Deep and Deviously Defiant Underground Persian Sounds from Mohsen Namjoo
Last night at the Asia Society Iranian crooner and songwriter Mohsen Namjoo played a show that was just as entertaining as it was cutting-edge. Namjoo has been compared to Bob Dylan, which makes sense to a degree: both draw on their respective nations’ folk traditions, have a sardonic lyrical side and have been a thorn in the side of the political status quo. Another comparison that came to mind strongly during the early part of Namjoo’s duo set with innovative drummer Yahya Alkhansa was Leonard Cohen, as Namjoo – a powerful, dynamic vocalist – aired out his ominous low range, giving voice to angst-ridden classical Persian poetry by Hafez.
There’s another American artist that Namjoo resembles, in spirit if not exactly musically, and that’s Tom Waits. Both have a vivid sense of the surreal, are purists in their own musical traditions and rely on dark wit to put a point across. Namjoo’s vocals and lyrics were often as funny as his playing, on setar lute and acoustic guitar, were plaintive. One of the most amusing moments was during the metaphorically-charged Sanama (“Idol,” or “Beloved,” in Farsi) where he abandoned his somber, classical intonation and began wailing, teasing, imploring and then simply goofing on this mystical woman. Persian poetry is rich with subtext, and Namjoo worked every angle and every nuance in this entreaty to “stop the pain,” before turning it into a sarcastically comedic soul song of sorts, Jimmy Castor or Cee-Lo Green taken back in time a thousand years.
Namjoo’s playing was as distinctive, individualistic and eclectic as his vocals. On the setar, he used droning, Velvet Underground-style vamps, dark, minor-key American blues riffs and during one of the evening’s most surrealisticallly amusing numbers, the shuffling melody of ZZ Top’s La Grange, over which he sang a brooding, lovestruck, metaphorical Hafez lyric. Alkhansa made it even more surreal by accenting not the two and the four, but the opposite of that beat, which turned out to be more disquieting than it was outright amusing. There can be times when one culture appropriating another’s tropes can be nails-down-the-blackboard grating or ridiculously awkward: this managed to avoid both of those traps even as it added a bizarrely comedic aspect. When Alkhansa wasn’t doing that, he was coloring the songs with a richly terse, counterintuitive verve, adding unexpected shades with the occasional tom-tom rumble, insistently pinging sequence at the top of the ride cymbal or flicker of brushes on his snare.
As the evening wore on, the two veered between dark severity and an almost punk humor: Namjoo, trained in the nuances of classical Persian singing, has an insider’s view of what that tradition takes too seriously, and doesn’t hesitate to hang it out to dry, which drew plenty of chuckles from the sold-out crowd. One of the most unselfconsciously intense moments came when Namjoo launched into the intro to David Bowie’s The Man Who Sold the World and then made Persian art-rock of it. Another was at the end of a skeletal setting of another Hafez poem, Namjoo murmuring “Damn this desert and this endless road” and all that implied. The evening’s biggest crowd-pleaser was the increasingly over-the-top, vaudevillian number that closed the show. And yet, when it came time for the big drum solo, Alkhansa responded with a lingering suspenseful “whoosh” from the drum heads, in keeping with unpredictability of the night. That trait can pay dividends for a nonconformist artist living under a repressive regime. The Asia Society’s celebration of the art and music of Iran is ongoing, with a very highly recommended show by Kayhan Kalhor and Ali Bahrami Fard coming up on November 16 at 8 PM.
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