As a young musician, Mohsen Namjoo first captivated Iranians’ attention with his magnificent album Toranj from 2007. This album, mostly produced underground, exploded among the Iranian community, both inside and outside of the country, because of its subversive words and, most of all, for its unusual fusion of classical Persian poetry and music with Western melodies and instrumentation. Namjoo’s bold music broke through all social, cultural, and musical taboos. It also insulted the Islamic regime, which called for his arrest, and, eventually, in 2008, forced him into a life in exile. Considered a phenomenon within Iranian culture, Namjoo has pioneered a contemporary readaptation of Persian music, which has been trapped in its own conservative and stagnated rules. With a classical voice and musical training from childhood, he has passionately studied Western music even while living in a repressive social environment that considers Western culture its greatest threat. Yet he has fearlessly navigated his own musical way to arrive at a rare form of maturity and refinement. Hugely popular and respected among Iranians of various generations and classes, he now appeals to a wider audience that, I predict, will not easily reduce his work to simple marketing labels, such as Eastern or ethnic music. Its echoes are complex and far too close in ethos to American indigenous music such as jazz and the blues. I worked with Namjoo on the recent theatrical production OverRuled , commissioned by Performa 11, and can attest to the universal appeal of his music—it was apparent on the beaming faces of our audience.
Mohsen Namjoo I learned to play the setar eight months prior to university, for the entrance exam. At that time, I had big plans in mind, and not necessarily the popular five-minute song format that later emerged and that suited the socio-political situation. In reality, in the beginning, I was not in any way sensitive to the outside political or artistic atmosphere. I was thinking about my own music projects, with some hopes and dreams that someone would come along and invest in recording them. These were all plans for a large orchestra, especially fusion projects with Iranian poetry and music.
Shirin Neshat Did you write poetry as well?
MN No. Back then it was research on poetry. We had poetry circles, and I had put friends’ poems to music and liked them very much. I still do.
But after a point, I saw that everything was being lost. Other than a couple of student concerts at the university, those projects and ideas of mine were not getting done. I saw that if I wanted to consider music as a profession—something I had decided at 16—it would be difficult and grinding. So at the age of 25, I came to the pessimistic conclusion that maybe it was a mistake. All these projects were left in the drawer and I went into military service.
During my military service, two things happened simultaneously. I was still making music and gravitating toward Western musical forms and the five-minute song format—rock, pop, and blues. At the same time, the official narrative told you that if you wanted to release an album in Iran, the prerequisite was to go toward these eight or nine five-minute pieces to fit the market. And you had to include certain content, for example, one piece for the Messiah or a piece for Imam Ali definitely had to be there. Frankly, those conditions made me give in to the market. I didn’t want to be “underground” at all. On the contrary, all my efforts at that age went into getting my music out officially. This was the reason why I kept waiting.
After a couple of years, there was an investor and we began recording. First there was an album that was half finished, then there was Jabr, and after that Toranj. These were recorded in the studio, and the whole time I was concerned that the material did not get leaked, that no one heard it prematurely. Since I was 20, I had been carrying the idea that one day these records would be released. The cover art is published, it’s yours, and your name is on it.
That record never happened because for one reason or another each one was rejected at the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. Actually, this phenomenon we call “underground music” has always been around. We can refer to people like Parviz Meshkatian, Mohammad Mousavi, or Mohammad Reza Shajarian—who were all official musicians, but whatever they produced that was never officially released could be called “underground.” It was circulated among people. But this time around, in 2002, underground music was starting to grow because of the Internet. Suddenly the podium was accessible to everybody and everyone realized there was no need for permits or a thing such as the Ministry of Guidance. People could create whatever they wanted and release it. My music too was released in this way for the first time—I don’t know by whom. I meant to work officially, but things turned out differently.
SN But it’s interesting that as radical as your music was when it was first released, you were expecting it to be accepted commercially. Was there a strategy or a model that you had in mind? Or was it simply the environment that you lived in at the time, as a young artist divided between his own tradition and Western culture, encountered through social media?
