‘Essentially, we wanted to make mahali music become cool’
A few years ago, when I was searching on the Internet for Iranian mahali (folk) music, I came across the music of a London-based group called ‘Ajam’. Their music not only impressed me, but intrigued me as well. After listening to several of their singles, I made it a point to follow up with the group via their site to keep up with their new work. Formed in 2010, Ajam enjoys a broad-spanning fan base across Europe and North America, as well as in Iran. Their music touches on that of the many regions of Iran, from the northern provinces of Azerbaijan and Gilan, down to Shiraz and Khuzestan in the south – and everything in-between. Their music presents a blend of rooted, traditional folk music with a contemporary touch, featuring instruments such as the barbat and daf, as well as electric guitars and keyboards. In terms of inspiration, they often cite the streets and bazaars of Iran, traditional sports and public performances, as well as religious and ritualistic performances.
To find out about the band – its origins, its influences, and its experiences thus far – I spoke with Amin Ajami, Arash Fayyazi, ‘Nari-Man’, and Sara Fotros, who, in addition to other bandmates such as Parham Ajami, Zartosht Safari and Shohreh Khatoon, comprise Ajam.
Where were you born and raised, and what did you grow up listening to? What sort of music were you surrounded by as children?
Amin – I was born in Tehran, and moved to London when I was six years old. I grew up listening to Iranian pop (e.g. the likes of Kourosh Yaghmaei), and guitar [music] of the 60s, 70s, and 80s. Later on, I started listening to British pop reggae, as well as Queen and Metallica, [and] nu-metal [groups] such as Korn and Limp Bizkit. Around the age of 18, I [began listening] to American hip-hop, and also developed an interest in and appreciation for koocheh-bazaari and Arabesk music (e.g. singers such as Abbas Ghaderi, Aghassi). It wasn’t until a couple of years later that I started to listen to more traditional folk music.
Arash – I was born in Tehran. I am, however, of Azeri background. I moved to London when I was a teenager. I grew up listening to the music of the ‘golden era’, such as [the songs of] musicians like Marzieh. Due to my Azeri background, I was also exposed to, and had an appreciation for Azeri folk music. I was [also] always fond of Iranian pop music. Around the age of 16, I picked up the tar, started playing it, and developed an interest in traditional Iranian music.
Nari-Man – I was also born in Tehran, and I moved to London when I was 10 years old. I grew up listening to classical and sonnati (traditional) music (e.g. the likes of [Mohammad Reza] Shajarian and [Hossein] Alizadeh). As I grew older, I started listening to American hip-hop and English rap, and in my later teenager years, I developed an appreciation for British underground urban and dance music.
What inspired you to produce music that has strong, traditional Iranian roots, yet is so contemporary at the same time?
Amin – When it came to Iranian culture, there was a cultural gap. There is something other cultures have that we did not, until recently. Iranian music was nostalgic; a lot of it was from the 70s. Other cultures do not seem apologetic about their musical culture, whereas we Iranians seemed to be. There was a certain stigma and attitude attached to Iranian folk and traditional music, such as the dehati (lit. ‘rural’) label. We wanted to challenge those stigmas and go against the flow. There was a limitation in the popular Iranian sound palette, and we needed to embrace the textures and colours of Iranian music, both new and old. It is a postmodern way of thinking with regards to Iranian music.
Nari-Man – Essentially, we wanted to make mahali music become cool.
Why did you choose to name the band ‘Ajam’, given the word’s derogatory connotations with respect to Iranians?
Amin – We chose ‘Ajam’ because we wanted to challenge the meaning and understanding of the word. Many use the word to refer to one who is non-Arab or Persian. There is a chauvinistic nationalist [sentiment] attached to it, and people wanted to stop using it. We, in turn, wanted to empower the word … sort of, like, make it our own. In the UK, being strangers to the country meant being ajam to us. The word ajam enjoys a rich history of use in classical and contemporary Persian literature by many poets, such as Sa’di and Rumi, who were also fluent in Arabic, and as such, would have been aware of the word’s many meanings and uses. Ajam is also used a lot in spiritual poetry – in particular by Rumi and Attar – to refer to someone who holds a secret, but has to feign ignorance due to social and/or political circumstances.
