On the occasion of the musician/composer’s forthcoming live performance with his ensemble at N.Y.U.’s Skirball Center in Manhattan on February 10, 2013, Mohsen Namjoo paid a visit to the Rail’s advisory board member Shoja Azari’s SoHo loft to talk about his passion for traditional and modern music, informed by his social/political upbringing in Iran, which ultimately led to the synthesis of his music, and more.
Shoja Azari (Rail): I left Iran in 1983. You must have been very young at the height of Iran-Iraq war, when the revolutionary fervor and major crack down and repression was at fever pitch (which was the reason for my departure). At that time, almost all music was banned and all you heard on radio and television was revolutionary marches and religious songs; only once in a while would you perhaps hear a classic song from Saharan. From what I have read you started your training in classical Iranian music from an early age. Can you talk a bit about your memory of those days and your earliest contact with music and poetry?
Mohsen Namjoo: I was seven at that time. I remember accompanying my parents to visit my older brother, who was in jail for having written critical comments about the government’s oppression. It was an overcast day and a bunch of frogs were jumping around at the gates of the prison, and I never forget the fear and anxiety on my mother’s face. Right then, we heard the news of the execution of the brother of my sister’s husband. What was amazing was despite this tragic sense, which is how one talks about the memories of these events in those days, the fact was that living in it seemed quite normal. You sort of got used to it. But as far as music was concerned, as you just mentioned, most of the music that was played was military marches or revolutionary music. Western classical and modern classical music were also popular, well, as long as there were no spoken words, only instrumentation. This was the official programming, but I assume what was going on in people’s homes was something totally different. In our house, for example, we all were listening to all sorts of music. My brothers loved traditional and classical Iranian music, including Shajarian and Nazeri, as well as young composers such as Meshkatian and Alizadeh. My sister was listening to Iranian pop coming mainly from Los Angeles, and then there were revolutionary and folk music that were popular among those who were on the left, such as the revolutionary Latin American singers, such as Victor Jara, or the Kurdish folk songs, etc.
Rail: And you started to sing seriously at that time?
Namjoo: Yes, I did. In fact, I was encouraged to sing a lot of classical Iranian songs as part of our family celebration.
Rail: And you were already singing the complex songs popularized by Iran’s greatest living master of traditional music, Mohammad-Reza Shajarian.
Namjoo: [Laughter.] Well, kind of Shajarian, I would say. Not really so technical, but I was encouraged in school to sing for the anniversary of the revolution.
Rail: When was it then that you realized that music was your passion?
Namjoo: It was the New Year of 1988, when Tehran was under bombardment. My whole family and relatives, 40 of us, moved and lived temporarily in the Northern city of Mashhad, where I grew up. For nearly two weeks we were living under one roof. This gathering sort of turned into a music festival. I was singing there with others for the first time, and by the end of that gathering my parents were convinced that they should put me in music school. But it was not until the first year of high school that I realized that I liked playing and singing all the time and I started to do badly in other areas.
Rail: Having listened to your music and lyrics I think what is most impressive is the expansiveness and breadth of your vocabulary. While one can recognize the solid classical and modern Iranian foundation both in music and poetry, there are so many other strands and flavors that are layered in your work, from jazz to blues, from rock ‘n’ roll to Latin American melodies, Iranian pop, folksongs, and from religious, nationalistic songs to streets and alley music, and so on. One is always aware of your knowledge of those references, yet, because your songs are not or never derivative it’s difficult to think of them as “fusion.” How can that be?
Namjoo: Actually, my interest in literature came before music. We have a big library in my home so all of us read a great deal of poetry and literature. We also argued feverishly and constantly about every existing trend and ideology, from Marxist to the nationalist, religious kind, which totally divided our home. But I must admit that my interest in classical literature and music was very strong. In high school when my friends were listening to pop music, I was looking down at them for their inferior taste. But slowly the layers of prejudice started to lift over time. In fact, the first crack came with reading a certain type of poetry that invoked my interest in tackling the problem of language in poetry. I remember thinking one can keep the music pure and be faithful to the Eastern tradition (Iranian classical music is almost always an accompaniment to classical poetry, such as Hafez and Rumi—in this sense, music is there to serve the greater poetry and its message and meaning) but can also infuse elements of modern poetry and modern instrumentation such as a guitar. At this point, I had no real exposure to blues, rock, or any other genres of music, but eventually I developed my own music theory. The idea was to incorporate everything as long as the fundamental sound and approach remained faithful to the traditional music. If, for instance, you were to use the drums, the instrument should be altered to sound like Eastern percussion, something similar to what they call in this country world music or alternative music. And the real emphasis for me has always been my deep appreciation of what was happening in language, literature and poetry, not so much in music at the time.
Rail: And you studied theater, first at Art University of Tehran, then music at University of Tehran.
Namjoo: Yes, where I often referred to it as the theocratic state in mini-scale. I was thrown out of the classroom for simply desiring to incorporate other instruments, such as the guitar or piano. Their position was that there is no such thing as songwriting or being creative in making new music. All scales, patterns, and arrangements were already created. Your job was to master them, and if you wished you could perhaps improvise within those boundaries. I would argue that I already knew these patterns and scales and that I had been learning them since childhood. But these would fall on deaf ears. So after a while I quit. It was then that things started to happen. For a while I ventured into theater school, which proved to be an eye-opener in that I felt it was much more concrete and closer to life than what was being taught at the music school. There was a sense of multiple points of view and democracy in theater that did not exist in music, or at least in the academy. This was a major shift in my perspective that later, of course, influenced my music.
