Swell to be vel: the music of Iran’s Velshodegan
A few months back in January, a friend of mine – a classical Iranian musician – sent me a link to a song, What Does All this Have to Do with You? by a band called ‘Velshodegan’. Also included in the message was a note: Here is the kind of classical Iranian music you’ve been longing for. The vocal and instrumental styles were in the classical Iranian genre, and the lyrics of the song protested the social regulations imposed on people’s appearances and lifestyles. Shave your moustache / Don’t shave your beard / … Shape your [eyebrow] arch higher / … Vay – what does all this have to do with you, my friend? Two refrains from a pop song were quoted on the track, juxtaposed with slang sung in a classical vein; there was also a critical stance towards the beloved: Oh you, who used to read Sadegh [Hedayat] / Oh you, who used to be all about Sa’di / You ruined my life / What were you after?
Listening to their other songs, I realised that Velshodegan is subversive through their challenging of fixed understandings of linguistic boundaries and musical genres constructed as ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture. Captivated by the band’s music, I decided to interview them, and a month ago, spoke with their singer and tar player, Mehran Fallahi. Along with his nephew, Behzad Hassanzadeh on the kamancheh, and Mohammad Nobahar on vocals and the tonbak, the trio comprise Velshodegan.
Velshodegan’s songs fall in the category of tasnif, metrical songs in classical Iranian vocal music. Alireza Miralinaghi defines tasnif as a genre of Iranian vocal music in which lyrics and melodies are spontaneously fused together to convey a new concept to audiences1. Tasnifs are often composed – rather than improvised – with definitive rhythmic metres, and differ from taranehs (popular songs), which are often combined with other kinds of music such as those from Western and Arabic genres2. The instruments in tasnifs are mostly Iranian, and the rhythms and vocal styles fall within the classical Iranian music tradition. These characteristics are also shared with another subgroup of Iranian vocal music called mooseghi-ye motrebi. Motreb in Persian signifies one who performs vocal or instrumental music; in its contemporary usage, the term refers to someone who plays an instrument and/or sings at dance parties, connotes a lower social status (compared with ‘serious’ musicians), and carries derogatory implications. Mooseghi-e motrebi, referring to the musical works of motrebs, includes several subdivisions that share similar characteristics: they are mostly in the dance and ‘party’ style, called mooseghi-e mahafel-e shadi (lit. ‘music for joyous gatherings’), and use lyrics expressed in a vernacular language that are at times orally transmitted.
The renowned Iranian vocalist Mohammad Reza Shajarian performing a tasnif composed by Aref Ghazvini
The distinction between tasnif and motrebi music is the result of the works of 20th century musicians. As Sasan Fatemi explains, during the Qajar era through the 20th century, tasnifs were widely popular among both professional and lay musicians, at the royal court and beyond. Even ordinary people were involved in their creations, composing lyrics that fit within rhythms of existing tasnifs created by professional musicians3. The prevalence of tasnifs at parties (mahafel-e shadi) often caused elite musicians to hesitate to claim them as their own; however, this trend gradually changed after tasnifs adopted lyrics and a lexicon that was closer to classical poetry than vernacular Persian.
In the sense of the term, from the 20th century onwards, tasnif has referred to more ‘serious’ works of classical Iranian vocal music. The lyrics of tasnifs do not follow the strict rules of classical poetry, as they tend to follow the melodies of songs (as opposed to the rigid rubric of classical poetry). In contrast to improvised classical Iranian vocal music (avaz), tasnifs have relatively less-complicated lyrics; articulated in poetic idioms, they are mostly romantic, deal with socio-political concerns, or are entertaining. These characteristics became more prominent following the Constitutional Revolution (Enghelab-e Mashrooteh) between the years 1905 and 1911. Aliakbar Sheyda (1880 – 1945), Aref Ghazvini (1882 – 1934), and Amir Jahed (1895 – 1977) were among the prominent composers and performers of tasnifs, and their style continues to define the genre to this day. Sheyda’s tasnifs were largely romantic, while Ghazvini, nicknamed the ‘Larynx of the Constitutional Revolution’4, was one of the first composers of tasnifs that dealt with social issues, who at one point organised a popular concert for his songs about the Revolution5. Ghazvini advocated for tasnifs to be accompanied by simple vocal styles in order to avoid complication and to popularise the classical genre.
