Makan Ashgvari, one of the leading figures of Iran’s experimental music scene, released his new album, To Trucks, in February (on Javan Records in Iran and self-released elsewhere), after a year of world-wide instability and months of unrest in Iran. The album is an hour-long snapshot of the country’s tensions of class, ethnicity, race, and power, all magnified in a climate of state oppression.
Behind all the news headlines, life in Iran is becoming increasingly difficult to grasp. To Trucks nearly achieves the impossible, evoking this subject while reflecting its complexity. The album is a carefully constructed constellation that gathers and equates ambient sounds, street songs, old melodies, playful improvisations, word plays, and electronic processing. It shifts from one of the country’s many native languages to another, one ethnic rhythm to the next, moving from one city to the other, and from one memory to another. Makan has presented a unique and sympathetic look inside Iran’s civil society and the politics of its everyday life. The album ultimately succeeds by placing emphasis on three elements: the refusal to conform to the traditional rules of high art; the understanding of native languages and folk music as symbolic of history and politics in Iran; and the careful study of the ambient sounds of a city as a mirror of social hierarchies. Electronic means provide Makan with tools to play.
In past years, Makan has become known for his unique voice, his interest in blues, and his magnetic presence on stage. But his artistic practice extends much further. He is one of the few who has remained committed to the values of Tehran’s post-internet art scene of early 2000s—experimentation, collaboration, and a sense of play. Also, since the backlash of the 2008 protests and the government’s increased control over Tehran, its universities, artists, and intellectuals, Makan has been one of the leadings artists who—rather than emigrating—responded by turning their attention to the country’s other cities, subcultures, communities, and all that fell beyond the state’s hegemony. Whether Makan is leading a workshop in one of the city’s new commercial galleries, acting in one the country’s experimental theater houses, singing for a small audience in a make-shift jazz club, improvising in a half-built shopping mall, or giving a lecture in a Parisian Café filled with intellectuals of the Iranian disapora, Makan carries his values close to heart. Music is but an excuse to listen, singing is merely an experiment, poetry is just a word game; audiences become collaborators, all movement becomes dance, history becomes memory, and language becomes politics. What is crucial to all his activities is the vulnerability of live performance. To Trucks is one of Makan’s few attempts to capture that in a recording. He builds up the album from lived experience. He listens as he moves between observations and memories. Ultimately he’s a collaborator with the ambient sounds, street singers, and old melodies of the country. Makan invites us to join him on this route with similar sensitivity and care.
The album follows two approaches. Every other track is titled after a city and electronic processing creates an aural environment to frame the carefully captured and curated field recordings from each location. The other tracks are electronic songs based on old traditional melodies. The former tracks begin in the north with the capital, Tehran, and gradually move geographically south, through the Arab cities of Makan’s heritage. In these, locality, native languages and ambient sound become material for his artistic, pseudo-documentary, and socio-political explorations.
The album begins with “Farahzad,” named after a middle-class neighborhood in the north-west of the capital, Tehran. The track begins with dialogue in Farsi. It’s a scene that depicts the power dynamics in a sort of audition. The conversation is followed by a man bursting into singing in Turkish, a language native to the country’s Turk regions in the north-west. In Tehran, the Turks are the city’s predominant minority group. Farsi remains the language of the state and its rule. The vocalist is as amateur as he is passionate. Exploring the geographic misplacement of a language is one of Makan’s recurring approaches to expose the political power dynamics of everyday life.
In a similar manner, “Esfahan” focuses on a street vendor singing an old pop tune. His voice has the ring that marks the many opium addicts of the country’s working class. This man is also an amateur. He repeatedly interrupts himself to demonstrate his showmanship. For centuries, this historic city has been famous for its nightly street singers. Here, in the former capital the native language, Isfahani, is carried as a badge of honor. But the entertainer performs for tourists, and hence is left with the nation-state’s official language, Farsi. The track ends as the singer is interrupted by the authorities; “Haj Agha, it’s enough. Sir, enough, keep moving.” He stops, and we are left with the sounds of rambling tourists.
In the alternate half dedicated to historical memory, Makan takes more liberty as a musician and takes pleasure in his vocal technique. Here he creates pseudo-covers for celebrated pieces from the canon of Iran’s traditional music and poetry. But he has no interest in traditional rules of high art. Instead, with electronic music, he creates urgent—and often anxious—compositions that inspire dance. In Makan’s work, electronic music merges into the Afro-Iranian rhythms that are common to his native Arab communities.
Makan plays a stubborn game with lyrics. The meanings of old poems are carefully altered through interruptions, misplaced emphasis, exaggerated repetitions, and mimicry. In one of the strongest pieces on the album, “I Dance,” Makan disguises his lyrics as mystical poetry, where the line between queer and spiritual love is often unclear.
While the instrumental melody and electronic processing slowly build for his iconic high vocals, the text repeats the common theme of Iranian lyrics—a love song dedicated to a cruel beloved. But here ambiguity is taken one step further. It is a story of submission, where the dominant figure fluctuates between god, lover, or state. The three become one. The lyric is narrated through the gaze of the lover. The rejections and brutalities of the beloved are listed and in all instances the lover responds, “I dance.”
Dancing is a symbol of resignation, or, having been deemed illegal for so long by the state, it becomes an act of defiance. Here it is both. “True, a droplet of water / fallen on a thorn / can’t be expected to last for long. / I am, / that droplet of water / that while fallen on the thorn / will, dance.” It is perhaps a love song of an oppressed nation in unhinged times.
So much of Makan’s thoughts and practice culminate in one of the last tracks of the album, “Ahvaz.” It is named after one the southern cities of Iran at the heart of the country’s racial tensions, where the Arab and Afro-Iranian population is large while the Farsi speakers rule. The track is formed around a commonplace and playful improvisation by two boys singing in Arabic. They clap their rhythm, and Makan builds a monumental aural pedestal around them with his electronic sounds. It is almost impossible to keep one’s body still while listening—one becomes implicated in the children’s game. He repeats four of their lines, the boys sing: “It took so long / till we got the taste of clean water / Still, your water is muddy / damn you, Khafajah.” Khafajah is a poor rural town near Ahvaz. Centuries of exploiting the oil reserves of this impoverished region has left it with severe air pollution, a thick layer of dust that interrupts every aspect of life. The electronics gradually fade and leave one with the original recording. The boys sing, stumble their words, laugh, slowly move into normal conversation, then leave. It is a beautiful, fleeting moment of life that one can imagine in any of Iran’s southern rural towns.
One will not recognize all of Makan’s politics unless they are fluent in all the album’s many languages and familiar with all the country’s nuances. One listens at a relative distance from the album. Yet, To Trucks is more than a coded message to be solved. One is simply asked to listen and at points be inspired to dance. Then, one may perhaps witness all that falls outside the news, the state, and the expected definitions of Iran.