Monday, June 27, 2011

Music Without Borders

Photo by Meelad
If I were to name an artist in any medium who most closely expresses my philosophy of life in his art, that person would be the Iranian singer/songwriter, Mohsen Namjoo. I’d give him the nickname: Artist Without Borders. Namjoo has spent his entire musical career breaking down the stylistic barriers that separate east and west, classical and modern, Iranian from the rest of the world. His is a music that belongs to every one of us, regardless of where we live, what language we speak, or what political or religious beliefs we hold.

It’s a pity the Iranian authorities can’t see the treasure they have in this brilliant artist, who now lives in exile. In 2009, an Iranian judge sentenced him to five years in prison for including verses from the Koran in one of his songs, stating that he’d “disrespected religious sanctities.” Namjoo made a public apology for any offense he might have caused to people of faith, but the sentence still stands.

Mohsen Namjoo grew up in Mashad, a city in northeastern Iran, and began studying music at the age of 12. He combines his training in Persian classical music and traditional folk styles with Western rock and blues, which became popular in Iran's underground music scene in the 1990s. His instrument of choice is the traditional setar, a Persian three-stringed lute, although he also plays the guitar. But he prefers to reassign roles by playing jazz riffs on the setar and Persian modalities on the guitar.

Namjoo’s debut album, Toranj, set the classical Persian poetry of Hafez and Rumi to the rhythms of American blues and jazz. The song, “Dah-e Shast,” on the other hand, pairs folk-rock with lyrics that deal with dark years of the 1980s when Iran was troubled by war, social and political oppression, and the struggle for the supremacy of religious ideology. Told from the point of view of a teenager, the song lists the events of that decade in a rather matter-of-fact way, leaving it up to the listener to read the real message between the lines: that those troubles of the past have never gone away.

In the 1990s, Namjoo’s blend of Persian sensibilities with Western musical styles got him kicked out of Tehran University. In 2010, this same multicultural blend earned him a fellowship at Stanford University. It’s little wonder that his first English-language single, released last year, is called “Strange Times.”

A 2007 article in the New York Times called Namjoo “the Bob Dylan of Iran,” presumably because of his political lyrics and the way he blends folk music with rock, blues, and jazz. But while Namjoo says he is flattered by the comparison, he also rejects it, stating that their musical preoccupations are entirely different. In any case, Namjoo doesn’t want his fans to go looking for political messages in his songs. For him, art always comes first.

By setting Persian poems written 800 years ago to blues music, a tradition that is little more than 100 years old, Namjoo doesn’t just mix and match musical styles and cultural traditions. He transcends time and place altogether to create an entirely new kind of music that is at home in both the east and the west.

See for yourself and check out these two videos then decide what Mohsen Namjoo’s music means to you.

1 comment:

  1. He reminds me of all of those Soviet rebels with guitars I spent my Russian youth with deep in the woods. I’m sure his poetry tells a lot, but one has to read between the lines… in Persian. Bards were never too good at conforming.
    Isn’t that interesting that setar and guitar rhyme?