MN At first I gravitated toward Eastern sounds. When I was 23, I took the music I wrote to the university, but no one cared. However, we had a group and performed the work together. We had several orientations, including mystical music. Another was experimenting with new sounds—for example, a percussion that has all the characteristics of drums but gives an Eastern sound, anything from Japanese gong to our own local and folkloric percussion instruments. Another part of it was literature. I had an interest in “linguistic poetry,” poetry with an emphasis on playing with words and language instead of explication. The idea was to use music and poetry to place the audience in the middle of an experience, instead of describing that experience. For instance, “I’m cold from your distance.” You try to transfer the feeling of “coldness” by the letters c, o, l, and d. The way these letters are arranged places your audience in a situation of coldness. You create an image by repeating words and letters. It’s a higher, more modern form of expression. It comes from the literary theory of the Russian formalists and, later, the French structuralists. For example, you see it in the works of Allen Ginsberg, like the poem “Hum Bom!” But in Iran, it was only introduced 20 years ago.
I was thinking about why Iranian music is constantly criticized by the intellectual community for being behind the times. It occurred to me that Persian music has always been connected to the poetry of Hāfez-e Shīrāzī [born 1325] and Saadi [born 1184]. That thing we call the content—the concept it wants to get across—is always dependent on H?fez. For example, when Shajarian (born 1940) sings, “From this hidden fire within my breast,” with those beautiful vocals, the melody is not in reality from Shajarian himself. It’s from this or that defined melodic movement [goosheh] and modal system [dastgah]. The poem is from Hāfez. The question for me is, Where is the art happening in all of this? Let’s think about creating new combinations from these same melodies, music, and lyrics so that there is some art in the work. In that way, I am satisfied.
One of the ideas was this connection between musicality and linguistic poetry, in the vocal technique of tahrir_. Instead of using solely the letter h, like instead of “Ha, ha, ha, ha … ,” we use all the other letters from the alphabet. Like what we were singing last night, “dregs, dregs, dregs, shout, out, out, in a heart, with no end and no end and no end …” [dordaa, dordaa, dordaa, faryada, yada, yada, dar del-e bi dar o bi sar o bi tah … ]. In the Persian language, the deep meaning of these cries and wails, as in tahrir, has always been about expressing passion and feelings. Again, the attempt was to express those passions and feelings in a new way.
SN Do you agree that only a musician who has a complete familiarity with, and command of, classical music and literature and poetry can dare to do this? You can’t break the rules if you have not studied the rules. What I find remarkable about your music is your absolute knowledge about classical music, instruments, and poetry, which you had from such a young age.
MN Thank you. Well, each person spends time on his or her own interests. I am not an ideal, not even a good, instrumentalist. Writing music does not require practice, it just comes, or poetry, it comes, and you record it. And singing, well, I’ve worked on it from the old days; it’s a skill that returns with a little practice. In reality, I preferred theory to playing an instrument. All sorts of theory, from art to philosophy of art, to watching films, reading criticism, literature, novels …
SN Did you also follow Western music?
MN From the period when I had, you could say, a mental rest, yes. During those two years when I went for military service, I was exposed to it by friends who were playing rock and blues, most notably Abdi Behravanfar. I’d heard rock and blues before, but suddenly I became aware of the theoretic aspect of the story. I was reading about John Lee Hooker, a black musician with a certain lifestyle, and others. These musicians from New Orleans, San Francisco, Nashville—their lives were very poor, kind of hobo lives, and their music had nothing to do with mainstream music, like Frank Sinatra’s. I found this difference in lifestyles so fascinating. We have the same thing in Iranian music. The Iranian musician Ali Gholamreza Almajoghi plays dotar six months out of the year, and the other six months he’s farming other people’s land. He’s basically a sharecropper. We also have our maestros who live in Tehran and have official lives. You could never make a musical comparison between Shajarian and Frank Sinatra, but a musical comparison between Almajoghi and John Lee Hooker is possible. “Oh! Baby, Baby!”—a five-note piece that keeps coming and going. I respect John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson … and you get those in Iran with musicians like Shir Mohammad Espandar, Gholamreza Almajoghi, or Haj Ghorban Soleimani. In terms of lifestyle and music, they guide each other. When you understand one, you sort of understand the other. This became the basis of a mental project, a long paper that I started to expand on. And this coincided with the time that I found a producer who wanted a certain format for an album, not those old formats that I had had in mind, with grand percussion and world music. So some ideas from here and some ideas from there were combined.
