Whenever New York shopkeeper Shedeh Tanner and her family hear of someone traveling to Iran, they conspire to smuggle two highly illegal substances to her sister, who sells them secretly from her own store--things so disdained by the Iranian government that anyone caught with them can be fined, jailed or publicly whipped.
Cassette and videotapes by a pop star named Andy.
Andy, a 39-year-old Armenian Iranian singer based in Glendale, is wildly popular in Iran, where he was born and which he left at 18. Even though his music is banned by Iran's Islamic government because of its "sexuality," he estimates he has sold 60 million pirated albums in the Middle East over a 14-year span.
Because it is impossible to document how many illegal recordings have been sold, there is no way to verify the claim. However, many Iranians here and abroad agree that he is that nation's most famous pop artist. There are 65 million people in Iran, and Andy, who is modest in demeanor and must be prodded by his publicist to talk about himself, finally confesses that most Iranian homes have at least one of his tapes or videos.
"You've heard of 'Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous'?" jokes Andy, who drives around in a beat-up black Jeep Wrangler. "I'm just famous."
But Andy could be on the verge, finally, of having both fame and riches.
In the era of Ricky Martin, Andy, a "world music" star whose heavy dance beats, Middle Eastern scales and gritty rock voice are popular from Uzbekistan to Ghana, is ripe for a crossover album. In fact, the singer--who began his career at 15 playing rock covers in English for American parties in Tehran--is preparing his first big crossover album.
But it won't be in English. Andy will sing in Spanish.
While much attention has been paid to the fleet of Spanish-language superstars who have begun to infiltrate the English-language pop market, many international pop stars, from Celine Dion to Madonna, have chosen to cross over in the enormous Spanish-language pop market that made people such as Martin millionaires to begin with.
"When you have 400 million people in Latin America alone, it's hard to ignore the incredible spending power," says K.C. Porter, a producer who has overseen Spanish crossover recordings by artists ranging from Mya to Sting.
Porter says it is much easier to break into the Latin pop market than its English counterpart, in part because the media outlets are so centralized, competition is less fierce, and listeners are more open to new sounds.
For a star like Andy, a stellar talent who may be too old to break into the teen-obsessed American pop market, the more forgiving (at least for males) Latin market is the natural alternative.
Brent Kidwell, music supervisor for MTV's "Road Rules" series, which will feature Andy's Persian music next season, agrees.
"What [Andy and his managers] are doing is really just smart," Kidwell says. "Andy's being embraced all over the world in Persian, but for a crossover he'll be more embraced in Spanish than he would in English. . . . "
Andy's music is certainly embraced in Southern California, which, according to the Census Bureau, is home to the largest pocket of Iranians outside of Iran. Though 1990 census figures say 110,000 Iranians live in the area, Iranian community leaders here place the figure somewhere between 250,000 and 500,000.
"No one knows how many of us there are," says Bijan Khalili, director of the Iranian Information Center in Van Nuys and publisher of the Iranian Yellow Pages. Khalili says undercounting stems from narrow census categories that prompt most Iranian Americans to mark "Caucasian." Khalili estimates there are more than 1 million Iranians in the U.S. and says that Andy is a superstar among them.
"He would be a millionaire if he lived in Iran," Khalili says, but adds with a bitter laugh that "he'd also be executed."
At an in-store appearance last year at Tower Records in Glendale for Andy's latest album, titled "Silk Road" and released on his own Cherokee Records label, more than 1,000 fans thronged the store, and an estimated 1,000 fans were turned away from the singer's sold-out performance at the Greek Theatre.
For Andy, the motivation to make an album in Spanish came not from money, he says, but from a lifelong love of Spanish-language music.
"In Iran, we all grew up listening to Spanish music," he says. "In Iran, Spanish and English music were both very cool to us."
So far, Andy has been warmly received by the Spanish-language media in the U.S., even though he has only completed two singles for the upcoming album and is still in the negotiating stages with several large record labels.
Nonetheless, Andy has already been the subject of a profile in People en Espanol and is scheduled to be a guest on the Univision variety show, "Sabado Gigante."
Yet Andy, who grew up in a one-room apartment with his grandmother, parents and six siblings, says that money does not motivate him.
"If I had to work for money, I wouldn't do it," says Andy, who lives comfortably with his girlfriend and two dogs off of proceeds from his concerts.
So is it just a coincidence that Andy is recording in Spanish now, when Latin music is growing incredibly fast?
"I don't look at it so narrowly," Andy says. "The world has become smaller in musical terms. We are, all of us, one unit now. We are not making music to sell in Mexico, or to sell in El Salvador, or to sell in Iran. We are making music to sell."