A few weeks ago, the sophisticated scene in New York was in an uproar over the conduct of the conductor of the symphony orchestra — I think it may have been the venerable Zubin Mehta — who walked out on the concert because the audience was coughing too much. Last night at the Golreez Theater in Tehran, I remembered the controversy and smiled ear-to-ear thinking that the fragile egos of these great men of art in the West would surely never withstand an Iranian audience.
Tehran is celebrating the annual Fajr Festival season which provides an excuse for holding concerts, shows, plays, and films. My young and handsome cousin — who is something of a dandy “dude” — and his beautiful girlfriend took me to my first concert in Iran the very first night after my arrival. As we all have heard in the West, Iran is enjoying a cultural and social spring of sorts, and since the purpose of my return to Iran has been to sense and feel and hear what is happening, I was tremendously excited to see the evidence of the new freedoms firsthand.
The concert, a festival season opener, was to showcase the talents of a young Iranian musician (Pedram Amini Abyaneh) and his band of six other young musicians. The smudged and hand-cut announcements for the concert promised “new music, Gipsy Kings” and the music of a few other Western bands who all sounded like they played the Latin/gypsy variety of music so popular among Iranians. My cousin was immensely excited about the concert and perhaps even more so about the semi-illicit meeting with his girlfriend.
We arrived at the theater some 15 minutes before the concert. The hall was brimming with women in extremely chic mantauxs and with skimpy scarves and beautifully made-up faces and their handsome well-coifed male companions who were carefully cultivating a look of proud nonchalance. With very few exceptions, the crowd was under thirty years old and all the young couples seemed to be on dates. Most men were buying their companions popcorn and grape-juice of soda and a few younger men leaned against the wall anxiously trying to appear cool and sophisticated.
The air crackled with electricity and a sense of anticipation, and my cousin explained that events like this really happened only during festive religious holidays and festival weeks and as such were rare and highly in demand. Perhaps the most telling evidence in support of his statement was the presence of Jim Muir, the BBC correspondent who was desperately trying to catch the eyes of the shy-yet-defiant men and women for an interview. To be completely honest, I wanted to show off a little to my cousin and said hello to Muir in English and, with obvious relief, he sailed towards us and began interviewing me and my cousin and his girlfriend (who in horror shut up completely: she wasn't supposed to be at the concert) about the importance of the concert and about the political and social atmosphere of the country and sundry other topics all Western pundits seem to be interested in. My cousin set aside his initial fear of possible government reprisal and somewhat boldly complained about the dearth of any entertainment for the youth and how this stagnant society was “strangling the souls of Iranian youth.” Around us, the crowd eyed us openly and curiously and I became somewhat ashamed and alarmed about my need to flaunt my Americanness, this strange and intoxicating currency.
The doors opened around six and the crowd moved to the concert hall calmly and in an orderly manner. Unlike similar events attended by Iranians in the United States, the crowd did not try to ignore seating assignments, elbow each other out of the way or complain about their seating conditions. We sat in our tenth-row seats (the performance was sold out), and I left my cousin and his girlfriend to themselves while I curiously watched the faces, the manners, the makeup, and the fashion of the multitude of strangers who seemed so familiar.
After an announcer asked the audience to observe Islamic rules of behavior, the lights went down, allowing furtive hand-holding in the dark. The concert began only 15 minutes later than the appointed time, and a group of handsome young men, all well-shaven, in jeans, white shirts, black vests and nicely-cut-and-coifed hair came on stage and took their place behind a jazz drum set, a set of bongo drums and three different guitars. The crowd clapped half-heartedly and the wave of not-so-quiet whispers receded just a tiny bit as the band began playing what was to be an original song and yet sounded suspiciously like an imitation of Gipsy Kings. The crowd continued speaking and throwing “matalak” (or witty remarks) at the stage and at each other and a particularly catty girl sitting behind me commented rather unkindly on various other people's clothes and make-up. Upon a very covert inspection, she proved to be quite beautiful (though it could have been her amazingly precise makeup) with a fringe of coppery hair carefully arranged on her forehead and dark brown lipstick (which is all the rage in Tehran).