SN Did your producers get permits for the album?
MN No. We were recording for two, three years. Initially I had written an article for each one of the pieces on my album Jabr. Somewhat idealistically, I thought we’d simultaneously publish a booklet with the album to explain the process. In the piece “The Desert,” we selected the poem from Ahmad Shamlu, about the coup d’état of 1953, and placed the tonbak and dafpercussions next to the vocals of someone like a villager wailing over his land, “The desert is engulfed in fog … . ” And we put all this next to someone who’s singing the blues because the concepts are similar to each other. We placed John Lee Hooker’s rhythm, the one he played with Santana, at the beginning of “The Desert.” It’s not just putting a tonbak next to a guitar—the scales are also fused together, constantly connecting one with the other. These are from two different worlds, from two sides of the planet, but now, using this instrument called the voice, we can mix each with the other.
SN What was the reaction in Iran?
MN Nobody heard this work, but we kept recording.
SN And you didn’t put it on the Internet?
MN No. I wanted to protect it until it became a CD, but finally—I never found out how—it was leaked. Slowly, I began to hear that everyone was asking about it. This was a very strange experience for me. It was a time when things were not particularly promising—certain personal situations, certain risks. I was without direction and in the streets most of the time. I’d collected all the material for two albums and, at the age of 26, had no motivation to continue. There was no money to continue, and there were no results. Every two, three months people from the Ministry of Culture call you to their office. You go up there and there is a committee. They press “play” and listen to the first track from the first album, 30 seconds of it. Then: “What is this?” And you explain. “Okay, we’ll see. We’ll investigate.” Again, two, three months later, someone listens to the same track … and then finally one day they come clean and say, “The reality, sir, is that it’s possible that you have contributed to our music, but we don’t see what these things are.” And what he means is, “It’s possible we issue a permit, and it turns out that you are insulting something. And I’ll lose my position. I’ve spent a lifetime sitting here, handing out permits, and I can’t risk my life over one album.”
This was the reason that I’d lost hope and my life was full of confusion and chaos. Then, within a month or two, I saw that the number of people greeting me on the street increased. And I didn’t know what was going on. I had no clue. Later, when I asked around, “Where did you hear this?” people would say, “Well, we copied it.” The copies spread like cancerous cells in a short time.
SN It’s interesting that despite the desperate atmosphere and censorship and social, religious, and political pressures, there was intense musical activity in Iran among the youth, no?
MN Yes. Of course, it is even greater now, at least in terms of quantity.
SN Why? Is this due to the huge number of talented artists? Or has it developed as a form of protest against censorship? Have our young musicians become radical because of all the social pressures? Like the more they hit you, the more you want to get up? The fact that our young musicians are not allowed to give public concerts or record and market their music must be a big blow. They exist mainly underground, without a visible audience. Wouldn’t all of that make a musician angry?
MN It is not necessarily a foregone conclusion that you won’t reach an audience. It’s possible the next time you go to the Ministry of Culture they’ll say, Okay. It was the same with my concerts. Many times one office would issue us a permit for a concert and then somebody else would show up one hour before the show and shut it down. They’d say the others had no right to issue a permit. There are parallel organs in Iran; power is spread out. It’s not centralized. There is no pyramid structure where one guy orders the people below him.
But anyway, about the question of protest—at that time, if somebody said to us, “You are protesting,” our response was, “What protest? We just want to play music. What do we have to protest against?” When we were starting out, in 2003 or so, in the first current of Iranian underground music, the protest appeared in the work itself. But now, with the way things are in Iran, the very act of playing an instrument is protest. When someone buys an electric guitar it is to say, “I exist.”
SN When did you leave Iran?
MN It’s been three and a half years.