A scene from Dariush Mehrjui’s 1970 film Agha-ye Haloo (Mr. Idiot), wherein two motrebs perform tasnifs
Velshodegan’s Tasnifs: Disturbing Prevailing Distinctions
Velshodegan’s lyrics – unlike those of most contemporary tasnifs – do not follow the general socio-ethical norms of the official language. The lyrics are colloquial, oftentimes humorous and crude, and relate social experiences prosaically. The humour in their songs is derived from the contrast the audience feels between classical Iranian music and vernacular street language, quotes from pop songs and prosaic lyrics, and the informality of their videos. There is also a musical humour formed through the juxtaposition of the music of classical tasnifs with that of the motrebi style. In the middle of the song Hormone, for instance, a motrebi-style section is performed, resembling those sung in women-only gatherings, with references to common female names and titles such as ‘Shamsi Khanoom’.
The work of Velshodegan is similar to classical Iranian vocal music, although the lyrics depart from current conventions, standards, and formalities in the genre. Velshodegan, however, do not simply dismiss various Iranian musical traditions; rather, they extend them and explore the possibilities inherent in the tasnif genre.
The Dumbasses Must Dance
The lyrics of the song Oskola Bayad Beraghsan (The Dumbasses Must Dance), play on those of a pop song (Khoshgela Bayad Beraghasan / The Beautiful Ones Must Dance). Velshodegan, in using the contemporary slang term, oskola (dumbasses), change ‘beautiful’ to ‘dumbass’, and in turn, the song’s ending from You are the girl of my dreams to You are the dumbass of my dreams. The humour in the song stems from the contrast between the classical music (both instrumental and vocal styles), and the use of crude and vernacular slang terms and concepts in the lyrics. The beloved in Velshodegan’s songs does not have to be perfect to be an object of affection; speaking about the creation of the band and its beginnings in Oskola Bayad Beraghsan, Mehran says:
For a while, I was performing a style of tasnif, using simple lyrics not generally considered poetic. I had a Soundcloud account, wherein I showcased my work, and messaged Mohammad, a high-school friend, inviting him to play instruments at my house. Behzad is my nephew, and was at my place when Mohammad joined us. Behzad had heard my work and suggested we record songs. We performed and recorded Oskola with so much joy and laughter. The three of us were looking for [something] like this, and the project ‘clicked’ with all of us. Mohammad suggested we name the group ‘Velshodegan’.
Flânerie in the Realm of Music
My instrument is freedom, my melody, wandering (avaregi).
Belonging cannot tune my qanun (a zither-like instrument)
– Bidel Dehlavi (1642 – 1720)
The term velshodegan literally refers to vagrants, drifters – rolling stones. The name was chosen to highlight the conditions of the band’s members in society, and their music in the classical Iranian music scene. One who is vel, or, avareh, aimlessly roams about. As Mehran explains:
We have no place in what is conventionally considered classical Iranian music. We all agreed with Mohammad’s suggestion to call our group ‘Velshodegan’, since it represents our situation perfectly. We are wanderers in society, and our music has been ignored by the classical music community ever since the release of our first work months ago. No name would fit us better than ‘Velshodegan’.
