Search Mohsen Namjoo – why the Iranian Bob Dylan wants to be music's Banksy

Mohsen Namjoo – why the Iranian Bob Dylan wants to be music's Banksy ...
theguardian.com 27/01/2017 People

Keywords:Abbas Kiarostami, Ali Khamenei, Ayatollah, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Bob Dylan, Europe, Farsi, Friday prayer, GMT, Getty, Getty Images, Guardian, Hafez, Hassan Rouhani, Imam, Imam Reza, Iran, Iranian, Islamic, January, Khamenei, Mashhad, Mohsen Namjoo, Muslim, New York, New York Times, Olympic, Persian, President, Rouhani, Rumi, Saeed Kamali Dehghan, Shia, Shia Muslim, Tehran, Theguardian.com, Times

A revolutionary artist, in exile from his oppressive hometown, all Namjoo wants is to be anonymous so he can make music without having to pose for selfies
Mohsen Namjoo … ‘I don’t think about people very much.’ Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

a href="./?qlang=en&qtag=Saeed Kamali Dehghan">Saeed Kamali Dehghan , Iran correspondent
Friday 27 January 2017 11.46 GMT
Mohsen Namjoo blends sublime classical Persian rhythms with rock and blues. He combines religious songs and folklore. He plays the traditional Iranian lute – the setar – along with the electric guitar. His lyrics mix the poetry of the venerated Hafez and Rumi with ordinary chatter in the bazaar. Namjoo’s music highlights the incongruity of Iranian society today. That’s why he’s known as the Iranian Bob Dylan.
“If I blend anything, it comes from life itself, the contradictions that exist in every aspect of our life,” he says. “I come from a country where the state is run by people with an eighth-century mentality who still, for example, want you not to wear T-shirts. This mentality doesn’t belong to modern times but it has modern tools in its hands in order to exercise its power. It is an unharmonious combination [that] led to my way of thinking and my music.”
Namjoo grew up in Mashhad in eastern Iran, one of the holiest sites in the country. Each year it hosts millions of pilgrims visiting the shrine to Imam Reza. Three decades after the 1979 Islamic revolution, performing music in public in Mashhad is still a huge challenge.
“In the city of Imam Reza, we won’t allow any concerts,” Ayatollah Alamolhoda, the city’s powerful Friday prayer leader, said last year. “If you would like to have concerts, go and live in another city.” It led to a confrontation with the moderate administration of President Hassan Rouhani and the resignation of the minister of culture, but the hardliners have retained the upper hand.
“Music is very present in Mashhad,” Namjoo says. “It was present before, it is present now; there are a lot of bands competing underground. In Mashhad, there has always been a strange contrast between music that is available in public and banned music underground.”
Namjoo had to come from under the radar. When the Guardian first visited him at his flat in Tehran’s Olympic Park district more than 10 years ago, he had won an award from a local online magazine that celebrated underground music. He had began to make waves but he could not sell his music legally. In 2007, around the same time his debut album, Toranj, was released, he was featured in the New York Times.
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A year later, Namjoo left Iran. Despite spending most of the time since in exile and becoming persona non grata at home – in 2009 he was sentenced in absentia to five years’ imprisonment for setting passages from the Qur’an to music – he has stayed productive, releasing seven more albums and performing across Europe, while retaining a following in Iran among fans who track his work online.
Namjoo managed to survive in exile because he refused to make his artistic identity dependent on political dissent. “They [Iranian authorities] forced us out, they broke our roots, we lost our platform, we lost our life,” he says, “but an authoritarian state can reduce a big artist to a small political enemy. It’s better to remain as an artist and not become a small enemy.”
Namjoo has not stayed entirely out of politics. In 2009, as Iran went through an extraordinary period of post-election unrest, he released Gladiators, which was critical of the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. But Namjoo said it was an act of solidarity with those protesting against Khamenei, and that he would not repeat it.
“I didn’t do [political songs] after that. It’s important that you get your identity from art, and not animosity. The nature of art is not war.” That’s why, he says, people like the Iranian film-maker Abbas Kiarostami were successful. “Kiarostami made a film about a kid who wanted to return his friend’s notebook and it became part of the history of the world’s cinema, because it was in praise of life.”
Namjoo’s 2016 album, Personal Cipher, is his most personal work. One of the tracks, Mojir (Giver of Refuge), is dedicated to his four sisters. In it, he recites a prayer from Mafatih al-Janan, a revered Shia Muslim prayer book. Another song on the album contains profanities such as the Farsi word for “fuck”, unheard of in Persian music and poetry. In What’s Up?, he sings a poem by the modernist Iranian poet Bijan Elahi. “The world was like a desert without a beginning or an end.”
“What interests me in music is the form,” Namjoo says. “The tradition in itself doesn’t attract me. I’m not interested in the meaning of the Mafatih al-Janan prayer but its rhythm makes me crazy. What’s important is that I don’t want to do this with folklore music of another place, so it’s a way of paying respect to my own traditions.”
Namjoo’s style was also a reaction to how Iranian musicians have treated traditional music. “My criticism is to our musicians who play traditional music, they consider themselves very elite, they see themselves better than others. Their mind won’t let them go forward,” he says. “Our musicians weren’t interested in anything except for traditional music. They didn’t see the need to experiment with other mediums or listen to other music – or as an artist, to go and watch a film, go to a gallery – because they were full of themselves. They thought they’re doing something very great, especially because they consider that music to be divine.”
Namjoo is increasingly reclusive and shuns the limelight. “There’s nothing beyond this popularity, it’s very fake,” he says. “To be honest, I don’t think about people very much. I don’t feel committed to them, nor I have learnt anything from them.” He doesn’t want to be a prop for other people’s lifestyles: “They just want to reconstruct their own happy or sad moments, or they want to take a picture with you, and all they think about is the photo. It’s only their memories and experiences that are important to them.”
So what kind of artist does he want to be? “I wish I could be someone like Banksy in music. Frankly I wish I was so strong that I could say no. I don’t want to be seen in public and just want to produce music.”
Personal Cipher is out now on Daf-Daf.
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