Interview by Kyle Avallone.
How did you start playing music?
I learned on a Santur, an eastern instrument, that my father bought for me as a present when I was 10. But if my father knew that the big powers would never leave our country alone for its oil and gas, he would have bought me a gun instead of a musical instrument!
When I myself could decide, I chose the guitar. It was my favorite and kind of related to a Persian instrument. In the early days, there were only one or two shops selling electric guitars. However, I accidentally saw one on my way to high school—I didn’t have money to buy it and I was worried that someone else would, so every day I used to check if it was still there. After some time I saved enough money and bought a used one.
I learned how to play—and I should mention that at this point I didn’t have any mentors or teachers for learning the santur, guitar, drums, etc. My mother used to tell me that when I was given the santur I opened the box and started playing a song, even though I had never seen one before.
What was the music scene in Iran like in the early 70’s?
During those years, being a musician was a weakness and not an advantage. It’s very important for a society to have the knowledge and awareness regarding art for the improvement and success of an artist. The beginning of the Second World War was motivation for importing the influence of Western culture but since there was no step by step progress and awareness in this area, the teaching and training of modern music was not systematic and academic.
The traditional, unstable and undeveloped culture of our country, which was the result of Arab invasion, was suddenly bombarded with the new western culture like music and dances like pop, rock, waltz, tango, and rumba through the radio American vinyl, and films. This came at people who were previously banned from listening to music because of religious reasons and the people who did not have any idea of their own music, which was considered as taboo. The result was an inexpert combination of western culture with the traditional—it ended in social insanity for which we are still paying the price.
What other challenges did you face trying to make a career in music?
The other shortcomings were lack of studios and equipment. There was one studio in Tehran with an old system run by unprofessional operators who did not even have knowledge and familiarity with the Iranian music. We didn’t have a place to practice and would do it in the same studio where we were supposed to record a few hours before recording. I myself had to take the musical instruments, rented of course, to the studio, because the players did not have them. We had to do the recording without any fault because if we did, we had to repeat the recording from scratch. My professional career began with “Gole Yakh” which was sold at a high rate, but because I was a young student and in love with my work, I did not care that much, and the company manager took all the money for himself!
I was banned from working even at that time, and because of lack of copy rights and no support by the government, I did not earn enough and the money which I received from companies was used to produce new songs. After the revolution, banning of music added to the already existing problems including people’s ignorance. I think if you asked, “what were the positive points during your career life?”, my answer would be, “nothing.”
While I have been banned for 28 years by the ministry of guidance—the radio and television have released my songs without my permission. We have heard about countries that don’t have enough cultural background, stealing or importing other countries music and culture, but we’ve never heard about a country that would hide or ban its own cultural properties. The other contradiction is that music is banned by the religious rules and may even be considered a crime but in TV, radio, and some concerts they play music with no problem! How can one ban a music with no knowledge of what music is?
If someone wants to judge music without even listening to it once, it’s like a blind person looking at a painting and judging it. Nothing in this world remains fixed and stable, everything changes according to time. A Greek philosopher also believed in the changing world and considered fire as the base of the world. It is like no one could swim in the same river twice, because the second time both the river and the swimmer will change.
How did the 1979 Revolution change the way you were making music? Did it change your status as a popular star?
It is believed that the revolutions happen in the world because of poverty, hunger, and especially the uprising of the labor force. But Iran is a very rich country and the labor force was the last group of people who joined the revolution. One of the reasons for the downfall of Shah was that Europe and America were criticizing Iran for not observing human rights, but after the fall of the Shah those same countries haven’t said anything regarding the same problem.
Have any of these countries during all these years, ever raised (their) voice against the torture, depression, death, and financial deprivation of the banned musicians in Iran? Their goal is to remove me from the scene because they think I am a “symbol of the west,” by banning me from everything, except breathing and making me kneel down in front of them. But even with this they could not win, because after 20 years of banning western music or playing guitar, it was me who revived playing guitar and western music with the Seebe Noghreie album which was released in Iran. Even now after 40 years I am insisting on my beliefs with honor, but of course during all these years, I lost some points both financially and personally, but instead gained cultural respect and dignity both inside and outside the country.
Have you visited Europe or the U.S.? Was there ever a point in your career where there was possibility of promoting yourself beyond Iran?
Once I travelled to Sweden to perform a concert, but came back disappointed and will not go again. Iranian concerts are more like birthday party or wedding party than a real concert. People come there more for spending time with friends or dance…. Of course that type of music deserve this type of audience.
Can you tell me about the recording of your latest release, Malek Jamshid?
The lyrics of the title track are by the famous Iranian poet, Nozar Parang. It is the story of a king falling in love with a fairy, and the insanity of the king at the end. I made the song based on the meaning of the poem and the sequence of the story and the changes in the locations. The recording of this song lasted for a year—the file of this song was more than 140 tracks which was reduced into 80 tracks for the final recording. I had to do all this in my room, with no acoustics and facilities like professional mic, amplifier, sound engineer, just with an ordinary computer. Since our apartment was close to a highway, I had to do the recording at 3 or 4 in the morning. When recording my own voice I used to push the record button and run quickly to the mic to sing—it seemed funny for me but the result was good. Anyway, they kept my album for 12 years in the ministry of guidance and did not give me permission to release it. So I decided to ask my friend Euthen Alapath in the States to release it. In an unequal battle, resistance is better than giving up.
Who were your contemporaries before the revolution?
Since before revolution, the Iranian art and especially the modern western music has been stuffed with illiterate singers, who had no idea what music is, and the ignorant people and brokers who entered this area with the support of uninformed common people—the same people who left their country with the motto, “I will sing for the people who give me money.”
We are still paying the price for the destruction made by these ignorant “singers” and their audience. They could not even produce a music which could be released in the world based on standards. I believe that anyone could improve his or her work and present it to the world with the scientific and technological advances in the area of social media, art, and music, and if he or she deserves can claim his or her rights. But in today’s system of art in Iran, you can say that when the powerful horses are not allowed to enter the race, any donkey can win!
Are you currently working on new music or performing live?
With the present cultural and social situation and the ban for 28 years since the beginning of the revolution, I have been working on my new work. Of course again in my room with the same old story, because all my group members including my brothers are not with me anymore. All of them like all other respectable musicians have become depressed, and are either in bed or dead!
In this land which is considered as an outcast in the world, you can’t even live half a life, let alone have a live concert! I have been invited by the famous world festivals in the United States and Europe to perform, but I am not eager if I can’t perform in my own country.
How do you keep yourself busy when you are not making music?
Something that others don’t do or don’t think about it. Contemplation and searching for solutions for the cultural underdeveloped situation of my country and the way out. Dave Jansen, the Greek philosopher, used to go around the city with a lamp. When the people asked him what he was searching for in the daylight with a lamp, he answered, looking for humans. He suffered when he saw people did not feel or see or know anything except their routines.
What is your source of endless inspiration?
I don’t know, perhaps it can be called being a “ghost.” Whatever it is—it always comes suddenly and unannounced and leaves in the same way. It is better to catch it when it comes and make use of this opportunity.