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Kourosh Yaghmaei - Back From The Brink: Pre-Revolution Psychedelic Rock From Iran 1973-1979

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Artist: Kourosh Yaghmaei

Album: Back From The Brink: Pre-Revolution Psychedelic Rock From Iran 1973-1979

Label: Now-Again

Review date: Aug. 25, 2011

“The architects of the Islamic Republic justify their actions in terms of Islamic history. However, the Islamic Republic of Iran is a pure invention; it has no predecessor. Actions, policies, decisions, and events are justified as being in continuity or conformity with the past, but in reality they are a break with the past. Decisions — whether conformist or reactionary — are made in the name of Islam and loudly declared to be determinant and fundamental characteristics of the Islamic system, yet they generate peripheral effects that are a complete rupture with Iran’s Islamic tradition.” - Morad Saghafi

Ali-Naqi “Colonel” Vaziri was one of the great Persian improvisational performers and musical theoreticians of the 20th century. He was arguably what one might call a “musical nationalist.” While a master of Persian classical instruments, such as the taar, he also spent most of his life systematizing musical styles in Iran by notating what was previously a wholly improvisatory practice of producing sound within a set of modes (dastgaah). In an attempt to accommodate late 19th century notions of Western harmony, he created a theory of the quarter tone scale, and claimed that all the modes of Persian classical music could be represented within a 24 equidistant-tone scale. This allowed for large orchestral notation, written duplication for instruction, and mass reproduction of Persian musical styles in a country undergoing bouts of robust nation-building under the Pahlavi monarchy (1925-1979).

The only problem was that the Colonel was wrong. The quarter tone, being the tone equally distant between the whole-tone and semi-tone, did not exist throughout the entire history of Persian musical technique. Certainly, musicians improvised within and around this tonal space, but never as exactingly as Vaziri’s notations insisted. As a result, in attempting to preserve tradition, Vaziri created something completely new. Like any successful nationalist, he ended up an inventor of novel traditions instead. Why was the Colonel so adamant about his system, even to the degree that today many Iranian musicians believe it to be true?

Iranians, usually of the cosmopolitan type, will often claim that Persian classical music is an ancient art form that was suppressed or banned by Muslim Arab invaders in the 7th century, leading to artistic stagnation and cultural decline. The systematization of this music through notation, therefore, is both a way of preserving a deeply loved tradition as well as exhibiting its status as “high art,” this lofty distinction usually meaning if it can be on par with Western European court music.

However, this is not history at all, but pure nationalist myth — one that gels well with certain Iranians’ distaste for their own country’s major religion. This stance is actually about as traditional as one can find in Iran, since Islam has been blamed for all the country’s woes of “backwardness” and “stagnation” for over a century by now. In reality, the Arab Muslim caliphates of the Ummayad and Abbasid dynasties patronized court music, as did the Seljuq turks, as did the Mongolian invaders of Persia, the Zand dynasty, and finally the 19th century Qajar dynasty, where aristocrats demanded musical performances for their many private parties. And like much of the world musics that were documented in the 1920s-1930s, and again in the 1950s-1960s on vinyl records for globetrotting Western labels, the particular styles of Persian classical music we know today were mostly worked out in the late 19th century by musical masters only one or two generations removed from Vaziri himself.

This excursion is my way of discussing Kourosh Yaghmaei’s music from the 1970s, which has been collected on to two discs (or three LPs, or four 7”s) set by Now-Again Records. A few of Yaghmaei’s (pronounced yaq-maw-EE) singles have previously shown up on other compilations: “Hajme Khaali” (Empty Mass) on Now-Again’s Forge Your Own Chains, “Gol-e Yakh” (Ice Flower) on B-Music’s Pomegranates, and “Akhm Nakon” (Don’t Fret), which appeared under an incorrect name on Secret Stash’s Persian Funk. Since the guy only released four singles and b-sides in Iran in the 1970s, one would have thought this was most of it. But Kourosh recorded several full albums well into the late 70s, which ended up on a bad-ass new gadget called a cassette. After the 1979 revolution, Kourosh’s blend of mournful psych-pop went underground, but the man stayed in the country unlike a large amount of his Iranian pop star contemporaries. This new compilation collects the singles, B-sides and more than 20 other songs, usually recorded by Kourosh himself along with his brothers.

