By Aref Erfani
He limped onto the stage, fairly heavy set and walking with difficulty. Amid the applause and whistling of the crowd, he managed a broad smile and a slight bow. He thanked everyone for being there and apologized for his hoarse voice as he had been in New York the night before and was not feeling well. But he promised to do the best he could and entertain the crowd.
With those words, Nematollah Aghassi began his concert in front of a medium sized crowd at about 11:15 Sunday night June 15, 1997. The crowd, surprisingly, included a lot of families, with 5-6 year old kids, grandparents and everything in between. The atmosphere was more akin to a wedding reception than a nightclub.
He was in obvious pain standing up and used a microphone stand as a make-shift cane but he continued yek-nafas (non-stop) for almost two hours never failing to express his gratitude and drinking gallons of water in between his lines. One of the first Iranian singers I have seen who did not drink alcohol nor was high on stage. A very humble, down to earth man. The words looti, khAki and javoonmard (down to earth...) of the old variety, come to mind.
Aghassi has always been an interesting figure in my mind, partly because he represents what many older members of my family, as well as many self-proclaimed sophisticated yet closed-minded intellectuals detested and tried to keep a distance from. He is from a working-class background and at best, is usually classified as a street-level musician/singer. His lyrics are of the street conversation kind and while not vulgar, refer to the mundane and the obvious.
Many members of the so-to-speak elite class turn their face when he is the topic of conversation and anyone interested in his music is looked at with a twist of disapproval. I was always in trouble with my family when I tried to imitate him when I was 5 or 6 years old, which is when and from whom, incidentally, I learned the dasteh-bandari clap! So while I could not practice at home, at school and at other places along with other kids and the janitors we competed to determine who had the loudest clap. The winner had bragging rights!
What many such intellectual yet ignorant so-called elite tend to miss is the notion of value for diversity of art, expression and appreciation of what is seemingly less fine - albeit fineness is a very subjective and relative term. If everyone on the planet became an overnight fan of Frederic Chopin, I am sure all other piano works would seem far from fine - including possibly those of Mozart!
The key is the realization that it is an individual choice to decide what is appealing and pleasant and what is not. Music exists for the sake of its listeners, creators and fans and not for the sake of the critics and those who think they set the standards. The closed-minded pundits criticize Aghassi (or AqA Ne'mat :-) and his music as koocheh-bAzAri (street wise) and low.
While it may truly be koocheh-bAzAri, the single dimensional critics fail to recognize the joy and pleasure it brings to many who have put aside their judgmental attitudes (or many who just do not have such judgment and snobbery) and welcome and accept him and his music for what it is - and not for to what it ought to be - and ought to be, for that matter, according to whom? Who appointed any judges?
In a sense it reminds one of the French Revolution and the movement to do away with the Marie-Antoinettesque attitudes of "let them eat cake!" It is a form of rebellion and movement to declassify the seemingly classy and knock them from their high horses. When an institution feels threatened by such music, it is a manifestation of suffering from its own hollow attributes and shallow foundations.
Despite his heavy weight and obvious physical difficulties, he got involved with the crowd, danced with the children and praised them for their moves and grooves. He warmed up the scene, and it was a pure joy to hear his music, making one shake whether standing or sitting. Many shoulders were caught moving without the owners being explicitly aware of the dynamic.
Aghassi seems to look at his job as one of bringing smiles to his audience, sharing the simple pleasures of life and singing about what all people can relate to, in one form or another. With some very old songs, he took the crowd down the memory lane, mixing Kurdish, Azarbaijani and Arabic songs in the program.
The famous dast-mAl handkerchief was frequently shaken with quite an expertise in the air and his continuous encouragement for dast zadan (clapping) especially of the bandari variety, left the dancing as well as the sitting gleefully worn out. Despite the late hour on a week night, most refused to leave until he was done.
The event can be summed up in the following two questions he posed to the crowd and the responses he received:
Aghassi: Mageh shomA fardA kAro zendegi nadArin? (Don't you have to go to work tomorrow?)
The Crowd: cherA - kheili ham dAreem! (We sure do!)
Aghassi: Mageh nemikhAyn berin bekhAbin keh fardA betoonin kAr konin? (Don't you want to go to sleep to be able to work tomorrow?)
The Crowd: Naaaaaa Kheyrrrrrrrrrrr! (Hellllllllllll noooooooooooo!)