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- Published on Tuesday, 10 April 2012 10:54
- Category: More About Music
From the Shahs of Sunset to the Mullahs of Qom, Iran stands a Catch-22 waddling to find its way between Bravo and Basij, Marxist and Muslim, youth and establishment, sincerity and tar’ruf. Sound confusing? Welcome to Irani irony, a culture where expectations are implied but never stated, perhaps the only one where you’ll find yourself politely chastised. To navigate in it is an improvisational act of its own, an interplay where actions depend on relational anticipation. This is the game of Persian life.
An example: Punctuality is a rare practice in Iran, but a common expectation. Time there is an elastic notion, yet tardiness is seen as a sign of disrespect. Perhaps it’s best to say that many Iranians run on implied time, a concept about as ironic as implied rhythm in jazz. Like Iran, jazz is loaded with ironies, the most obvious being its elevation as “America’s art form,” enjoying more rights than the musicians who created it.
It is very much the same irony that for centuries silenced African-American artists and communities, who developed jazz 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.
Last month, Aslan Media proudly began its ten-week 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 the third installment of our ten-week series exploring Iran through the world of jazz, we look at the ironies shared between a culture and a musical form.
Iranic, by Jimmy Giuffre
The emergence of free-form jazz in the 1950s, pioneered amongst others by composer and multi-instrumentalist Jimmy Giuffre, was no less a paradox than the musical form’s emergence itself, challenging the limitations of established bebop, hard bop and modal, breaking down standards that characterized traditional jazz. Where bebop treated musicians as interpreters, free jazz placed them at the forefront as the tune’s dominant voice. Framework from jazz charts gave way to improvisation. Professionals, in their experimentation came off to the naked ear as amateurish, as if they were students doing their best to sound good. Not so confident to play constantly and seamlessly, they pause, wait, look at each other, and think deeply for what they should play for the next chorus.
At least that’s how Jimmy Giuffre’s Iranic, recorded in Los Angeles’s Capitol Studios in 1955, sounds.
Watch the video here
Only later that year, both the Senate and the Majlis in Iran passed a new law that gave the authority to every city with a population of over 5,000 to establish its own municipality. The law shifted Iran’s class structure, marking the unstoppable relocation from villages to cities, and a sudden increase in the population of the middle class in Iran. The migration marked one of the highest urban growth rates in the world, rising from 27% in the 50s to 60% in 2002, and estimated to rise to 80% by 2030. As the urban middle class grew, it co-existed in a schism with the lower-income traditional class. With urbanization comes an accelerated pace that tradition couldn’t keep up with, and its paradox only deepened the rift between the haves and have-nots.
Like free jazz, the growing middle class valued individual progress over the framework of tradition. As Iran’s 1979 revolution swept through with Marxist ideas of economic equality, it eventually gave way to rising mullahs, who claimed to even the economic gap between urban and traditional classes, but only reinforced it for middle class urbanites aligned with government politics. To this day, the challenges that the urban class poses on the limitations of established economic stagnation is a cultural irony in of itself, questioning competing conventions in what constitutes “Iran.”
Iranic, as a word, gets enough punch in daily vocabulary. Asghar Farhadi’s masterful depiction of middle class life in A Separation is “Iranic.” The Persian underground bands in the northern part of Tehran are “Iranic.” “Iranic” is the explanation for the unheard popularity of a puppet show, Kolah Ghermezi, a primary example of subversive art in Iran, a daily puppet show that talks about many things (no religion or politics though) in the format of a children’s program. Everyone’s waiting for the latest episode and the maddening, but lovable picture of the hectic life of Iranians. Very Iranic indeed!
Those who have travelled to Iran and crossed the eastern tail of the Alborz Mountain in the Semnan area can understand the “Irany,” or to be more precise, what Giuffre refers to as the “aesthetics of quietness” in Iranic. Dan Morgenstern points to the bluesy sound of it, and the unique low-register clarinet “at its very best,” evoking a “soft meditation of man, homely foot-tapping while playing out on his front porch, sufficiently solitary, and unselfconscious to forget the rules and try out unfamiliar tonalities.” (Cook/Morton) I must say it is one of the most unforgettable representations of Iran in any art former. Every single one of these words rang true.
Un-self-consciously forgetting about the rules, and hence playing with them and changing them, this piece is about both the past and the future of Iran, in all its irony and cultural identity.By Ehsan Khoshbakht, Aslan Media Contributing Writer