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- Published on Monday, 04 June 2012 06:33
- Category: More About Music
Music between Iran and the West has never been a one-way street. Even today, despite severe government crackdowns and censorship on anything that deviates from so-called “Islamic” ideals, the flow of tunes between these seemingly opposing worlds continues to thrive, in large part because of the Islamic Republic’s abandonment of its own citizens, exiles who are forced to start anew with faint hope that they will see their native land again. It’s a severed existence, to live in a country with artistic freedom, yet long for your home, despite its depraved conditions.
The thing about exile though is that it never silences artistic expression, but rather dislocates it. Artists find themselves turned into paradoxes: able to speak for their country, but unable to go home. To keep creating, even in a foreign country, is cultural resistance, and exile, instead of suppressing, makes that resistance transnational, opening up yet another channel in the flow of communication between those forced to leave and those left behind. It’s the same displacement 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.
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 this installment, we look at exile and a tune that articulates what it means to yearn for a homeland.
Pré-Générique, Aminollah Hossein
Watch the video here
If you’re a jazz aficionado, you’ll immediately assume from the cool sound of contrabass, clarinet bass and drums played by brush that the track is west coast jazz from the mid 1950s. The carefully established musical textures and easy-going swing of the piece with some nice urban colorizations only make you more sure. But take a look at the album cover and you’ll see every guess, except maybe the date, is wrong. Hard to believe, but what you’re listening to is a track by Aminollah Hussein, or André Hossein, the French-Iranian composer, famous enough in France for being the father to the French movie star and director, Robert Hossein.
Not much is known about Hossein’s early life. He was born in 1905 in Samarkand, where his merchant Azari father had migrated to provide a more stable social environment for his family. Since childhood Hossein had a life-long interest in the ancient Persia and Persian culture, and as a part of that he learned to play the tār, an Iranian version of the lute. Political turmoil in the region led to another migration to Moscow, and again his early musical education was interrupted by the chaos of the revolution, ultimately forcing the Hossein family to immigrate to Europe. Hossein continued studying music in Germany, married a Russian Jew and finally settled in Paris.
Iranica Online notes Aminollah Hossein as a composer was “much inspired by traditional Persian music,” and his orchestral works are based on the ideas “derived from Persian impressions.” He was certainly a pioneer of the use of Persian musical scales and Persian melodies within the context of western music. Even the title of his numerous compositions, whether symphonies, concertos or ballets, reflect a deep passion for Iran: Symphonie Persepolis (1947), Symphonie Arya (1976), Miniatures Iraniennes (1975) and Sheherezade (1975), even a number of piano pieces based on the poems of Omar Khayyam.
Like the idealized France or America in much of literature, painting and cinema, there is a utopian Iran which only exists in the artist’s imagination and his or her imaginary recollection of a glorious past, a past that possibly never has existed unless in arts. Hossein’s inspirations derive from a romantic conception of Iran as the land of beauty and poetry, in another word, Persia vs. Iran. His attempt to bring Persian music close to the various forms of Western music was partially a search for his identity through what he saw as a cultural exchange between his adopted country and where he was born. The revival of Hossein’s music in recent years shows how captivatingly the Iranian diaspora, by bringing his music back to concert halls, is trying to locate the same fragmented identity Hossein experienced 70 years ago. It’s as if his long-lasting quest has given Iranians something solid to hang onto.
However, if Iranians, by renewing their interest in Hossein and reinterpreting his chamber music as something “Persian,” have made him one of their own, Americans can make a similar claim after listening to his jazz recordings.
How Hossein was exposed to jazz is still not clear, but his prolific film scores show a deep understanding of the history of jazz and a sense of playfulness in recreating both the sound of the past and keeping up with the “modern” trends of the time. He must have been influenced by Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie, John Lewis and Barney Wilen. His jazzy film compositions are somewhat predictable, but by no means poor in quality or limited in imagination. In his music, like most of the better known film composers of the 1950s who were employing jazz music in cinema, the instrumentation with muted trumpet, brushed drums, walking bass and the crystal sound of the vibraphone was the sound of alienation and existentialism of the 1950s. On the other hand I would argue that his scores for films such as Le Jeu de la vérité (The Game of the Truth) should have paved the way for the popular “whistling” soundtracks of people like Ennio Morricone, even the Spaghetti westerns of Clint Eastwood.
Hossein’s story is one of innovation, flexibility and absorbing various cultural elements, making something very personal and self-reflective out of each trait. Iran plays the role of a lost love throughout his career, a love kept alive by constant reincarnations in the music he composed. His jazz writings may not show any obvious influence from Persian music, but who can ignore the “coolness” of this cosmopolitan Muslim rivaling his contemporary West Coast jazz composers and letting the memory of his beloved country come out of every note?By Ehsan Khoshbakht, Aslan Media Contributing Writer