Contemporary Contexts for Iranian Professional Musical Performance

Robyn C. Friend and Neil G. Siegel

The Institute of Persian Performing Arts

Presented at the 1986 meetings of The Middle East Studies Association

Boston, Massachusetts

November, 1986

Copyright © 1986 by the Siegel & Friend. All rights reserved.

Abstract: The presence of a sizable population of Iranian immigrants in Los Angeles has provided an opportunity to observe at first hand the degree of retention of traditional Iranian cultural phenomena. This study focuses on the cultural phenomena related to Iranian professional musical entertainment, comparing contemporary practice in Los Angeles to that of other temporal and cultural settings. The purposes of such a comparison are to assess the continuity and adaptability of Iranian culture in another cultural setting, to determine the antecedents of current performance practice, and to assess the degree of retention of the traditional culture.

  1. Introduction

Our performance and study activities have brought us into regular social contact with the Iranian community of Los Angeles. We have therefore been able to learn something of their attitudes towards music, dance, and performance. The question naturally arises of how these attitudes have been changed by the fact of their exile from their homeland. In this paper we discuss this topic using examples from our observations in Los Angeles, from 1981 to the present time.

  1. The Iranian Community in Los Angeles

The Iranian community in Los Angeles and Southern California is quite large. Some estimates place the number as high as 300,000 to 400,000; more modest estimates place the number around 100,000. This population has arrived largely during the last 35 years, in two major waves: first, a mostly Jewish migration in the 1950’s and 1960’s, and second, a more broadly-based migration concentrated around the time of the 1979 Iranian counter-revolution. The Los Angeles Iranian community now includes all of the religious faiths traditionally (i.e., before the 1979 revolution) present in Iran: Muslims, Baha’is, Jews, Armenian and Nestorian (Assyrian) Christians, Zoroastrians, and various Sufi orders.

The occupations pursued by the members of this community are as eclectic as the surrounding American society, and include medicine, engineering, and all types of businesses, including everything from banking and clothing boutiques to frozen yoghurt. Other less Westernized professions include both kosher and hallâl (Islamic version of kosher) butcher shops, marriage solemnizing, calligraphy, and astrology. Los Angeles can also boast of locally-produced Iranian television and radio shows, and an Iranian “yellow pages” directory.

This community has undergone a great deal of assimilation, especially in dress and fashion. In accordance with American tastes, a slim figure is now preferred to the traditional well-fed look. Current American fashion is preferred for women, and suits for men. Still, Iranian style and taste remain evident in many ways, and this veneer of assimilation is not always apparent to Americans: one American complained to us that the Iranian men she knew just wouldn’t assimilate, and insisted on wearing their native costumes. By this she meant beige or white silk three-piece suits.

There are a number of musicians and singers now living in Los Angeles who were well-known in Iran, including Bijan Samandar, Mehdi Takestâni, Aqili, and Alâhe. There are also a few very traditional musicians such as Mortezâ Varzi and Zolfonum. In addition, there are many musicians and singers who perform Westernized popular-style Persian music, such as Ebi, Hâyde, and Vigen.

  1. Current Contexts and Attitudes for Traditional Iranian Music

Our studies have concentrated primarily on the more traditional music, and the degree to which Iranian elements are preferred over westernized elements at traditional-style musical events. We have examined several elements of the traditional bazm in order to determine the extent to which they have undergone some form of Westernization.

In accordance with tradition, a great deal of social status is still to be gained from having musicians — especially traditional musicians — at one’s parties, and in treating them well. The musicians are amongst the earliest to arrive, and are immediately attended to with pillows, drinks, and food. This feature is especially important for the Iranian community in exile: many of these people were formerly quite wealthy, and lived a life-style that is impossible for them to maintain in this country. Status accrues from the projection of an image, even to the extent of giving a false impression of one’s true financial circumstances. In this situation, high social status is especially important, where high financial status is not possible.

People most definitely wish to appear to be interested in and knowledgeable about Iranian traditional music, and in general, the over-all level of knowledge is fairly high: most are familiar with the dastgâh concept, and can usually recognize some of the more common dastgâh-s and gushe-s. This is particularly interesting in light of the very small number of Iranians in Los Angeles who are systematically studying Persian music. We shall return to this point later in this paper.

The order of events found today at a bazm includes both traditional elements, plus elements altered to suit new circumstances. In accordance with tradition, guests do not arrive on time. Drinks are served as guests chat with one another. However, only light snacks are served, rather than the traditional complete mezze (consisting of kebabs, cheese, bread, etc.), and the main meal comes in the middle of the party (i.e., around 10:00 or 11:00 p.m.), rather than at the very end, as was formerly the case. There are various plausible reasons put forth for the change in the order and type of food served:

  • Traditionally, there were many servings of mezze more or less continuously up until the meal. Now, to conform to western standards of beauty, many people eat less than traditionally was the case.
  • In traditional Iran, there would be many servants available to assist the hosts in preparing and serving the mezze and the meal. Now, a hostess must do without servants; this leads to a consolidation of the food into one meal, served earlier so that the hostess can be free to enjoy the guests and the music.

Still, the meal usually consists solely of Persian traditional food, served in great quantities, and personally prepared by the hostess, together with her daughters, daughters-in-law, and other female members of the household.

Sometime after the meal, the lights are dimmed and the musical performance begins. This performance to a great extent still conforms to traditional practice: the order of musical events (pishdarâmaddarâmad, vocal and instrumental âvâz, rhythmic pieces, dance pieces) is identical to that introduced around the turn of the century. Traditional modes and tunings are used.

