Iran is home to one of the world’s true music undergrounds, where musical creativity is flourishing as Persian tradition meets the Internet’s mp3 goldmine. Hip-hop or metal fans in Tehran could easily fill the city’s biggest soccer stadium, were their favorite groups to come to town. Dozens of bands get together and jam on a regular basis. Yet while musicians and music lovers are bursting with energy, it’s no easy feat to dedicate yourself to music in a country where a quarter of the year is off limits for concerts due to religious holidays, and concerts can be closed down at a moment’s notice if the program is judged offensive. It is next to impossible to make a living, even as a traditional musician.
These challenges have not stopped young musicians like guitarist Pouya Mahmoodi from forging a new path for Iranian music, weaving together the seemingly disparate threads of Persian classical tradition and rock, jazz, and blues. And while they may not get many chances to play at home, they are bringing their distinct sound to the world. Mahmoodi’s debut solo album Mehr (Faryaad; US release date February 19, 2008) showcases his virtuosic interweaving of musical worlds, drawing on elements that make Iran’s music unique. It also features the unmistakable work of Billy Cobham, co-founder of the Mahavishnu Orchestra and legendary jazz and rock drummer, on two tracks.
Born in Tehran in 1973, Mahmoodi was introduced to the acoustic guitar by his music-loving father at age 10. From his very first lessons, Mahmoodi began to dip into various global traditions, learning to play a Russian gypsy ballad or to vamp on a beloved boogie-woogie riff. It wasn’t long before the young Mahmoodi was raiding his father’s Western rock and pop records collected before the 1979 Iranian Revolution. Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple rocked the budding guitarist’s world. “I fell in love with the sound of electric guitar in their music and the energy they gave me made me dance,” Mahmoodi explains. He soon picked up the electric guitar himself.
This youthful interest in 1960s and 1970s rock combined with a passion for Persian music during a lonesome period in his early adolescence, when Mahmoodi lived in France. “My homesickness and loneliness made me look for my roots, and unconsciously, I started playing the Iranian themes I had heard on my guitar,” recalls Mahmoodi. However, he did more than simply transcribe traditional melodies for a new instrument: “The way I played the themes was not to play the exact same notes on a guitar, but to play an Iranian guitarist's interpretation of the themes on my instrument,” Mahmoodi notes.
This unconscious, improvised blend of East and West became what Mahmoodi calls his “accent” on the guitar. His unusual approach to his instrument may not have scored him the approval of the private teacher his father hired once Mahmoodi was back in Iran, but it led to his discovery of a whole new way to play guitar. “My relationship with the instrument was very special and thus my behavior a bit strange. I could spend hours playing with the instrument without actually playing anything special. I used to just try to create sounds. These playful acts used to keep me occupied in my youth,” Mahmoodi told an interviewer for the online Persian music magazine, Zir Zamin.
Later, however, Mahmoodi began to take a more serious approach to these playful beginnings and decided to delve deeper into Persian tradition, in particular melodies played on wind instruments. His music came to explore lesser-known facets of Iranian culture, too often ignored in the political controversy surrounding the country. As Mahmoodi explains, “Iranian music cannot be simplified into traditional music only and Iran's different corners have many different cultures that people need to get to know.”
Two songs on Mehr set out to introduce a broader audience to some of these unheard corners. They stem from zaar, a complex musical rite little known in the West, with roots in Ethiopia and Somalia. Zaar traveled from East Africa on trading ships across the Persian Gulf region and is still practiced today in southeastern Iran. Its foreign origins are revealed in part by the prominent role of women, usually excluded from ritual activities in other ceremonies in Iran. Its rituals of possession and exorcism drive out sea spirits and winds, each of which has its own song. Mahmoodi used some of these melodies as the basis for the songs "Dingomaro" and "Noban" on Mehr.
In addition to elaborating on traditional melodies, Mahmoodi’s songwriting also shows a deft rhythmic sense necessary for playing with the complex meters of Persian music. Songs on Mehr such as “Si Pareh” stretch traditional scales and beats, layering meters and playing them off of one another, so that a song’s 7/4 time signature, for example, morphs into a complex pattern of 14 beats, 5+5+4. Playful polyrhythm of this sort helps Mahmoodi fuse the diverse sonic resources available to young Iranians into a new, seamless sound.
Yet one of the most significant links to tradition, a connection that compels Iranian listeners of many generations, lies in the lyrics on Mehr. Mahmoodi draws on the treasury of Persian poetry that can move audiences with just a handful of words from a well-loved poet. Just imagine an American singer-songwriter who could stir fans with extensive references to Shakespeare, Pope, and Donne.
The songs on Mehr are often dedicated to love, but love in all its forms, from intimately romantic to profoundly spiritual. This follows the rich Persian tradition sparked by great poets like Rumi, and in fact the album includes some of Rumi’s poetry alongside the work of other lyricists. Love in all its guises is united for Mahmoodi: “The common essence I want all of my songs to have is a human message, the message you hear in most Iranian mystic poems—love.”
This timely message, communicated through music, has helped Mahmoodi connect not only to his audiences, but also to his Western collaborators, equally versatile musicians like Billy Cobham. After hearing about the young guitarist from a friend, Cobham, impressed with Mahmoodi’s music, happily agreed to sit in on two of the songs on Mehr, including “Si Pareh.”
Though they had barely spoken about the song, Mahmoodi was thrilled when he heard the drum track Cobham laid down. “When I heard his recording, I felt like he had expressed everything I wanted to express on this song. It wasn't like he had read a translation of the Rumi poem but like he had understood every word of it like an Iranian would,” Mahmoodi feels. “To me, this proves that music is a human feeling that knows no borders.”