Music, magic, and moustaches – the many colours of Iran’s Pallett
Translated from Persian by the author
Granny’s house brings a thousand stories … Granny’s house brings joy and melancholy
These are the words from a popular 90s children’s television programme, well-known among Iran’s post-Revolution generation, which has enjoyed a resurgence thanks to the song Hezarta Ghesseh (A Thousand Tales) by a group of bohemians who once enjoyed watching Granny’s House as kids. Claiming to have a ‘world music’ approach, Pallett is a band with a rather unorthodox instrumental arrangement, featuring Omid Nemati on vocals, Rouzbeh Esfandarmaz on clarinet, Mahyar Tahmasebi on cello, Dariush Azar on contrabass, and Kaveh Salehi on guitar. Having strong links to classical Iranian music (most notably where vocals and lyrics are concerned), Pallett’s music has also been strongly influenced by Balkan folk traditions. Presenting a blend of nostalgia, metaphor, and realism, the band has been successfully recording and performing in Iran as well as around the world in countries such as Brazil, Italy, the Netherlands, and Germany, ever since the release of their highly popular debut album, Mr. Violet (Agha-ye Banafsh).
I recently chatted with the spirited and spunky Rouzbeh about the band, its story, and the Iranian music scene, among other things.
I apologise for the cliché questions beforehand, but … since this is your first appearance on REORIENT, can you tell me the Pallett ‘story’?
[Laughs] I knew I’d have to go through this! Throughout 2010, Omid, Hesam, and I used to perform at Mahak (a charity organisation in Tehran) events. Sometimes it was all of us, sometimes just Omid and Hesam, and sometimes it was with a fellow musician friend of ours. Subsequently, Omid and I sat down and discussed the idea of forming an official band instead of making sporadic appearances in public. I recommended Mahyar and Kaveh [join us], and we, along with Khatereh Hakimi at the time, started practicing together. On the day of the band’s first performance, Omid brought some brochures and said ‘we are Pallett!’ [laughs]. Since we all had different personalities and characters, we [felt] we resembled the chromatic paints on a palette, forming a bigger colour spectrum.
Honestly, at the beginning, we didn’t have high hopes for the band; however, right after our first performance as an ensemble in Mahak, we received supportive feedback, which gave us reassurance.
Why the different spelling? (i.e. ‘Pallett’ as opposed to ‘Palette’?)
Well, we wanted to be different from the palette as a painting tool or a straw mattress! Therefore, we came up with our own spelling, although afterwards we found out about the artist Owen Pallett … but that didn’t seem to cause a problem.
What was each member’s individual style before the formation of the band? In other words, how did you arrange the ensemble with these specific instruments?
[Pause] The original Pallett that included Omid, Mahyar, Kaveh, Hesam, and I – unfortunately, Hesam is not with us anymore – had [members of] diverse backgrounds. Omid and Hesam studied fine arts, while Omid had been taking singing classes since childhood. Hesam had learned to play the tonbak (frame drum) as a kid to accompany his sister, while Kaveh studied guitar at university, Mahyar studied the setar (long-necked lute), and I studied the clarinet. Later on, Dariush Azar joined us – he’d studied classical contrabass.
As you might know, in Iran’s music schools, there are only two theoretical systems [studied]: traditional, and Western classical. All of us were classically trained, but at the same time were looking for something unconventional. Sometimes at university rehearsals, I would play jazz out of the blue; suddenly, the professor would sneak in and advise me to keep practicing Debussy! We never followed a specific style. We play music for music’s sake, you know …
In that sense, what was your musical style when jamming, even before Pallett? What sort of music were you all listening to?
Mahyar and I go way back. In 2007, we used to perform in the university’s theatre department. We were never guided by style; we were drawn by the music itself at a specific moment – we’re all music freaks! We all fancy bands like Lhasa, Zaz, Radiohead, and many others, but what brought us all together was Balkan Gypsy music. Sometimes Mahyar and I play gushehs (melodies of the dastgah system of classical Persian music), while Kaveh and I rapidly move about to a waltz, and Hesam starts a 6/8 tempo (commonly used in traditional Persian music as well as Iranian pop music) based on what I’m playing on the clarinet. As I mentioned before, the music itself guides us.
We were never guided by style; we were drawn by the music itself at a specific moment; we’re all music freaks! … What brought us all together was Balkan Gypsy music
How would you define Pallett’s style? Can you place it in a specific category?
[Laughs] This is such a difficult question to answer … If an artist were to respond to this, it would be to mainly show off, or advertise him or herself – I apologise for being honest. You might know the band H.I.M.Their style is metal, but once in an interview, one of the members described it as ‘love metal’ [cracks up]. What sort of thing is that!? The words ‘love’ and ‘metal’ do not go together in the first place!
Artists cannot frame their style. Our tracks vary, from minimal ambient tunes to Gypsy jazz, to fusions of Latin and Persian classical, pop, and Latin jazz … After a track is recorded, we find out later that we used such and such patterns, etc. Therefore, I cannot categorise Pallett. If you listen to our second album, you might only find two tracks in common with [those on] the first one. I might say our music is a modern fusion, or, New Age Iranian music. I don’t know … if you ask me to define it, I will just gaze into the void! [laughs].
You’re often mentioned as falling into the pop category, though – what’s your take on that?
Well, the truth is that when lots of people listen to a specific song, although it isn’t pop, it can be labeled as being so. I cannot say our music is ‘pop’; what I can say is that we also do pop tracks. The type of music we play has artistic concepts, and they cannot merely be categorised as ‘pop’. We look for concepts in each track; we don’t write new tracks based on beats and harmonies from previous songs. For instance, our second album revolves around a specific concept, meaning it isn’t ‘pop’. I, personally, do not mind if our music is labeled pop. So far, Pallett has released one album, and we cannot not judge it ourselves. Our songwriting is the result of interactions between five people … there is no right or wrong interpretation.