Hâl, one of the most important traditional elements of the bazm, still plays a central role. Great emphasis is placed upon pleasing the musicians, as it is understood that in order for them to play well, they must feel relaxed and satisfied, and they must feel comfortable, and must feel that they are “in communion” with their audience. A great show is made of providing comfortable cushions, drinks, snacks, and subdued lighting.

The artist will still select a dastgâh on the spot, based on the current mood of the audience. The ability to make an appropriate selection is considered one of the signs of the sensitive performing artist. The selection is based on the audience’s perceived current state, and the performer’s judgment about how they will react to various musical stimuli. Persians still associate specific emotions with each dastgâh and gushe. Catharsis through the shedding of tears is also still highly desirable.

Dancing is perhaps more common today at the bazm than was formerly the case. However, the traditional attitudes that music is to be preferred over dance, and that “nice girls don’t dance”, persist. A girl or woman still must be given considerable urging before she will dance, even if she truly wants to do so. In any case, this is social dancing, not a professional entertainment. Traditionally, a professional dancer might be hired to perform for the guests. We know of no professional traditional Persian dancers in Los Angeles, so if a host wishes to have a professional dancer at his party, he must resort to an American-style belly-dancer. This does not happen very often, as many Iranians do not seem to care for belly-dancing.

Other events of a strictly traditional nature still do occur at a bazm; these include recitation of poetry (which might be composed extemporaneously by the speaker); guest performances of singing, or less frequently, on an instrument; and fâle Hâfez (a traditional form of fortune-telling).

In former times, the music went on until as late as 6 a.m.; this is no longer possible in the close living situations of apartment life. These days, the music must end earlier in order to accommodate neighbors. However, it is still not unheard of for the party to continue quietly until 5 or 6 in the morning.

  1. Trends

There is evidence of increasing Westernization of Iranian traditional music in Los Angeles; this could possibly lead to almost total Westernization. Various causes and effects can be cited:

  • It is common for modern Persian popular-style music in the form of audio cassettes to be played at a bazm prior to the beginning of the live performances. Presumably, many parties are held at which this is the only source of music.
  • Many Iranians in Los Angeles find it easier or more suitable to go to nightclubs at which Westernized popular-style Persian music is played, and turn less to the bazm for their musical fulfillment.
  • The popularity and commercial success of musicians who play only Westernized popular-style Persian music on modern Western-style musical instruments has been increasing. The following should be noted in connection with this phenomena:
    • Traditional musicians are currently relatively unavailable. There are few of them, and most have occupations other than music. This limits the time they can make available for performance. Many traditional musicians explicitly avoid performing in nightclubs, an act perceived as having a deleterious effect on the spirituality of their music.
    • It is difficult to obtain and maintain traditional Persian musical instruments. The result is that musicians tend to use the instruments which are available, such as the piano, violin, electric guitar, and electric bass. Except for the violin, these instruments are completely unsuitable for playing traditional modes, or for playing in an intimate, contemplative setting. Such instruments do not usually appear at the bazm.
  • Even when traditional Persian musical instruments are used, they might be played in non-traditional ways, such as playing parallel harmonies on setâr and târ, playing highly-arranged orchestrations of traditional pieces, playing new compositions which do not follow traditional patterns, and so forth.
  • Despite the fact that Iranians in Los Angeles appear to be knowledgeable about and interested in their traditional music, there are few students studying with the traditional masters. Efforts in the recent past to develop schools for teaching traditional music have not been completely successful, notably the Honar Kade experiment of a couple of years ago.
  • Most of the available musicians and teachers are conservatory-trained. Rather than having studied “at the feet of a master”, they have learned a Westernized form of Iranian traditional music, using sheet music and Western-style “scientifically”- organized teaching methods. The training received by these musicians placed less emphasis than did the traditional methods upon the art of improvisation, which in the past was considered a vital element of Iranian traditional music; instead, many of these musicians play mostly composed pieces, often using sheet music rather than playing from memory.
  • It is nearly impossible to obtain traditional instruments from Iran; it is also difficult to repair and maintain them. This makes it very difficult to pursue studies of this type of music.

Still, there are currently efforts underway in Los Angeles, by both Iranians and interested Americans, to arrest the growing Westernization of Iranian traditional music, and to preserve as much as possible of the traditional music in its traditional form. For example, both Iranian and American instrument-makers are starting to learn to reproduce traditional instruments using local materials. There is a growing interest among Iranians (as well as some Americans) to study with the available traditional masters. Organizations have been established to preserve and perform traditional music: these include the Bahâri Ensemble, Osâq, members of one of the local Sufi groups, and The Institute of Persian Performing Arts (Anjomane Musiqiye Melli).

  1. Conclusion

The pressures of living in exile in the United States have certainly had an effect on the social and cultural life of the Iranians in Los Angeles. However, regardless of the individual attitudes towards contemporary events in Iran, Iranians in Los Angeles deem it important to retain contact with traditional aspects of their culture. This is true even for those whose musical sophistication is not great, or for those who actually prefer Westernized Persian music to traditional Persian music. In exile, having traditional musicians perform at one’s home continues to have high social value, and provides status to the host. While Westernization certainly is a factor in the cultural life of Iranian immigrants, it is clear that many of the most significant of their cultural traditions are still cherished and preserved. It is to be hoped that, despite the upheavals in Iran and Iranian society, the traditional art music of Iran can continue to flourish even in exile.