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TEHRAN — The audience members in Tehran’s Vahdat concert hall rose from their seats, clapping wildly as the frontman Bob Belden, a fun-loving New Yorker with a predilection for loud shirts, rested his soprano saxophone on a nearby stand. “We love you Bob!” someone shouted in English from the balcony after Mr. Belden, 58, finished his third song of the night. A Grammy Award-winning producer, composer and jazz performer, he smiled broadly. “It is an utter honor to be here in Iran,” Mr. Belden said, drawing even more cheers. The concert last Friday was the first by an American musician in Iran since the 1979 revolution. Officials from the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance sat in the front row, nodding their heads to renditions of tunes by Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock and Mr. Belden’s own compositions. The Iranians who filled the 1,200-seat theater clapped and cheered. They recorded video with their mobile phones of Mr. Belden and his four bandmates, who did little to suppress their own enthusiasm, waving, smiling and taking their own pictures of the audience. The audience at a concert by the American band Animation, led by Mr. Belden, last week in Tehran’s Vahdat Auditorium. Credit Newsha Tavakolian for The New York Times
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The Tehran gig was the end of a short, wild tour through a country that officially considers the United States its enemy, but where people go out of their way to please guests, especially when they are American. “This guy comes up to me, an Iranian; asks me where I’m from. I say, ‘America!’ He says, ‘I love you!’ ” Mr. Belden said before Friday’s concert. “I tell him I’m a jazz musician. He says, ‘I love jazz!’ ” “Everybody is nice to us here,” he added. Mr. Belden and his group, Animation, were selected to close the annual Farj music festival that commemorates the anniversary of the Islamic revolution. That programming decision was part of a delicate charm offensive organized by cultural officials in the government of PresidentHassan Rouhani, who has been pursuing better ties with the West. “We are very happy they are here,” said Farzin Piroozpay, an official with the Ministry of Islamic Culture and Guidance, during one of the band’s rehearsals. “Iran wants to show there are no issues here for foreigners and we welcome culture and arts.” In the past, Iranian hard-liners who oppose any rapprochement with the United States would protest such cultural diplomacy, but now that Tehran and Washington are engaged in talks over a nuclear compromise, there is a softened stance here, at least toward Americans who want to visit Iran. Mehdi Faridzadeh, a former cultural ambassador from Iran who now resides in the United States, and Search for Common Ground, an American nonprofit organization that aims to promote ties between the two countries, helped arrange Mr. Belden and his band’s trip to Iran, where they received rock-star treatment. During his four-day tour, Mr. Belden was shuttled from event to event across the country. On Friday, hours before the Vahdat concert, he and his trumpet player, Pete Clagget, a 35-year-old from Dallas, were taken by van to the Azadi indoor stadium here for the opening of the World Cup of Greco-Roman wrestling, a sport that is popular in Iran and the United States. Continue reading the main story Continue reading the main story Continue reading the main story “There will be other Americans there,” Mr. Piroozpay had promised. Mr. Belden and Mr. Clagget were to join a group of Iranian musicians to officially open the event, which was to be broadcast live on Iranian state television. “It’s easier to get a gig here than in the U.S.,” the musicians agreed. When they arrived at the stadium, Mr. Belden, Mr. Clagget and their entourage of Iranian officials, journalists and some Italian musicians also in town for the festival were stopped by a confused security guard before they were guided to their makeshift dressing room. Bulky wrestlers from Armenia and Hungary preparing for bouts raised their eyebrows at the musical caravan passing through. Mr. Belden, embracing his role as cultural ambassador, said he wanted to meet with the American wrestlers, but they did not make it to the finals. “We have a team from Germany,” one Iranian official offered. Mr. Belden and Mr. Clagget joined a group of Iranian violinists, a singer and a pianist, all wearing black, on the stadium floor. “Wear colors. It’s much better,” advised Mr. Belden, who was wearing his stage uniform — a bold, white-and-blue flowered shirt. After the head of the international wrestling federation opened the games, a singer performed a verse from the Quran. Then house music blared through the public address speakers, prompting Mr. Belden and Mr. Clagget to cover their ears, and fireworks blasted through the stadium. When it was time for the band to play “Ey Iran,” the country’s alternative national anthem, Mr. Belden joined on his saxophone and Mr. Clagget on his trumpet. A huge video screen behind them showed images from the Iran-Iraq war. “We thank the Iranian-American band for their music,” an announcer said in fluent English. Then the musicians were ushered into vans to be ferried back to the Vahdat auditorium. “Next stop: North Vietnam,” Mr. Belden joked. During the Vahdat concert, the saxophonist thanked Iranians for their hospitality. “You have made me feel like a local,” he said. The concert was being recorded for a live album, Mr. Belden said. “You have made our dream come true,” he told the audience. “Visiting Iran has been such a human experience.” ---A concert Friday in Tehran was the first by an American in Iran since 1979. Such cultural diplomacy would have drawn protests in the past, but stances are softening.--- ...