Velshodegan disrupt musical and linguistic boundaries and standards of propriety, going astray and creating their own musical language
A velshodeh is similar to a flaneur, the ‘wandering idler, ostentatiously free of all purpose’6, as the philosopher Walter Benjamin described7. A flaneur navigates a city through ‘distracted observation and dream-like reverie’8 to the point of intoxication, leading him or her to intimately involve themselves with the most inconspicuous aspects of a city. As Howard Eiland explains, ‘Flanerie is a mode of experience that in each case incorporates a certain historical remembrance’9. Velshodegan are not passive observers in their roaming; the condition of being vel in their music makes it possible for them to excavate the everyday, reflect on discreet daily experiences, and remember – through their drifting ‘soles’ – the forgotten and discredited (such as the motrebi style). It is through this idle mobility and vagrancy that the ghost of near-forgotten musical practices becomes transparent, where it, to quote Eiland, ‘assimilate[s] older forms as traces within the framework of the new’10. Velshodegan relates to classical Iranian vocal music through juxtapositions and superimpositions of the past and present, the poetic qualities of classical tasnifs and vernacular street language, and classical vocal styles and popular dance music.
Hearing the name ‘Velshodegan’ for the first time, I was reminded of another term: delshodegan (lit. ‘love-struck’). Delshodegan is the name of Ali Hatami’s acclaimed 1992 film, a celebration of classical Iranian music set during the Qajar era, whose soundtrack was composed and performed by the most prominent figures of contemporary classical Iranian music. In replacing del (heart) with vel, Velshodegan subvert the prominence of the fixed values and tropes of love, and the notion of ‘proper’ lyrics. They disrupt musical and linguistic boundaries and standards of propriety, going astray and creating their own musical language.
Dialogism in Velshodegan
There is neither a first nor a last word and there are no limits to the dialogic context (it extends into the boundless past and the boundless future). Even past meanings … can never be stable … they will always change (be renewed) in the process of subsequent, future development of the dialogue. At any moment in the development of the dialogue there are immense, boundless masses of forgotten contextual meanings … Nothing is absolutely dead: every meaning will have its homecoming festival.11
– Mikhail Bakhtin (1895 – 1975)
The aesthetic heterogeneity in Velshodegan’s music disturbs any fixed conceptualisation of tasnif. Velshodegan’s lyrics are polyphonic, containing multiple voices from various genres, refusing to merge into any single, definitive form. Their lyrics oftentimes allude to, or directly quote pop songs, and have traces of classical tasnifs of the early 20th century (such as those by Aref Ghazvini). The lyrics are dialogical: they are composed fragmentarily, playing on the works of distant and immediate pasts, and are combined with commentaries on recent social concerns on both private and public levels. As George Lipsitz explains,
Popular music is nothing if not dialogic … The traces of the past that pervade the popular music of the present … are not simply juxtapositions of incompatible realities. They reflect a dialogic process, one embedded in collective history.12
The past, or, popular collective memory, appears in Velshodegan’s songs as fragmented and out of context. The presence of the past in the group’s lyrics is not due to mere nostalgia; rather, they take the past – expressed in the lyrics of popular songs – out of its former context, as explains Susan Buck-Morss, ‘[creating] “dialectical images” in which the old fashioned, undesirable, suddenly appear[s] current, or the new, desired, appear[s] as a repetition of the same’13. They throw the pieces of the past into a space – classical Iranian music – which is considered ‘inappropriate’, creating a disarray that comically challenges fixed musical and cultural understandings. In Mehran’s own words:
We feel exhausted with the culture of lyrics of classical Iranian music that over-values modesty and bashfulness. We strove to find ways to express our thoughts freely, and reflect on our daily experiences through classical Iranian vocal music, which is the genre that we like. We prefer to sing about the high-school bathrooms that were never vacant, instead of repeating [the lines of the Hafez poem], I said, ‘I am suffering for you’ / You responded, ‘your suffering will end’. In short, we can no longer stand the highbrow lyrics that have been inseparable from classical Iranian vocal music … We started this project because we felt so bored, specifically, with the current state of classical Iranian vocal music.
The condition of boredom – the impetus for the creation of Velshodegan – was mentioned several times during my conversation with Mehran. ‘Boredom is the bird that hatches the egg of experience’, once remarked Benjamin, ‘a rustling in the leaves drives him away’14. In very much the same way, to ‘drive away’ boredom, Velshodegan began a musical experience, communicating, through their musical language and lyrics, the prosaic and the quotidian.