But an even more profound influence was my decision to enlist in the army. In the army I made peace with popular music and what is known as streets and alley music. There I also came across a book, Rabelais and His World by Mikhail Bakhtin, in which Bakhtin argued that the essence of Western culture can be found in the practice of Carnival. He thought that the roots of Carnival could be traced back to the Dionysian mass rites of pleasure and joy, which made me realize that we do not have anything like this in Iranian culture.
Rail: So Bakhtin made you appreciate the necessity of pop music as a form of Dionysian mass celebration, if you will?
Namjoo: I guess my realization was that when you come across a pop artist such as Michael Jackson, or in Iran, Dariush Eghbali or Shohreh Solati, you couldn’t easily dismiss them. They have such an impact on millions of people. Yes, pop may not be qualified as an intellectual endeavor, but one cannot and should not disregard the mere quantitative power of it.
Rail: Yes, but I am sure as you become more familiar with your new home here in the U.S. and the American culture, you will come to see the destructive aspects of this celebrity culture and how it is in fact one of most alienating forces in modern culture.
Namjoo: Of course, I am also aware of the criticism of the popular culture and how it is tied to the commercialization of art and culture even before I came to the U.S. in October 2009. I was merely explaining my journey as a musician and how gradually pop music and other genres began to influence my work.
For example, it was in Mashhad that I met this guy, Abbdi, who was obsessed with blues music. He had the largest collection of records I have ever seen. He listened to and played the blues all his life, and nothing else. We became friends and I spent a lot of time at his place. We amplified my Setar. I played many blues songs with Abbdi while playing at the same time the folk music of Khorasan with his electric guitar. So, there were spontaneous and unconscious exchanges between two genres of music from two sides of the globe. Furthermore, we discovered and realized that these supposedly diametrically opposite cultures, separated by thousands of miles, were very similar in their artistic and musical expression. The similarity, I think, arises from commonality of life experiences. The life experience of a black slave cotton picker in the south of America isn’t that different from the one of a peasant in north of Iran, as oppose to the sharp contrast with, say, when you put the official music of these countries next to each other. This experience also altered my relationship to lyrics and poetry. I began to gain a greater appreciation of poetry of Hafez, Rumi, or T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, among others.
Rail: On the subject of method and the process of your work, although I dislike using the term “deconstruction,” I feel that your work aims at dismantling or at least tickling many structural constructs of Iranian musical tradition. But it seems more as being iconoclastic rather than deconstructive because one feels the sound is the result of an organic process rather than necessarily a conscious imposition of a concept.
Namjoo: It would be a bit self-applauding if I claim that everything emerges from this unconscious organic process. If I am to be honest, I think there is an initial conceptual framework, which then becomes forgotten once the work itself begins. In this sense, I am consciously arranging and bringing together certain opposing and conflicting elements that seem at odds with each other and unrelated at the beginning—these elements can be musical, lyrical, or both—but my intention certainly is not to deconstruct, but rather to look and access the emerging possibilities from such arrangements. Otherwise, I am not arriving at these possibilities from imposition of a theory, but from my musical instinct and my
Rail: Yet, but there is no doubt a conscious effort toward iconoclasm.
Namjoo: For sure. I have always been quite adamant about tickling those notions of sanctity and sanctifying. That is, I think, in a way paying respect to what is human.
Rail: Now the question is who is this human, an Iranian human, a third world human, or human in general. I remember reading an article about you a few years ago in the New York Times describing you as “Bob Dylan of Iran,” which was so inaccurate, not because I don’t like Bob Dylan, but because of this division of humanity, Western and the rest of the world, or at best the exotic others. “Bob Dylan of Iran” is such an artificial reduction. What this writer does not understand is by reducing the work to a mere reference, he is not only emptying the value of the work, but robbing the audiences of having an authentic encounter with the work itself, which is not, in my opinion, local, but rather universal. It’s a work that is informed on transnational and transcultural level, and therefore can be appreciated on that level.
Namjoo: I suppose that the lyrics that evoke the social/political critiques can be seen as more seductive than songs that were much closer to phonic experimentation with language itself that perhaps are more in line with Bob Dylan’s contemporaries such as Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. But in musical terms my attempt has been writing music of the overbearing influence of literature, while I feel Dylan’s legacy, conversely, is bringing music closer to literature. I don’t think everyone claims that Dylan is a great singer, or even a great performer, but everyone can agree that he is an amazing poet. But in terms of the idea of which or what human is I think we have inherited a paradigm that emerged with the advent of nationalism and colonialism, which is divisive in nature. I don’t think that there is much that we can do but to continue to create art and continue to challenge this paradigm through our work. That is the only place where borders may collapse. Art has always moved across these divisions and boundaries and found its place, because its subject is and will continue to be Human with capital H.
Shoja Azari is an Iranian filmmaker, film producer, and screenwriter living in New York