SN Meaning 2008. Moving from the past to the present: immigration is something that’s affected the lives of all of us Iranian artists. I left at the age of 17, before the Revolution, and I can say I started my art here in New York. But to take an artist like you out of that environment and framework—distance and homesickness aside—means freedom, means your hands are untied, and means resources. To what extent has immigration affected your thoughts and feelings in terms of your new work and what people already knew about it?
MN You can guess that this question comes up in conversation in formal and informal settings. There are two answers. First, regardless of its effect on the work and how it’s interpreted, to judge which is better—the work up to such and such album done inside Iran versus what has been done outside of Iran—time will determine this. On this point, I can’t make any claims, but coming out of Iran, for me, personally, was not only a question of artistic freedom. Frankly, in Iran a lot of things bothered us, but it was not a lack of freedom that made us suffer. There were so many of us around; there was such energy and excitement, to play, to laugh and, have a good time—we performed so much. I’m not saying we were happy about having our concerts shut down; I’m just saying one should see both sides of the story. When I was in Iran, I didn’t feel like I was not free. I was harassed a lot, but there were always so many friends and acquaintances. If they closed down one studio, we’d go somewhere else to record our work, until they shut that one down too. The limitations in themselves created some excitement.
The main reason to leave Iran was to change my lifestyle, to reach some sort of calm. Because of unknown situations, a variety of issues might arise, and in one way or another, either society or you will end up doing something harmful to yourself. It was headed in a direction that was going to be dangerous for me and for the people around me. I mean, you’re a person with all this energy, and it keeps getting beat down. That is dangerous … When I came out of Iran, my goals were to gain more experience and perhaps learn English, which was something I always wanted to do.
In the new album Alaki, only the piece called “The Letter” was written in the US. People don’t know this. People in Iran have downloaded copies of the album. They either have biases from before or say, “Since he left, his work isn’t the same.” And it may be the case that up to this last album you heard, all the good pieces included in the previous albums were written in Iran, and now these new releases, also written in Iran, are the bad ones. But another possibility to consider is that since I emigrated, my music doesn’t have the same energy. I gained something in lifestyle and peace of mind, but my music changed. I prefer this, frankly. It doesn’t bother me that the level of the music is lower or higher.
SN I was thinking there is a positive side to being here in the West now. You have the ability to expand your audience beyond only Iranians. Of course, we are all aware of your huge popularity among Iranians both inside and outside of the country. You have impacted them emotionally and intellectually in an unprecedented way. But during OverRuled, the performance we did together, I could see in the faces of the Americans that you truly moved them, even if they didn’t understand the meaning of the poetry and were not so familiar with your music. What is central to your music is its “emotion”—in that way it is truly universal and needs no translation.
As an Iranian artist myself who mostly operates in the West, I have also faced the challenge of audiences with different national backgrounds—how the meaning and intentions of one’s art changes according to who is looking at it. Your challenge today is that you are now in conversation with the whole world. Not just with Iranians. I say challenge because it’s not an easy task, but the reason why I think you’ll be successful is because of all the thought and intelligence that’s gone into your work.
MN I think you are being generous about the international makeup of the audience. I am thinking about doing something in the direction of a global audience, but it’s still in the early stages, and our audience, in reality, is just getting to know the work. But the numbers, relative to the Iranian community, are 20 percent international and 80 percent Iranian, I think.
SN It’s interesting, Mohsen. Right now my collaborator Shoja Azari and I are making a film about Umm Kulthum, the Egyptian legend, whose audience went into ecstasy when hearing her sing. They lost themselves. People in the Arab world or in Iran can understand this, but translating it for a Western audience is not an easy task. What you have to your advantage is your work’s emotional aspect. But the earlier point that you made about your theoretical outlook, the similar roots of blues musicians and these Iranian artists that you mentioned, is a strong bridge.
MN Yes, this is a cool paradox. This problem with the non-Iranian audience not understanding the poetry has a good side and a bad side. The bad side is obvious; they don’t get certain concepts from the work. But ironically, this can be the good thing as well. Take, for example, the song “Neo-Kantian Ideas.” When I made that piece, the idea that I’d jotted down somewhere was this question of how to start a blues scale from a dashti scale. How to connect these scales and modalities together, with a blues rhythm? Now, the lyrics I’d written were a different matter. But of the Iranian listeners that heard it, nobody noticed the point about the music. Everyone was just concerned with the protest aspect of the lyrics, for example, “An embarrassed government is all that’s left for us … ” Now, a non-Iranian audience might hear the music better. Maybe it’s interesting for them that the scales are being mixed.
