Mohsen Namjoo: A New Music and Poetry for Modern Iran

On June 20th, 2010, the Disney Concert Hall hosted a young Iranian musician named Mohsen Namjoo. He was born in a small city in the northeast of Iran named Torbat Jam, but now resides in Europe, mainly in Italy and Austria. One may ask why Namjoo is important enough to merit a notice. Briefly put, because of him Iranian music will never be the same. Namjoo has gone forth to bring about a revolution in Iranian music which has not been seen for many decades. He is both trained in Classical Persian music and is fond of Western rock. He plays the traditional Persian tar, a three string instrument, and a guitar, but plays Western musical notes on the tar, and the at times traditional Persian music on the guitar. He recites the Qur'an operatically, and sings rock-like lyrics in the traditional Persian. He is not bound by the choice of his instrument to play Persian, classical or modern, or Western musical notes and lyrics.

But his musical sensibility is not the only thing that makes Namjoo truly a genius in Iranian and Middle Eastern music. He recites lyrics of such beloved thirteenth- and fourteenth-century Persian poets such as Hafez and Omar Khayyam with a guitar rhythm, and composes his own modern poems and performs them with the traditional Persian tar. Namjoo's own composed lyrics are truly astounding in comparison to anything that has been produced thus far in Iranian music. For the past decade there has been an intense discussion among the Iranian literati and those who have followed the favorite art of that country, poetics, which has produced such poets as Rudaki, Ferdowsi, Nezami, Hafez, Sa'di, Khayyam and Mowlana Jalal ud-Din Rumi, to the late nineteenth and the twentieth century with Aref Qazvini, Iraj Mirza, Nima Yushij, Akhavan Sales, Naderpour and above all Shamloo.

Indeed there appears to have been a lull within the poetic circles with the death of the last of the great Persian poets, Ahmad Shamloo in June 2000. Shamloo differed from most poets of his generation in that he followed the new style of poetry (She'r Now) instituted by Nima Yushij. This poetry was in sync with the Iranian encounter with modernity which brought new life to the country in the twentieth century. It spoke to the intellectuals, to the youth, to the downtrodden and also to the leftists, and it finally engulfed the masses with its message of the Iranians' past, their oppression by the governments ruling over them, and their emotions which were silenced. Shamloo echoed these emotions for the entire Persian-speaking world, reaching Afghanistan and Tajikestan. There was a fear that with Shamloo's death there would be an end to a voice for the people of Iran in its long history of poetic expression.

However, Namjoo has appeared to breathe new life into Iran's poetry, but in a combined art form. He composes poetry that makes sense to the new generation of Iranians who now constitute the majority of the population. But his poetry is accompanied with melodic masterpieces, from ballads to screaming rock-like shouts over medieval Persian poetry, his own verses, or those of Shamloo.

Initially, Namjoo gained prominence in Iran not with official recordings, but with an underground following of the young and the intellectual. Since 2007, when I first heard him in Iran, I have collected most of what he has produced, including his early 1999 live concert in Tehran (thanks to my friend Arash). In the streets of Tehran and in taxis, to the private gatherings, Namjoo's music is more in sync with Iran than any political leader or writer today, or the expatriate artistic production. However, Namjoo's poetics has gained even more interest, especially after the June 2010 Iranian elections in Iran.

His songs include such masterpieces as "Neo-Kantian Truth," which exposes the dichotomy between the imposed ideological outlook in Iran and that which is banned in terms of expression. The poppies of Normandy are the first words of the lyrics, given to the other, while an embarrassed government, with a thick file with the security service, losing soccer players, is what belongs to him. Of course here 'him' represents the Iranian nation. The song becomes more sarcastic with the slogan: "maybe the future will be ours." In another song called "Geographic Determinism," this theoretical concept of determinism based on the location of a people's geographic habitation is given a popular rendition, which provides the Iranian view of the twentieth and the twenty-first century realities. Namjoo repeats the mantra, here saying that being born in Asia is called geographical determinism, that one's legs are up in the air and his/her breakfast is cigarettes and tea, is geographical determinism. He then turns to God and asks: "Oh God what are you thinking? When will you come and join us, please!" Namjoo then poeticizes the humiliation of Iranians and the people of the developing world with such phrases as "that they (the powers) place your hands on your head, that they don't consider you to exist, that they don't let you play in the game, that they mock you." The song is rhythmic, catchy and meaningful like no other singer has been able to accomplish in the Persian speaking world in the past three decades.

His song entitled the "60's Decade," which is really is the "1980s" of Iran again, relates the life of Iranians such as himself being raised in a time of war, political and social pressures, and anarchy. The song reflects primary, middle and high school immediately after the Iranian Revolution of 1979, with all the restrictions and inner and outer battles taking place. The tale is given through a child's eye where war and the quick end of childhood are narrated. Namjoo narrates the moment when growing up that the girl next door crapped on you, when the country next door raped your country, when wearing short sleeves was met with penalties, and when the beard, torn shirt and dirty collar signified being the believer and a revolutionary. He ends the song by mimicking the famous couplet by the eleventh century national poet, Ferdowsi, composer of the Book of Kings, where he says "I much toiled in these thirty years so that I would revive the Iranians through the Persian language." Namjoo applies the same couplet to the past three decades of his life with a twist by saying: "We much toiled these thirty years so that we would simply toil these thirty years, thank you very much!"

Namjoo's music has propelled Iranian poetics and music into the modern age and brought about an interesting encounter with modernity. Traditional Persian and Western music is fused with lyrics which sing to the people and speak of the ills of society, the desire of its members and the surreal reality at hand in Iran. Just like Iran of today his music is both traditional and modern, both sarcastic and protesting to the powers that be. Iranian musical sensibility has finally matured, just like its people's political awareness, and through Namjoo a nation's bitter reality stuck between its government's Islamic radicalism and anti-Western stance, while professing to support the dialogue between civilizations, and being part of the larger world, is apparent. Namjoo and his poetic and musical sensibility is a record of the travails of the Iranian nation in the past three decades since the 1979 revolution.