After the first song, two other gentlemen joined the group on the stage, the first (who looked like he belonged to the UCLA campus) was wearing worn jeans and a white turtleneck with a long shiny dark ponytail and the other was tall, thin and quite beautiful, in a white shirt and dark suit and black wing-tips, longish black hair (why do all the young fops in Iran pomade their hair?) a thin mustache, and one of those ubiquitous three-day beards.
Upon his entry, my cousin, in a voice that in the West would have been considered far too loud, made a rude and funny remark about his appearance (particularly the unshaven face) which does not translate very well, but suffice it to say it made me blush. Mortified, I expected the entire theater to turn around and hush him down, but I heard a few sniggers, no sense of outrage and no reaction from the stage (though they were sure to have heard him). As it turned out, the tall unshaven one was the singer (a Mohammad Asadi) and he took his place at the center of the stage. Ponytail picked up a beautiful huge yellow base guitar and stood at the edge of the stage, looking coolly confident.
From here on out, the group alternated between songs composed by Amini (as well as performances of Gipsy Kings songs) and those composed by Asadi, which could only be distinguished by the fact that the Asadi songs had very melodramatic lyrics sung with a beautiful tenor voice over the Latin-style music. The songs ranged from those about the weather and the singer's mother (“Mother, you are huge like mountains and pure like water!”) to a particularly mirthful one (I am sure it was not intended to be) about the Prophet Mohammad (“Mohammad, you came and the night turned to dawn; Mohammad, you came and all sadness disappeared”) sung over a particularly feisty and danceable version of Bamboleo.
Throughout the entire performance, the guitarists played with looks of sophisticated rapture on their faces (while missing notes here and there), the drum set was far too loud and obscured the more tender sound of the strings, and the base guitar could not be heard at all (though I am sure I saw the fingers of Ponytail move over the strings). The lights occasionally blinked on and off in order to emulate a disco strobe light and this effect was particularly poignant when combined with the Mohammad song. Meanwhile, the audience responded more amiably to the faster and happier songs and their applause for the more dramatic and slower songs was far more watered down.
The Beauty sitting behind me did not cease speaking, joking and critiquing the crowd and her mostly male companions throughout the concert (who were only too happy to oblige by flirting back), nor did my cousin cease his commentary on various aspects of the performance alternating with more circumspect whispered affections targeted at his beloved. At one point, the sound of voices emanating from our corner was so loud that the gentleman sitting in front of us turned around and hushed us in a distinct American way (whispering “shhh” instead of the more Iranian hissing sound, “hissss”), but halfway through the concert, he was so bored that he left the concert altogether. The band on the stage could certainly hear the conversations in the crowd, but they continued to play their music indifferent to the audience and with that focused look of an “artiste” busy at his work. No offended conductors throwing temper tantrums here.
After the concert, I kept my eyes open (unsuccessfully) for friends who have recently moved to Iran from the states and would be appropriate consumers of this very expensive concert, and kept my ears open for the crowd reaction. I was by-and-large disappointed to hear that the crowd actually very much liked the unoriginal and indistinguishable performance, and I remembered what my cousin had said to Jim Muir about how much he disliked traditional music. When Muir had asked him whether liking this new kind of music combined with a dislike of the traditional was not a sort of surrender to the Western culture, my cousin had responded that, well, liking traditional music was a sort of concession to the Eastern culture.
Perhaps it is the arrogance of an alien (which is what I have become in Iran) who has boundless cultural alternatives, but if I were to choose a type of music, I would select the traditional music so derided and disliked by the majority of that audience any day over the warmed over Western music which has unfortunately come to symbolize a freedom so many of the Iranian youth crave these days. I wonder about the dangers inherent in this forced intellectual coupling between Western cultural products and a notion of democracy both of which have been denied to the majority of Iranian youth. One has become a metaphor for the other in a country which considers Titanic the greatest cinematic accomplishment of the century all the while scoffing at the far more tender, beautiful, profound films made next door.
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