Do you still feel like strangers? How do you identify?
Amin – Obviously, each person will have a different view on this; it depends where in the UK you’ve lived and/or grown up. For example, Nari-Man and I both grew up in London. Nari-Man lives in a central part of London that has a strong migrant community, especially of Arabs, Kurds, and Iranians. In these areas, shops are open till late, and the urban fabric is very vibrant, so [one] may feel a greater sense of belonging and more at home [there]. I grew up, and live in a suburb of southeast London, where there was a lot of racism. Culturally, it’s far less diverse [than central London], and in these 25 years, I’ve never felt at home. The track Home is the only English song I’ve written that I’ve brought into Ajam (on our first album, Raghs-e Mardooneh). I wrote it around 12 or 13 years ago, and I explain a lot of my sentiments in that song. The lyrics, in many ways, answer this question. In short, it all feels very familiar after 25 years, but I still feel like a stranger. The first artistic name I chose for myself when I started making music was Amin ‘Khareji’ (Foreigner), because I was referred to – and felt like – a foreigner and a stranger. ‘Ajami’ was a natural progression from that early persona.
After 25 years … I still feel like a stranger. The first artistic name I chose for myself when I started making music was Amin ‘Khareji’, because I was referred to – and felt like – a foreigner and a stranger
Who are typical listeners of Ajam’s music? What sort of audiences are you drawing from the UK, Iran, and beyond?
Amin – Living away from Iran, people are seeing folk music as ‘raw’ and more interesting. Teenagers are always looking for raw music – the sort that isn’t ‘packaged’. People tend to be shocked by our demeanour and energy at concerts. They expect formalised music, and we tend to stray away from that to engage our audiences.
Arash – Our fan base ranges from teenagers to middle-aged and older listeners; our music bridges the generation gap. At a concert in Calgary, Canada, there were older men in their 60s and 70s enjoying our music. Essentially, the rhythm of the language takes over, no matter which part of Iran you’re from, and whether or not you can understand the dialects or languages.
What do you make of the Iranian Generation Y’s tastes in music?
Nari-Man – Its influences are coming from non-Iranian pop music: Arabesk, Western music, and R&B. Iranians both in Iran and outside the country are going through a Turkish soap opera era, where many are listening to music from Istanbul and nearby.
How do you view your music in relation to that of similar bands like Rastak, and the Saeed Shanbehzadeh Ensemble? What do you make of their music?
Amin – We listen to both Rastak and [Saeed] Shanbehzadeh, and enjoy their music. From what I’ve heard of them, it seems that in general, they rearrange and perform traditional pieces in their own ways. Shanbehzadeh attempts to present traditional songs in a more contemporary context, but essentially, [he’s working with] existing themes. In our case, the aim is to create a genre of music that is contemporary, and that takes strong influences from roots music. The majority of the melodies, lyrics, and themes in our songs are original. The main difference for me is that we are trying to influence a youth culture, and to empower and represent roots culture in a contemporary light, [as well as] present the music as ‘people’s music’, rather than ‘art music’. For example, I’ve always seen Rastak as a group of really good musicians, who are all obviously professionally-trained and belong to a more ‘arty’ crowd, which makes them seem relatively removed from everyday, average people. Having become acquainted with some of them up close, however, I realised they are very genuine, down-to-earth guys. For us, it’s important for the listener to see and hear that this music is being presented by average people you could relate to, rather than a set of people with ‘specialised’ interests or skills. The aim of Ajam is to rejuvenate roots music and cultural elements, and give them back to the people, [as opposed to relegating] roots culture to ‘arty’, ‘special interest’, or ‘high culture’ forms.
Who are some of your favourite Iranian folk musicians, and why?
