On the one hand, Iranian exiles have created via their media and culture a symbolic and fetishized private hermetically sealed electronic communitas infused with home, past, memory, loss, nostalgia, longing for return, and the communal self; on the other hand, they have tried to get on with the process of living by incorporating themselves into the dominant culture of consumer capitalism by means of developing a new sense of the self and what can be called an “exilic economy.” —Hamid Naficy
If you look, Iranians like to brag, you can find members of the diaspora anywhere in the world. I once was standing at a tram station in Gothenberg, Sweden, when I overheard Persian being spoken between a mother and child. It seems this frosty mid-sized fishing hub was the destination of tens of thousands of political refugees — mostly from left-leaning anti-Shah organizations — that ended up on the wrong side of the 1979 revolution. In Dubai and other cities on the opposite side of the Persian Gulf, flows of Iranian migrants are more reciprocal. There one can meet Iranians who not only survive but also thrive on economic and cultural links to the homeland. The highest prices for Tehran’s contemporary artworks are found foremost in Dubai, and only after that in Paris, Vienna, and London. The dusty whiskey I consumed in Tehran was likely smuggled in from a U.A.E. duty-free shop.
Nevertheless, I also met a self-appointed Iranian diva in Dubai who reminded me very much of the ideal of the diasporic exile. After listening to her talk about her bohemian lifestyle for several hours while she incessantly surfed Facebook, I asked her — since she was literally a half-hour away from Iran by plane — how often she went back. “Oh, I don’t go back. I haven’t been back for 30 years. And I won’t go back until the country that I left comes back.”
Meanwhile, the country moved on. Several years ago, the Iranian rap group ZedBazi penned the satirical hit “Irooni LA” (“LA Iranian”), which lambasted the rituals of “Tehrangeles” and turned on its head the once-celebrated closeness of the LA-based Iranian diaspora to American hyper-culture. After more puns than a Cliff’s Notes Oscar Wilde, the song ends by riffing in English, “Tehrangeles — are you jealous that you can’t come to Tehran?” ZedBazi is not allowed to officially release an album in Iran, and they mostly shuffle around European capitals, but they are putting out an online album this year with a guest appearance by Iran’s most famous rapper, Hichkas (“Nobody”). You may have seen him in No One Knows About Persian Cats, a film which portrayed a hellish hipster dystopia where Iranian rockers slink around Tehran trying to escape to the West. No one seemed to notice the most ironic aspect of the film: while sketching a society with no artistic outlets, it wears its coolness on its sleeve by featuring a host of underground artists that had risen to fame and notoriety in that very same place.
It is then a bit tiresome when each new Persian pop compilation — emerging from the perpetual motion machine that is the great reissue bubble of the early 21st century — begins with some variant of “There used to be a country called Iran, and it loved us.” Lurking behind this phrase, one so common to the pundit class, is the opposite: “But now, they want to kill us.” Journalists who travel to Iran almost always report a story that confirms one of these two well-burnished premises. If they actually tried to capture anything more complex, well, that’s what editors are for. Estrangement breeds weird vibes, Freud said, and when repressed memories resurface they can cause the sufferer to project a strangeness onto the outside world which, in reality, belongs to the self.
One may be tempted to read too much into the name of the label which released the two-disc Rangarang compilation of Persian hits from the 1960s and ’70s: Vampisoul. The notes are filled with paisley- and turtleneck-clad Iranians, many of whom appeared on the TV variety show which bore the name of this compilation. Songs are presented without original release dates, as if this was a single mass of music which is only defined in relation to a revolution that hadn’t even happened yet. The only date that matters is year zero: 1979.
This heaviness notwithstanding, Rangarang is likely the best Persian pop compilation from this period of all the recent offerings. Though there’s little explanation, it seems the music was culled from singles released by Ahang-e Rooz, one of Iran’s biggest labels at the time. Two superb Googoosh tracks not on the earlier B-Music compilation are here, and we also get an assortment of Beti, Pooran, and Leila Forouhar — pouty household names of early-1970s Iran. The first few lines of each song are translated in the notes, so listeners can get an appreciation of how Iran’s pop entertainment maintained the melancholia of their country’s modern literature even while a bossa nova, bubblegum, or Rimsky-Korsakov-styled orchestra swirled beneath the singers. A riff from the pages of Lee Hazelwood sits behind Habib Mohebian’s “Bi To Man” (“Me Without You”), and Giti’s powerful version of Iraj’s “Tarsam az Eshgh” (“Afraid of Love”) stands out with its refined, chic balladry. Soul-sucking vampire squid label or not, the compiler Eva Garcia Benito has an ear, to be sure.
When compilations used to give little or no notes to their big Third World aural excursions, labels were criticized for presenting the music devoid of history and politics. But when one does write-in history, whose history do you use? Rangarang looks like an authentic product of a time that is now gone, but it’s really more a mythic creation of the Iranian diaspora. As with most diasporas borne of revolution — Cuban, Russian, French — history tends to stop while the nostalgic conjuring of a golden age plagues the exiled generation.
We could read this compilation against the tragic grain of its vampiric intentions. As the inclusion of the Afghan pop star Ahmad Zahir on Rangarang shows, the cultural influence of “Greater Persia” stretched farther than the borders of 20th-century Iran. Persian was the lingua franca of much of Central Asia, including the Mughal court in India. Politics mattered less than the deeper tranches of musical and poetic exchange that crisscrossed the region. This foundation was something that a revolutionary interregnum could only temporarily paper over. 1979 was not year zero for an entire culture, although it altered the biographies of millions of Iranians, myself included. Most of these musicians ended up in LA or Europe, and the brutal 1992 murder of Fereydoon Farrokhzad in Germany, whose song starts off the comp, testifies to the harrowing experience of the oppositional exile.
But there was no Persian golden age. One could craft a compilation of recent underground post-revolutionary pop songs to go along with the pre-revolutionary ones, and it would be hard to tell the difference except for the brand of synthesizers involved. Yet such a release could easily be marketed as a secret and exclusive window onto the “real” Iranian culture that naturally loves us and, therefore, expresses itself in pop music form. Limited to 1000 vinyl copies. Mastered from the MP3 originals! In the tormented world of the Islamic Republic, rock is resistance and their guitars kill Islamo-fascists…
It may be facile, but it sells. If our drone-piloted bombs ever rain down on Tehran, we could clutch these gatefold LPs tearily as we assure ourselves that we’re bringing the golden age back to the Persian plateau. Alternatively, one could adopt the stance of ZedBazi, and approach music from other parts of the world by letting go the assumption that it always, inevitably and self-affirmingly, revolves around us.
Postscript: In mid-January, I caught supergroup Mitra Sumara in the East Village, performing an impressive hour-long set of Persian hits for an amazed audience. Lead singer Yvette Perez had recently learned Persian in order to sing Googoosh’s songs and other big band hits reissued on these many recent Iranian compilations. Instead of a hermetically sealed nostalgia sandwich, it was the type of cross-cultural celebration that vibrantly fused the music of the past with an urgency of the present. - Kevan Harris, dustedreviews.com
<3 u brah.