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V/A - Zendooni: Funk, Psychedelia and Pop from the Iranian Pre-Revolution Generation

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Artist: V/A

Album: Zendooni: Funk, Psychedelia and Pop from the Iranian Pre-Revolution Generation

Label: Pharaway Sounds

Review date: Jan. 9, 2013

In the final decades of the Ottoman Empire’s existence, intellectuals across Western Asia and Northern Africa pondered the reasons for the relative decline in political power and wealth of their lands vis-à-vis European countries. Some of them blamed the presence of Islam; others blamed the degeneration of Islam. Arab intellectuals blamed “Turkish despotism” under centuries of Ottoman rule for the weakening of the religious community that Arabs had originally innovated and spread across the world. Persians blamed Arabs for bringing Islam into their lands in the first place, which is why I occasionally hear older Iranians in the diaspora curse the current leaders of the Iranian government as “uncultured Arabs.” Turkish elites, not to be outdone, blamed Arabs for saddling the “ancient” Turkish nation with religious dogma, and then blamed the Persians for letting the Arabs use medieval Iran as a detour into the Anatolian heartland.

These stories are largely bunk -- politically motivated inventions of tradition that resonated with elites unsecure in their worldviews during times of crisis. Yet as a result, most of the racial myths and cultural demarcations that one encounters when travelling around the Middle East can be traced from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Don’t believe me? Go there, say hello, and then ask who invented hummus.

One could tell a different story. After the fall of the Sassanid Empire in the 7th century, the spread of Islam was facilitated by landed elites from Khorasan in eastern Persia, many of whom eventually switched sides and became warriors for the Abbasid dynasty. Although one should not equate geography with ethnicity, it is not incorrect to point out that people in Iranian lands were instrumental to the success of Islamic rule.

Once the Abbasids were ensconced in power, they needed to justify their legitimacy as leaders in new territories. They collected myths which heralded the power and fairness of the pre-Islamic Sassanid empire, and then wrote themselves into the story as the rightful and deserving inheritors. As a result, most of what we know about pre-Islamic Iran comes from texts written in the 9th and 10th centuries, in both Arabic and Persian, by Muslims. These documents, which mythologized pre-Islamic Iran as a cohesive entity with a well-formed culture, religion, and statecraft became the basis for later conquerors to claim that they had descended from ancient Iranian kings. As the historian Neguin Yavari notes, “in a supremely ironic manner, the concept of Iran, a semi-ethnic/national/linguistic identity that persevered over millennia in the face of innumerable obstacles, extended periods of foreign rule, and seismic religious upheavals, was itself only fashioned in the Islamic era, for no historical narrative, however unreliable or primeval, has reached us from its long pre-Islamic past.” Or more crudely: first Iran saved Islam, and then Islam saved Iran.

Zendooni – that is, ‘prisoner’ – is not overtly full of screeds against Islam. Rather, it is one more conspicuously winking compilation of Persian-language pop, much of which was originally released on Ahang-e Rooz records in 1960s-70s Iran. The liner notes, written by Boston’s Weirdo Records owner Angela Sawyer, puts the music in global context more adeptly than earlier Persian pop compilations. Sawyer has long been swimming in the sea of Third World rock reissues, which helps her point out which strands of music influenced the Iranian pop milieu, from Bossa and French pop to Quincy Jones orchestration, Latin Jazz time-signatures, and flute-prog a la King Crimson’s mouthy first album.

The women crooners outnumber the men here, with most adopting the persona of the first-name-only pop star: Neli, Pooneh, Azita, Fereshteh, Nooshafarin. Obligatory mentions of miniskirts, bubble baths, and stiletto heels are trotted out accordingly. One could interpret this as a cheap use of sexy teen flesh to arouse the testy reissue market into buying one more “Eastern” music compilation, but that would be naïve. We use sexy teen flesh to peddle everything -- especially anything related to the nostalgia-oozing 1960s, arguably the decade easiest to sell to our hip, soulless age, and therefore the most commodified.

Restored from recordings on 45s and cassettes, Zendooni is a nice addition to the burgeoning Persian pop pile sitting on my shelf. Cover art drenched with eyeliner aside, it is not all bunga bunga music. Left out of the liner notes is the manner in which the compilation’s Moody Blues-styled singles, the ones with fantasy lyrics trying to sound direly serious, such as Hassan Shamalzadeh’s “Safar” (Journey), were clearly political in nature – a critique of the authoritarian socio-political limitations imposed by the Pahlavi monarchy. Ahem, this is where the tour stops for a moment, the band quiets down, and the host tells the audience, sotto voce, that this album is titled “Prisoner.”

This is an irony best omitted from the press materials, since a compilation with the term “pre-revolution” in the subtitle is supposed to signify an age of free-wheeling, lipstick blotting, cigarette holder-type sophistication only possible in the ancien regime. That such intellectual intermingling still occurs in Iran today, also under a new set of political limitations, and therefore with new inane ditties as well as serious-sounding odes, suggests that the obsession with the 1979 revolution as “year zero” among music nerds stems from some combination of fetish and trauma. Fine, go ahead and freak out, but don’t lay your frothy hang-ups on music that was recorded beforehand.

There is already a sequel, Khana Khana, and the label heads seem to have found their calling – new albums of Turkish and Afghan psychedelia are also on the roster. The above notwithstanding, the label’s output seems far more honest than some of their predecessors out to make a buck on the reissue bubble, rip off the vinyl heads, and then pull the parachute cackling into the next craze.

So, prisoner it is, but of what? Music is like architecture – created in a particular time and place, in a particular historical context, but we are all free to walk through it and get what we want from the experience. It is why people in places like Iran took music from Detroit, Paris, and Manchester and decided that this is the music they wanted to make and hear in their own cities, in their own time. Yet this universality is always underpinned by myth, a form notoriously devoid of complexity and contradiction. We can pretend the past does not exist - an old American pastime itself. Or we can pretend the past is hermetically sealed and deliverable in an authentic package for easy mint condition consumption, but this tells us more about the present than it does the past.

These approaches, self-centered by design, are a bit tiring. Banality leads to success in political careers, but it should be avoided in music compilations. It should be clear by now, after hundreds of Third World rock albums have been pressed onto the thick vinyl once reserved for 1990s indie stars, that consumers of music in the US are worldly enough to appreciate records which challenge the formulaic conceptions of history. A bit of humility combined with this curiosity will do wonders for the next round of music stumbled upon.

By Kevan Harris

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