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- Published on Monday, 07 May 2012 08:35
- Category: More About Music
1940s Paris wasn’t exactly the place to go for political art. Defeated, suppressed, outright censored under Nazi occupation, much of it went either underground or extinct. Countless art collections were seized and stolen by Hitler’s forces; intellectuals, musicians and other “creatives” found themselves banned from working. Artists who were Fascist or anti-Semitic welcomed Germany’s unopposed invasion, others resorted to denial, exile or silence, and most forced themselves to learn how to accommodate to extreme censorship under a ruthless dictatorship. In an attempt to understand their newfound occupation, many of these artists reluctantly let go of the idea of resistance.
At the same time, life stayed more or less the same way it was pre-occupation, assuming you weren’t a Jew. While it overran everything else in France, the Third Reich wanted to keep Paris the same way they found it, if anything as an illusion where the military could relax while on vacation. For non-Jewish Parisians, their city descended into a multiple-personality disorder, where normality appeared to exist, at least on the surface, only it included swastikas, Nazi uniforms, later yellow stars of David and a concentration camp in the city’s outskirts where imprisoned Jews were round up by French police and detained before leaving for Auschwitz and other death camps. In an attempt to distract, pacify, even co-opt the French, theaters, opera houses, even nightclubs, re-opened for business, and it worked: so long as they were entertained, Parisians could delusion themselves into not believing that their country passively handed itself over to one of the most dreaded regimes in world history. “Let’s let them degenerate,” Hitler once told Albert Speer. “All the better for us.”
It was as if someone flicked the switch off on Europe’s city of light.
Across the ocean, where African-American artists and communities were silenced for centuries, jazz was developed as the art form to revise the human condition and to remove the barriers between “us” and “them” in a democratic language that knew no boundaries. Jazz, as the art that fights against various types of segregation, could be a myth itself. But the myth of jazz as something for all human beings, regardless of race, nationality, gender and age is so strong that it can still feed our desire to explore and to change.
In March, Aslan Media proudly began its ten-part series exploring jazz that reflects a part of Iran, both as an actual place on the map and as a pure creation of art. This is Iran according to American and European artists of the 20th century. It is also the same country that makes daily headlines in the news, yet it is music that brings it a far greater truth than any pundit on a TV screen. In our fifth installment, we look at a tune from a third country in which the secretive consociation between the American art form and Persian culture took place: France.
Strictement Pour Les Persans (Strictly for Persians), Alix Combelle Orchestra
Paris’ underground resistance did not stay paralyzed for too long. To write the French off as cowards or conceding would be dismissive and inaccurate. A Parisian writer at the time was “incapable of surviving for long hiding, he would sell his soul to see his name in print,” silenced essayist Jean Guehenno observed. “He believes that he is French literature and thought and that they will die without him.” Satre himself had stated that artists and writers had a duty to tell the rest of France “not to be ruled by Germans.”
We all know that jazz played a significant role in uniting African-Americans under the oppressive Jim Crow laws. In Paris of 1941, even as a borrowed art form, it still manifested the self-empowerment to create a nationalistic identity at a point where the country was already fractured into rubble. Before the Nazi invasion of France, when news of an eventual war reached Paris, many African-American expatriate musicians left to return to the United States. Their sudden departure left the active French jazz scene on its own, and club owners found themselves without any entertainers or live music to supply the demand of tasteful customers.
Despite efforts to conciliate the French through alcohol and entertainment, Nazi forces were not as enthusiastic about jazz; the infamous, and somehow humorous phrase “Swing Verboten” captures the zeitgeist and horrifying dogmatics of the Gobbles ministry. Hitler feared young boys of the Third Reich corrupted by the “degenerative” music of jazz, and after his rise to power, jazz, consequently, went into a period of interregnum. Yesterday’s swingers and jazz men, if they wanted to stay alive, were forced to work for the Propaganda Ministry, playing light swing dance music to keep soldiers entertained and military morale high. Suddenly old tunes found themselves a darker life, infused with anti-Semitic, anti-British and later anti-American lyrics.
It was in this context that Alix Combelle emerged as a local hero in the Parisian jazz scene. Ironically, here, the interconnectedness of the United States art form and its European adoption involved a third country: Iran.
How Combelle and his band managed to play in clubs and keep a very hazardous line (blacks and gypsies) up is a bit of a mystery. Recent studies show that the Germans weren’t as “strict” as they seemed in handling the internal affairs of France, especially those having to do with culture. It was during this uncertain period when Combelle, a saxophonist, clarinetist, arranger and bandleader, adopted a new style that allowed him to remain on the bandstand without clashing with Nazi restrictions.
But how did the name “Persians” make it into the title of his tightly orchestrated tune? Iran’s regime, in spite of declaring neutrality during World War II, mainly due to Reza Shah’s ambitions, was generally sympathetic towards Germany, which later became the main excuse for the notorious Allied invasion of Iran that ousted him out of power and replaced him with his son. The infatuate Reza Shah, more than having an adherence to Nazi ideology, was obsessed with the idea of progress and building up Iran’s infrastructure. Historically, he had nothing against Jews, as they were already living peacefully in the country both before and after the Arab invasion. In this context, it’s really of no surprise that many Jews who fled Nazi occupation came to settle down in Iran.
I like to read Strictement pour les Persans as an imaginary homage to Abdol-Hossein Sardari, the Iranian Schindler, a diplomat in war-time Paris and when the song was recorded. Sardari’s moving story, only recently uncovered, contains the amazing chapter of his rescue of nearly 2000 Jews under the political protection he had in the occupied France. His story is one of cleverness and passion, where one individual single-handedly saved so many lives by fabricating some strange, and ultimately unbeatable stories to justify the return of Persian Jews to Iran and sparing them from concentration camps. While the context of is rueful, the mathematical mind of Sardari and his unique methods in convincing Nazis that Persian Jews are not really Jews is something of irony and wonder.
Watch the video here
The opening lines of Strictement pour les Persans are orchestrated in such way that throws us into a Persian city-scape. As if we are following the story of an individual among the crowd, music plunges into a sweet unison of the trumpets. It becomes a swinging piece in which the humor of muted trumpet embodies the witty side of a Persian. In some parts, the music amazingly resembles Iran’s old national anthem.
If right under the noses of the German authorities, jazz music was still alive and influential, a similar subversive act was made possible by Sardari and what he did “strictly” for Persian Jews.
Strictement pour les Persans is a surprising documentation of what Max Harrison calls “demonstrating of what French jazz musicians had learnt from their [American] visitors,” or “denationalization of American jazz”, and Sardari’s story is a demonstration of what a Persian has learned from hundred years of occupations and invasions in order to survive, and a lesson in “nationalizing” all Persians, whether Muslim or Jew.By Ehsan Khoshbakht, Aslan Media Contributing Writer