SN It seems you can even apply this in your music with an Iranian audience. In your new album, you use the poetry of Hāfez, but it has been so abstracted that it’s unintelligible. You hear words, but understanding them is difficult. It’s both interesting and frustrating.
MN Well, that was part of the initial plan, to take classic poetry and bring it closer to contemporary language. For example, in the song “zolf,” there were two ideas: The first was to take a cadence that you find in the English language and use it with the poetry of Hāfez. And the second was that I use the voice of a different character, like an 80-year-old man wailing, “Don’t drink wine with just anybody.” But in both, the language is closer to contemporary vernacular.
SN What’s fascinating is that among Iranians you appeal to both the general public and the intellectuals. Your music touches people, yet your use of poetry is highly subversive and politically controversial. Iranians discuss it for days. Another thing I’ve been thinking regarding the Western audience’s reception of your music is—normally, when, let’s say, an American goes to hear classic Persian music, they have an almost anthropological expectation. They enjoy it, but, at the end, the whole thing becomes an ethnic or exotic experience for them.
MN I want to add that I’ve always personally respected those musicians that came before us, the ones we mentioned by name earlier, and the generations that came before them who tried to do something different. We can’t deny that this is an evolution. If they hadn’t produced certain works, our work wouldn’t have gotten to a certain level.
But this thing that we call Iranian music, those seven modalities, or what you can call the repertoire that they put in front of you when you go to learn Iranian music … Ever since I was a kid, my feeling was that this is like a corpse and everybody is sitting on it like maggots. Everybody’s feeding himself and nobody’s thinking about making this body move. The biggest push was made by musicians before us—people like Hossein Alizadeh or Shajarian, each in his own way. My joke was that they wanted to wake this dead body up—but I believe that you have to kick it hard and throw it to the other side of the room. So hard you can’t even tell what will happen. Will it break apart? Will it stay intact?
SN Do you think you broke apart all the classic modalities with your work?
MN No, the modalities are there, but something happens when they’re standing next to something else. It’s like the chahargah introduction daramad, which has always accompanied the zabol melodic movement, and now, suddenly, the thing that accompanies chahargahbecomes the sound of a dog barking. It changes suddenly from something expected and abstract that we call Iranian music and goes in a completely different direction. So let’s create this movement and see what happens. It’s not the work of one person or one time. A process must be initiated. And it’s not possible to claim that you can kick this thing with one or two works or artists. You can’t respectfully say, “Wake up.” Rather, you have to create a shock. Some people will like this shock and emulate it, and others will critique it and hate it, but it causes them to create other things against it.
There are individual songs in Iranian music that, to this day, when I’m alone, listening to Shahram Nazeri or Shajarian, give me an astonishing pleasure. Banan, Ghavami … even pop music has its place; Haydeh, some works by Mahasti. But these are only for my private moments. I know that my roots are there, but they no longer satisfy me as a musician. In this world that’s advancing at such a speed, and for a young person today who hasn’t heard the story, how do you take Hāfez and sing it playfully? In my new album, Alaki, in one of the pieces, track six, at first there is a scream, it’s in the blues, and then it starts with Hāfez’s words:
I said hello and you said to me
with a smile
O you hung-over, wine-struck pauper …
It’s like the advice of an older man to his son, saying, “You idiot! What are you doing? Why are you wasting your life? Why aren’t you using your time better?” It’s Hāfez’s poetry, but all the effort went into making it current. Relevant.
SN Why Hāfez
MN It was partly Hāfez, Saadi, and Rumi. I was searching to do the work solely with this material, but I saw that I couldn’t. I mentioned using friends’ poems, “linguistic poetry.” But one day I sat down and something came to me and it took shape and became a song called “Geographical Determinism.” It was the first poem in my life that I wrote a melody to. A mistake that today’s musicians make regarding the kind of music they call “anti-intellectual,” is that they see themselves in a higher place conceptually. Their followers endorse these views. And unfortunately they place me in this rarified category too. But my concern is that we are mixed up about form and content.
