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Persian pop stars: Listening for more music

CNN WorldBeat's Serena Yang looks at the world of Persian music
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Web posted on:
Wednesday, May 19, 1999 6:29:13 PM EST

LOS ANGELES (CNN) -- The curtain may have been raised on a musical revolution in Iran. In February, the Tehran government permitted a pop concert to be held -- the first in 20 years -- as part of the country's observance of the Islamic Revolution's anniversary. Many Iranians were able to enjoy for the first time in public what they'd listened to behind closed doors for decades.

Prior to the concert, traditional music had been the only form sanctioned for public performance in Iran. That rule prompted many musicians to leave, including Kayhan Kalhor, a virtuoso on the Persian spike fiddle. He's recording his latest album, not in the Iranian capital, but in New York.

"Well-known musicians who left Iran at the time couldn't actually train young people any more, and they had to leave," Kalhor says. "The other very wonderful aspect of this was that Persian music ... was introduced to other societies and cultures. So that's actually the reason I'm sitting here now."

The roots of Persian pop can be traced back 50 years to Viguen, the first musician to give a public performance in the region with the Western guitar.

"My style was completely new, and the young people were really fed up with the old music. They just needed to have something new," Viguen says.

The original members of the ensemble Black Cats also are considered pioneers of Persian pop. They introduced drums and bass guitar to the area's music. The group was banned under Islamic rule and moved to the United States to continue its work.

One member of the Black Cats says his passion for music forced him to go abroad. "It was my life, and I had to carry it on somewhere else. So long as it's Persian music and so long as it remains, I had to cling to it somehow. That's why I had to leave the country to follow it up here."

The latest incarnation of the group is based in Los Angeles and embraces hip-hop. Despite the ban on such music in Iran, bootlegged tapes and CDs are widely heard there.

"In every single house, they are playing it, they are dancing with it. You'll be surprised," says a Black Cat musician. "People back home, with all these doors closed to music, they (nevertheless) know Michael Jackson; they know who every artist is anywhere in the world."

The band members say people even leave messages from Iran on their answering machines in the United States. Clearly, they have a following in the homeland.

The Iranian Elvis

Sandy is another Los Angeles-based band, the music of which is secretly collected in Iran in defiance of official rules.

And then there's Andy, the artist whose music, videos, stage show and feature appearances in People magazine have led to him be dubbed the Iranian Elvis.

"Obviously the Iranian regime does not appreciate this form of music because it's too happy," Andy declares. "We call it sensual, they call it sexual, because we promote love and affection and hugs and kisses and maybe short skirts, girls dancing. All of these are illegal and banned in Iran. And so is my music."

Andy cites a report in a Persian newspaper that says every album produced in Los Angeles sells 6 or 7 million copies in Iran. "When they say 'sells,' they mean underground, bootlegged, illegally because they can't sell it in the stores," he clarifies.

The music of the Washington-based duo Shahin and Sepehr is looked on more favorably by Iranian authorities.

"It's being broadcast on TV right before the news, and also in a given cab ride uptown you'll hear it on the radio a bunch of times as it segues into different pieces on the equivalent of the ... public radio station over there," Shahin says.

So why does their music get play?

"It's music that's not frowned upon because it's not real high tempo," Shahin says. "It's not something that's rock 'n' roll all the way."

Having grown up in Iran and spent the last 15 to 20 years in the United States, these musicians say their music reflects a blend of both cultures. "We will play, for example, Western rhythms but with Eastern melodies," Sepehr says.

Female idols

The female face of Persian pop in the days before Islamic rule was Googoosh, a genuine superstar there with the status of a Madonna or Janet Jackson. She hasn't performed in public since the revolution.

But Googoosh still is revered by Persian pop artists who moved to the West to continue their musical careers. Like Googoosh, Leila was a child star who recorded some 70 songs in Iran before moving to the United States to preserve her musical independence.

"Oh, Googoosh -- all the people loves Googoosh in Iran," Leila says. "You know, because she was very talented, and she was a very good actress, and she's a star. Everybody loves her. Me, too!"

Billed as the first all-female Persian pop group, Silhouett covers Googoosh songs, blending musical influences from East and West.

"We try to bring the Persian music, as far as the old traditional music, and modernize it a little bit so we can connect with the new generation," one band member says. "I don't want our culture, our past to be lost .... I'm a proud Persian woman. I speak my language. I play my songs. I want to bring it into the international market."

True to heritage

Viguen encourages Persian pop stars to stick with their roots. "You can't be American. You have to stay Iranian. If you want to give a little taste of American music, fine. But if you imitate, that's only an imitation. It can't be you."

Younger Iranians welcomed their chance to see an officially sanctioned pop concert in February.

"It was great. I'm sure it won't be the last," raved one concertgoer.

Shahin and Sepehr have been invited to perform in Iran later this year, in a rare concert headlined by a Western band.

"The president of Iran," Mohamad Khatami, "has said that he wants a dialogue between civilizations" to open communication between the people of Iran and the United States, Sepehr says. "And what is a better medium to have a dialogue in than music without lyrics? The listeners can decide for themselves what the message of the music is."

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