this. She’s a miracle’. I did, and he was right. Marzieh has died but lives on forever in my mind.

But I do not want to talk about classical Persian music. I want to tell you about modern, contempory Iranian music. If as a westerner interested in Iran you go out looking for modern Iranian music, the first singers and groups you encounter might give you the idea that the Iranian music scene is one big kitsch paradise – or hell, depending on how much you like kitsch. When I first searched for modern Iranian songs on the famous website bia2.com, it seemed as if Iran only produced lookalikes of Benyamin. I listened to Saaeed Ashayesh and could not even discern his voice from that of Benyamin. If on YouTube you type ‘Benyamin’, you often hear songs of Asayesh, mistakenly posted as songs by Benyamin, leading to confused reactions of listeners. Benyamin and Saaed of course have their right of existence, but if their music sounds so similar, then where is the personality of the individual artist?

The Iranian music industry has reeked dollars in LA and now automatically produces the songs that part of rich Tehrangeles wants to hear

This is my problem with many modern Iranian singers, whom I cannot call artists, but only singers: they are interchangeable. A lot of this music is not even made in Iran, but in Tehrangeles, hometown of approximately one million Iranians. The music videos that accompany these songs are full of the superficial, upbeat LA lifestyle in which Iranian-Americans try to be even more Hollywood-like than the ‘real’ Americans. It is the kind of lifestyle that we will witness in the controversial television series The Persian Version – a Persian version of Jersy Shore set in LA – which is now in a preproduction phase. In april 2010, this reality show was announced as follows: ‘Two thousand years ago the Persian Empire ruled the ancient world…but they didn’t have your soundtrack, your style, or your swagger. For you, life is all about Gucci, Gabbana, Cavalli and Cristal. From BMWs and Bugatis, to Mercedes and Movado – money is no object.’ Many Iranian Americans strongly objected to The Persian Version, because it would be a far too stereotypical representation of their community. There might be truth in this, but at the same time, we have to admit that there is truth in the stereotype. The wealthy, superficial, filthy rich and Mercedes-loving Iranian LA community does exist. They have quite a lot in common with the wealthy Iranians living in the North of Tehran, and they often originate from these areas. They say they are proud of being Persian, but are above all trying hard to become real Americans. In that typical Persian trait of character of always trying to be the best, they exaggerate in their copycat behavior of the Hollywood biatch or hip-hop macho. The commercial Iranian music industry has reeked the smell of dollars over here and now automatically produces the songs that Tehrangeles folks want to hear: copycat versions of American R&B and hip-hop, the only difference being that the lyrics are in Farsi. Apart from that, the big silicon boobs, the golden bracelets, the baggy trousers and the million dollar cars are the same. Just take a look at this video, and you know what I’m talking about.

I have become sick and tired with this kind of Iranian kitsch. Although this is a side of Iran that is real, it is not the side that I love. To me, it does not at all represent the richness and variety of Iranian society, which is one of the things that music, just like literature, should do. That is why I was so happy when the underground band Kiosk made its appearance on the world stage. This was a band that was also operating from ‘the West’ (San Francisco and Toronto), but what a huge difference with the usual LA Iranian techno beat. When I listen to Kiosk, I can hear modern Iran in all its richness and variety. Moreover, I’m a writer, so words are important to me, and when I listen to the lyrics of Kiosk, I can hear poetry. In their song ‘Love and Death in the Time of Facebook’, there are references to Nima, Shamloo, Forough and Behrangi. The text in itself is modern poetry about how Iranians not only use Facebook for political reasons, but also, as all world citizens, for love. Also highly enjoyable are some subtle but clear criticisms on the Iranian regime: I had the guys from Fars News Agency photoshop my profile picture and make me look cool.

A band like Kiosk brings us modern Iranian music that has become mature and is ready to conquer the world. It is music that is open to that world, as it is has itself opened up to influences from around the world. In Kiosk, I hear Spanish flamenco, gypsy music, San Francisco basement jazz, Bob Dylan, and so much more. In every lecture I give about Iran, I try to tell people that they should adjust their one-sided view of Iranian society as a backward, closed community that has no idea about the outside world or a desire to get in touch with it. Anyone who listens to Kiosk can understand that this is not true. Yes, this is music made in Los Angeles, but Kiosk was just as refreshing when they were recording in their Tehran basement. The only difference was that the Iranian regime did not want to hear their talent.

But I do want to hear it, again and again, not only because I love this music, but also because it gives me hope for Iran’s future. There are more bands like Kiosk and they are now still playing underground in the basements of Teheran, Shiraz or Isfahan, but they are ready to conquer the world and break free from the prison the regime wants to keep them in. Shajarian is great, Googoosh is great, but Kiosk, Abjeez, Mohsen Namjoo and the complete soundtrack of No one knows about Persian cats are the musical future of Iran that we can already discover today. This is the music of a green Iran, this is the music of a generation that is saying ‘salam’ to the entire world and embraces the entire world in their music, without denying – contrary to the Iranian LA musical kitsch – their Persian origins.

When one day the ayatollahs will finally have taken their hands off my beautiful Iran, I will get on the first plane to Tehran, take a deep breath and listen with joy and hope to all those great hidden songs that are coming, like roaring laughter, out of Tehran’s basements, ready to conquer the world and make it more beautiful.

Tehran Review
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  1. Noqrah says:

    Oh, how wonderful, someone who understands.. Khely Mamnoonam!! I fell in love with Iran a few months ago and started looking for books about this wonderful country. I have just finished reading your book for the second time and discovered Kiosk few weeks ago. And yes, Googoosh is great! And Dariush too!!!Looks like I found me some kind of soulmate.Love the blog,too . Farsi shekar ast!… Let’s dream ourselves to Esfehan, Yazd and Shiraz…”Out beyond ideas of wrongdoins and rightdoing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there…”

  2. Ann says:

    thanks a lot for this nice post. You read my book two times, how wonderful! :-) thanks again

  3. hadi says:

    Thank you Ann! Lovely post! Agree!
    A band like Kiosk brings us modern Iranian music that has become mature. It is music that is open to that world, as it is has itself opened up to influences from around the world

  4. Songs like roaring laughter « Ann De Craemer says:

    [...] nieuwste column voor TehranReview, vandaag online, vindt u hier. Over Benyamin, Iraanse kitsch, Tehrangeles, Kiosk en muziek voor de toekomst. Share [...]

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