They say, for example, that Sasy Mankan is shallow. Why? Because his content is shallow? Musicians say you can’t have a serious conversation about Sasy Mankan and the pop music of these other young kids that’s on fire these days. Okay, your form is not comparable to that of Sasy Mankan, like my form and Javad Yasari’s are different. But if you consider it from the perspective of content—and I don’t just mean the lyrics, but keeping in mind that content includes the connection between the work and the totality of circumstances in its surroundings—then, Sasy Mankan is as important as the more intellectual music.
Underground or independent music claims to understand things that others don’t. By others, I mean Sadegh Najouki, the songwriter for Hayedeh, Anooshiravan Rohani, or Mahasti. I can swear, from the perspective of arrangement, instrumentalization, sound recording—all the professional aspects of production—there are three of Hayedeh’s songs that are better than 50 pieces produced by this generation we belong to. This is a kind of self-defeating, but I wanted to state this reality.
SN Don’t you think this same thing happens in Iranian cinema? For example, those who make art-house films consider all other sorts of films trash. With the film I’m working on, which I mentioned earlier, about the legendary Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum, we are trying hard to find a balance between being artistic and experimental yet appealing to the average Arabic population who loves her music. There is a danger of throwing all standards away in order to be popular and have an audience. We’d be thinking about the audience instead of the work.
MN With independent music, there never was much of an audience expectation to conform to because no one is really living off making records in Iran. But I want to emphasize that the kids from the new generation think that talking about contemporary political issues means they are intellectuals. Whereas that music by Mahasti, if you consider its musical characteristics altogether, you see that the whole thing moves you. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a direct insult to such and such politician.
SN One of the problems with Iranian society has always been that it’s against variation. If you want to be a novelist, you have to be like Faulkner or Golshiri, or you’re nothing. Cinema is the same.
MN Yes, this problem of variation is an important issue, to accept that everybody can work side by side.
SN By leaving Iran and settling in the United States, you have gained a great new challenge, which will speak to the future generation of Iranian musicians who are also dreaming of the same journey. We are looking to you to see how you will build a new identity for yourself as an international artist and how you will balance between your Iranian and American audiences. This is not going to be an easy task, but, at the same time, it will be a very exciting period for you because as your access to Iran has been slowly diminishing, new doors are opening for you on this end. Is there anything else you want to say before we close?
MN I want to explain the theory of this work, this thing we call combination or fusion: It emerges both in the music as a combination of scales, and in the lyrics as a combination of classic and modern poetry. It isn’t only music next to music; it is an issue of new and old poetry as well. We were talking earlier about protest, that now the act of buying a guitar in Iran is in itself a kind of protest. I want to add that the essence of existence in this world, as somebody who’s doing artistic work, is a dissenting existence. That’s why one should think of content that leaves more space for social and political conditions to be presented as protest within a wider context. There is a time when, for example, Ahmad Shamlu composed so much poetry about freedom. Then when everything changed and the Islamic Revolution occurred, it had no purpose. One thinks, Who did you write all those poems for? What happened to all that resistance? But the subject of Nima Yushij’s poetry is humanity—he says, “My home is overcast. The whole earth is everywhere overcast … ”
I was having a debate with a musician friend, and I said, “You are protesting the situation in Iran in your lyrics, but if suddenly Iran becomes more like Switzerland, for sure I will return, and I know you will, too. But what other material do you have to produce? When you go back there, what else do you have to say?” They used this word government. I said, “Listen, the problem is the myth of government.” I sang, “An embarrassed government is all that’s left for us.” It was never a reference to the Khatami government or the Ahmadinejad government. Even though this interpretation is made, my attempt is to say: Listen, government is always a myth or a legend that, face to face with something called “the people,” is supposed to be embarrassed. This is history’s satire.
Translated from Persian by Siavash Krimzadegan.