Amin – One musician who really opened my eyes to the potential of roots music is Abolhassan Khoshroo, a master singer and player of the laleva (shepherd’s reed) of Mazandaran. His singing and performance style is full of emotion and character, and it’s quite wild and almost aggressive at times. The first video I saw of him performing captivated me, as it contained a lot of the soulful and fierce spirit I enjoyed in many contemporary forms of music. It made me realise that Iranian music isn’t just the sombre and solemn instituionalised music of the radif, but that there is a much wider and more diverse soundscape from which [we can] build a new identity. Other strong characters, such as Bakhshi Rowshan Golafruz and [the late] Haj Ghorban Soleimani also inspired similar feelings in me, and their almost theatrical and engaging performance styles really influenced my onstage persona. Gholam Zarei is a very well-known performer in the Hormozgan province, and videos of his performances have definitely inspired me to try and present myself as a ma’rekeh-gir (a sort of public performer for the people), instead of imitating existing American and English notions of [what an] MC [should be].
The aim of Ajam is to rejuvenate roots music and cultural elements, and give them back to the people
Ahmad Mohsenpour – the kamancheh player and founder of the Shevash group in Mazandaran – has also been a very influential character, as for me, he was the first person to initiate a postmodern movement in Iranian folk music. Mohsenpour brought together musical instruments and modal music from different parts of Mazandaran, and arranged pieces where they could [combine]. Instead of trying to develop or further the indigenous music of Mazandaran by trying to make it similar to the institutionalised ‘national’ music of Iran and using classical instruments such as the tar, santoor, and tonbak, he brought native instruments such as the dotar, laleva, gherneh, das dayereh, and desarkotan that were traditionally played separately, or in duos, together in ensemble pieces that preserved the identity of the different regional variations in modes, tones, and timbres. Most importantly, his pieces are unapologetic, and an honest attempt at developing, whilst preserving a culture. I would say that Mohsenpour inspired me the most in arranging pieces for Ajam, and in some ways, influenced the overall ethos of the Ajam soundscape.
How have non-Iranian audiences been reacting to your music? Has it sparked any intercultural dialogue thus far?
Amin – It’s relatively difficult to get exposure outside the Iranian community. London is saturated with different cultures and subcultures, so it’s easy to get lost or unnoticed in the diversity. Having said that, we were recently selected as one of eight acts from the Middle East to perform and be interviewed as part of the BBC World Service’s Beats series, so we must be making it onto their radars somehow. The most heartwarming feeling I’ve received from non-Iranian audiences has been from that of neighbouring cultures that are familiar with our music. It’s easy to be recognised by Iranians in London, because there are a limited set of Iranian circles, but it’s a great feeling when Iraqis, Afghans, Kuwaitis, and other neighbouring peoples recognise you walking on the street. It doesn’t happen all the time, but it’s good to know that people who don’t completely understand the lyrics are also appreciating our music, and it’s an indication that hopefully, the music and aura of the videos and performances [will be able to] transcend the language barrier and convey the high-level messages.
Is your music ‘allowed’ (mojaz) in Iran? Have your received any feedback from the Ministry of Culture?
Amin – I am unaware of any official statements saying our music is permitted or not permitted in Iran. However, our instrumental pieces have been played on national radio and television shows. Most significantly, our 2014 World Cup song, Gol-e Iran (Iranian Goal), was played in full several times in the Azadi Indoor Stadium before the 2014 Volleyball World League games. Recently, one of the lyrics of the song was featured as a front-page headline on a national sports newspaper, as part of a story covering Iran’s bid for the 2015 Asian Cup. Some local contacts that enquired regarding the status of the song were told it had received an official permit to be played in public venues. We didn’t apply for any such permit, but it’s encouraging to think that such positive steps have been taken without our physical presence. My aspiration has always been to be able to perform this music in Iran, as it is Iranian roots music that takes its inspiration from the live and active indigenous music and cultures of Iran, and is created for the people of Iran. It would be a shame if this musical and cultural project weren’t formally presented in its homeland.