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Persian folk, funk and psychedelia win new generation of fans

Enthusiasts in L.A. have compiled the 16-track 'Pomegranates.' It's their way of sharing tunes rediscovered from the 1960s and '70s.

April 04, 2010|By Jessica Hundley
  • Mahssa Taghinia, left, with Arash Saedinia.
Mahssa Taghinia, left, with Arash Saedinia. (Gary Friedman / Los Angeles…)

It might not have been your typical party-time call and response, but the sold-out crowd at Cinefamily last week was as enthused as any frat house -- ready to thrust fists and shake hips in homage to Persia's pop past.

"I say . . . 'Disco!' You say 'Iran'!"

"Disco!" . . . "Iran!"

"Disco" . . . "Iran!"

Hundreds were at the Fairfax Avenue theater to celebrate both the Persian New Year and the release of "Pomegranates" -- an eclectic, infectious mix of long-lost Iranian pop -- 16 tracks culled from an era of both the shimmy . . . and the shah.

"This music is from a time when Iran was hip," said the evening's co-host (and the disc's co-compiler), Arash Saedinia, "when they were wearing miniskirts under their hijabs."

"Pomegranates" offers an Iran that many might not know ever existed -- an exuberant collection of '60s and '70s psychedelic, funk and folk music that reflects a society completely in sync with the revolutionary music of the era. With the shah's policy of rampant modernization and Westernization, the country experienced both an undercurrent of discord as well as an embrace of global grooves.

The compilation is evidence of this dichotomy -- as traditional Farsi folk music collides with everything from Serge Gainsbourg-inspired bubble gum to swinging London swank. This strange collision is immediately evident on the album's first track, "Helelyos" by Zia.

"It's a sui generis funk tune," explained Saedinia, "but it's rooted in Khuzestani folk rhythm and slang from Abadan, a city in southern Iran."

Saedinia and his partner in the album's conception and compilation, DJ and beat digger Mahssa Taghinia, are second-generation Persian Americans -- raised in Los Angeles but connecting to their roots through their discovery of Iran's forgotten pop heritage.

In Saedinia's case, this happened when he returned to Iran in 2003 for the first time as an adult. "My mother presented me with a suitcase filled with vinyl," he recalled. "The records were fascinating. Iranian pop artists played a variety of styles: traditional folk music, garage rock, disco and funk, to name a few. Many of the songs fused traditions. My mother [was] collecting records by Persian pop stars such as Googoosh and Aref along with records by James Brown, Shocking Blue, Serge Gainsbourg & Jane Birkin, Toots & the Maytals and the Beatles."

While Saedinia was discovering his mother's obsessions, Taghinia was seeking out rare vinyl and putting her encyclopedic knowledge of underground world music to use in both her gig working at Amoeba Music and behind the decks for her popular DJ nights. Eventually, the audiophiles met via MySpace, where both curate online archives of their musical discoveries.

"We were both contemplating a release of vintage Persian popular music," explained Saedinia, "and we agreed to work together on a compilation."

Taghinia had already developed a collaborative relationship with U.K.-based DJ and collector Andy Votel, whose B-Music/Finders Keepers label eventually would release the album.

For the curators, "Pomegranates" was as much about finding lost hits as finding their own identities as young Persian Americans. "I've co-opted the nostalgia that surrounds this music as my own, in a way," admitted Taghinia, "as my parents' memories of their past and the disconnection that has occurred post-revolution lent in a lot of ways to my struggle in identifying myself."

"It was fascinating to discover this music," said Saedinia. "The songs in the compilation were recorded during a period of modernization in Iran, and they are evidence of a vibrant, fairly cosmopolitan popular culture."

Taghinia agrees and calls the period "wonderful, strange times of change all around the world, and Iran was very much part of that global scene, sociopolitically and musically," she explained.

"The shah's modernization programs forged Iran forward in a lot of different ways. Not only was the entertainment industry thrust in this modernization-machine, but so were the people, of course. The music reflects this urgency and is kind of a mutant pop form that is not completely Westernized and still retains a lot of Persian elements."

As a result of this fusion, "Pomegranates" hosts a patchwork of sounds, a cut-and-paste mix drawn from a truly global era of music explorations. There is the playful, folk-chanteuse flirtations of pop icon Googoosh; the sensual, flamenco-inflected, female-fronted rock 'n' roll of Ramesh; and the guitar-psyche musings of Kourosh Yaghmaei. "Pomegranates" offerings are notably multifaceted -- the tracks drawing on everything from deep African American funk to Turkish progressive rock. It's definitely not the Persian music many might expect.

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