Since the early 1990s, Kourosh has been occasionally playing concerts in and out of the country, as well as recording new music when he can get permission. It’s not easy in Iran to constantly negotiate with the morality police. It often involves engaging in long discussions with a state-appointed 70-year-old torpid cleric or his secretaries, and trying to convince them that the bursting watermelon on your album cover is not, in fact, a vagina. Or that the woman on an advert billboard is walking somewhere, not running, because running would imply that she is a feisty sexpot on her way to the next tryst (true story). Iranian cultural conservativism, like its Texan counterpart in the U.S., is forever confusing in its inconsistency and arbitrariness. When fused with government enforcement, its not surprising that some Iranians’ favorite hobby is nostalgia for the good old days of the 1970s. And, of course, that is how the music is marketed to non-Iranian audiences as well. The aforementioned Secret Stash comp is sold to us this way: “It seems hard for most westerners to imagine today, but in the middle part of last century, the Iranian government was very supportive of the western way of life.” Ka-ching!

Intriguingly, Kourosh points out in the compilation’s liner notes that he had problems of censorship in the 1970s as well — this time from an overbearing monarchy that wanted solid nationalist anthems. While the pop stars of the 1970s were put on hiatus, the Islamic Republic’s first decade saw the rise of a new generation of artists, best known for films and songs devoted to the new order. Most people never would have guessed that a bunch of clerics would so easily be comfortable with mass media. Except, of course, those who know what a megachurch is.

Kourosh’s music is filled with the existential and yearning romantic reflections common in Iranian modern poetry — hardly of a political nature — and was written mostly in his early and mid-20s. But Kourosh was more than a teen idol. He was, like the Colonel, a musical nationalist. A rock n’ roll intellectual. The lengthy liner notes explain that his life’s project was an attempt to fuse Persian music with Western rock and pop. You see, he says, he wanted to “co-ordinate Persian quarter tones with the typical Western scale and modes.” Unfortunately, after 1979, music associated with the West was banned, “similar to the way things were in the era after the [7th century] invasion of the Arabs … when Iran was the musical center of the world.” Kourosh continues, “this mentality remained for over 1,000 years, and is the main reason music took a step back in Iran.”

Vaziri incarnate. Some may find it odd that a Third World rock and roll maverick produces some of the purest nationalism ever put on paper, but the other way to interpret it is the rather gullible path of prattling on about the “Western way of life.” I thought rock music was supposed to be rebelling against all that.

Or to put it another way, Kourosh engaged in what the revolutionary intellectual Amilcar Cabral called the “return to the source.” Liberation from self-perceived backwardness in the Third World required inventing new traditions in the guise of ancient and forgotten wisdom, not simple emulation of the West, because, Cabral wrote, “national liberation is necessarily an act of culture.” (Consider Kourosh’s “Havaar Havaar,” a folk song progged up and sung in Bandari style from southern Iran.) It is ironic that much of the music from the 1970s Third World being currently reissued by a growing number of labels was “Cabralian” in nature, if I can coin a term, but it is marketed to us as something that is somehow more “authentic.” If we recognize such artists’ creativity as a product of their own personalities and surroundings, and not as some automatic function of a timeless culture, however, we do their work (and their hardships) more justice.

For the case of Iran, this is doubly ironic, since the music is sold to us as the incarnate opposite of the Islamic Republic, when in reality, there’s little traditional about the contemporary Iranian government at all. It is a product of the 20th century and its revolutions, not the 7th. When it comes down to it, rock music was far more global in reach than the various strands of political Islam, although both reached their apogee in the 1970s. (Ayatollah Khomeini is still famous in some circles, but The Eagles won the sectarian war.) Yet, both rock and political Islam, while claiming to be trans-national and universally relevant, ended up being folded into the still most powerful ideology of our day: nationalism.

By Kevan Harris

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