So far, Velshodegan’s style has been unmediated and freely accessible. Social media sites, such as Soundcloud and Facebook, have helped to keep the production, distribution, and reception of their work free from the dominance of commercial standards of exchange. Their videos – which mostly take place in their houses – are informal, and often show the band members in intimate and informal settings. The videos are sometimes perceived as ‘improper’ treatments of classical Iranian music, with some listeners having made such remarks as, ‘Perform this classical music with decent lyrics, with proper clothes, in a proper, classy place, and you will see how popular your work [will] become’; ‘Your ridiculous lyrics ruined the perfect classical music’, and, ‘It took 90 years for classical Iranian music to distance itself from the motrebi style … innovations are good, but not at the expense of destruction’.
An Affair of the Heart
Del (heart) in tasnifs, similar to in classical Persian poetry, is often the wellspring of romantic suffering. Romantic suffering in tasnifs sometimes subtly merges in collective conditions, particularly in the works of Ghazvini and some others composed after the Constitutional Revolution. The heart doesn’t desire green or countryside / It doesn’t desire to sightsee or walk in the garden / The heart doesn’t want to keep us company / I hope this heart turns into blood that doesn’t have any patience. These lyrics from a tasnif of Aref Ghazvini continue with a social critique: As time goes by, we have witnessed all kinds of injustice / We haven’t come across anyone, except thieves accompanying the caravan15. Similar to several other of Ghazvini’s tasnifs, personal pain joins and becomes indistinguishable from the collective social mourning over the state of affairs in the years following the Revolution.
In In Del (This Heart) by Velshodegan, the lover does not complain about romantic suffering; in fact, the beloved is exhausted by the lover’s expressions of suffering, and doubts his love: The beloved, the beloved is tired of ‘aah’, oh dear / … With what hope can the beloved take me seriously? / … What can the beloved do? What? What can the beloved do? The lyrics become a medium for the voice of the absent beloved, and there are multiple voices and perspectives expressed in the song. The state of the heart – representing the lover’s emotional condition – is tied to broader social circumstances and experiences: Not in a good mood, no money, don’t feel like talking, says the lover.
A Musical Possibility
The bird that would soar above the level plain of … prejudice must have strong wings. It is a sad spectacle to see the weaklings bruised, exhausted, fluttering back to earth.16
– Kate Chopin, The Awakening
In an image of Velshodegan designed by Moslem Rasouli, faces of the band’s members are placed on top of a photograph of female musicians of the Qajar era. In the picture, the female musicians hold the same instruments as those played by Velshodegan, and the three band members, in place of the musicians, appear in female clothing. This transgression of gendered clothing norms figuratively displays the relationship between Velshodegan and the history of classical Iranian vocal music that nurtures their work. The past for Velshodegan is performative, in the sense that it interacts with the present. Similar to the image, they are within the tradition of Iranian classical vocal music, but they appear out of place, disrupting the norms and employing aesthetic heterogeneity. Velshodegan does not attempt to ‘merely … represent [the past of Iranian music] with simplistic strokes’, but rather, to ‘call on the past … animate it, understand … that the past has a performative nature’, as José Esteban Muñoz suggests17. In this way, the past (similar to the picture of the Qajar-era musicians) becomes a ground for the transformative possibility for Velshodegan to express themselves, and create their own language.
As Lipsitz states, ‘By examining the relationship between collective popular memory and commercial culture, we may be on the threshold of a new kind of knowledge … capable of teaching us that a sideshow can sometimes be the main event’18. It can be seen as a considerable musical ‘event’ that Velshodegan is employing classical music of the tasnif genre and popular music memory towards vernacular lyrical expressions of prosaic experiences, and further disrupting the constructed distinction between high and low culture. ‘All cultural expressions speak to both residual memories of the past and emergent hopes for the future’, says Lipsitz19. It remains for us, the audience, to observe whether Velshodegan’s music – cultivated out of such residual memories, while soaring above the level plain of prejudice (of high and low art) – will lead to a broader musical possibility within the sphere of classical Iranian vocal music.
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Cover image: Bahman Jalali (courtesy Silk Road Gallery).