I totally get your point … but, for instance, you could say that Pallett isn’t a prog-rock band on account of the melodies and chord progressions featured in your songs …
Of course … but there is a problem with categorisation in general. For instance, a group of our close friends has formed a competition trying to cover different styles of music in Iran (e.g. pop, classical, fusion, etc.) … Bands such as 4Taar and Mr. Sharifian are purely classical avant-garde [for instance]. It is interesting that [people] have compared our music to [that of] O-Hum, 4Taar, or Comment Band. This approach reveals that they are thinking along the lines of vocals and lyrics. We are structurally different from these bands. O-Hum and Comment Band have more things in common. A comparison between Pallett and groups such as Kalam Band or Bomrani might make more sense. As long as they categorise us [along with the former bands, critics] are not on the right track.
What is your songwriting process? How do you begin working on a new song?
It’s a very difficult question [laughs] … [A song] might start with an improvisation. Two of the tracks on our first album began this way. Most of the time, one of us comes up with a melody; then, we all ‘bombard’ it with ideas and try to work on it. After it’s done, we keep the track. Later on, we might add a couple more tracks and create a ‘template’. In other words, all of us play a role, but some are more pronounced on particular tracks. As for the lyrics, we all contribute, otherwise Omid and Kaveh write them.
How’s the second album coming along?
It hasn’t been released yet. We have one cover song on it. Some people consider [covers] as not reflecting any creativity. Many might not know that the song Baz Baran (Rain, Again) is a cover. Fans of Kurdish or Turkish music might be able to recognise the song’s Kurmanji origins. Sometimes, we cover a section of a song with the exact same harmonies, as we did with Granny’s House; other times, though, we totally change the composition of a song as we did in Khosrow and Shirin, [a song originally sung by] Ghamar-ol-Molook Vaziri (a.k.a. Ghamar) – we turned it into a Latin jazz song. We mainly do covers for the experience of experimenting with them in the style of Iranian music. In Friend’s Token [for example], we figured out how to make Persian music Gypsy. Many times we’ve been cursed, and many times applauded. We welcome both! [laughs]
We do not mechanically compose songs; we let the music take us with its flow. To quote myself, we often try to create an environment in which Omid can ‘swing’. Honestly, the tracks that we’ve composed this way have been our most popular
Are there any songs you’ve been responsible for ‘igniting’?
[Pause] Yadegar-e Doost (In Memory of the Friend). Kaveh and I were practicing Gypsy jazz, and suddenly, Omid and Khatereh rushed out of the kitchen and said, ‘let us sing these lyrics!’ Later on, Mahyar and Dariush contributed to it as well. Many don’t even notice it’s a cover of a song by Shahram Nazeri.
Would you say Pallett fuses different musical styles, or rather lets new ones emerge from witihin?
Personally, I love Balkan Klezmer, and I have practiced this style a lot. I think one of the reasons our music is [often] considered Balkan is because of the clarinet. Our biggest concern has been to find our own style, and this is pronounced on our second album. Mahyar is actually the ‘soloist’ this time, and plays differently on his cello, [while] Kaveh has discovered new musicians he’s been influenced by and is exploring his own style. This is what Pallett is aiming for. We do not mechanically compose songs; we let the music take us with its flow. To quote myself, we often try to create an environment in which Omid can ‘swing’. Honestly, the tracks that we’ve composed this way have been our most popular. It’s interesting to know that the track, Mosallas (Triangle) was recorded in twenty minutes with the collaboration of Mehdi Saki. He came to one of our rehearsals and presented a melody along with lyrics. Kaveh started playing along in a Latin style, I added parts on clarinet, others contributed as well, and – voila! We had a song.
What is your take on contemporary Arab music?
Personally, I am not a big fan of commonplace Arab pop songs … but we all adore Mashrou’ Leila and Ibrahim Maalouf.
In your opinion, do you think the new generation in Iran has contributed to the development of Persian classical and traditional music?
I think such contributions will [manifest themselves] in the future, and we’ll only be able to judge then. For instance, Quincy Jones was not acknowledged as being influential during his time … Christian McBride, one of my favourite bassists, [recently] said, ‘When [Quincy] speaks, I strongly suggest you listen’. You know what I mean? The aftermath is not visible in the present, [but only] in the future, whether [we’re talking about] Pallet, Bomrani, or Mohammad Reza Shajarian. In Iran [today], most singers have a Shajarian ‘accent’; this is one of his [clear] contributions to [contemporary] Iranian music, [for example].
Let me elaborate on that: has Iran’s music advanced in the past years? What progress has the local music scene witnessed?
I think so many good things are happening. In many ways, Iran’s music has not developed, and it is a lot to expect [this]; we should not compare Iran to other countries. The first music school in Iran opened less than 100 years ago (in 1923); yet today, we have a generation who can form a band and compose a track as a group. This, in my opinion, has been our biggest achievement. Around 15 years ago, if you were studying with a well-known instructor, you didn’t have the right to leave and practice with another. These notions are fading away. In February 2015, Pallett will perform in a festival alongside Homayoun Shajarian, the Kamkars, the Pournazeris, Hossein Alizadeh, and Alireza Ghorbani. All of these musicians have way more experience [than us, and] the fact that they have accepted to perform alongside Pallett proves my point. I think this is our biggest accomplishment, by far.
Do you have plans to perform in the US?
Absolutely. We will perform in the United States starting June 2015.