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S Fatemi
S Fatemi

An Iranian traditionalmusic instrument An Iranian traditionalmusic instrument

Iranian Music

Sassan Fatemi is a member of the Academic Board of Tehran University and presently a reader towards a Doctorate Degree at Université Ethno-musical in Paris. He is also a member of the Editorial Board of Mahoor Music and Letter of Anthropology magazines.

Events- What is the situation regarding contemporary Iranian music?

Sassan Fatemi- Well to begin with we must divide contemporary Iranian music into three categories: (1) classical, (2) folk and (3) modern or rather popular.

Classical Iranian music is also known as traditional or dastgahi and radifi. True Iranian music from the point of view of the instruments used is based on three main elements: a string or wind instrument; tombak, a sort of drum; and the voice of a singer. Good examples are songs by Shajarian or Nazeri. Yet again we must make another distinction: classical music in the true sense and classical music based on Western traditions played by orchestras, using Western instruments.

Iranian traditional music band The second type, i.e. Iranian folk music, is what is current among common people in towns and in villages and rural areas, and it also includes what we call "regional" music. But in parts of Iran the local or regional music is not based on Iranian classical musical system. For instance in Baluchestan the music tends largely towards Indian music and in northern Khorassan to Turkish and Turkman, and in parts of the south, to Arabic. Regional music includes Mazandarani current in the north of the country and Bushehri in the south. These two plus the music of the Fars region are among the genres of the Iranian folklore music that are related to the classical Iranian musical system. These make up Iranian music that existed before Iran became acquainted with the West and Western culture. They are truly born of Iranian minds and talent. But what our people are now exposed to everyday is the popular Iranian music which is largely influenced by Western popular music, which itself has its roots in the 18th and 19th centuries.

E- But wasn't popular music the child of the 20th century?

SF- Many people confuse modern pop music with popular music. In the West popular music began with composers like Strauss and Offenbach. But, pop emerged in the 1950s and was greatly consolidated in the 1960s. Pop, which is sometimes mistaken for rock, is the mixture of popular Western music with American Black Music, notably blues. In Iran's popular music began to emerge with the coming of the radio to Iran. The radio's old songs are excellent examples of Iran's popular music. Then we have the "café" type music which used to be played in bars and cheaper night clubs. As time passed Western musical instruments and systems became more and more adopted into the Iranian system.

E- We have heard that you are in the process of registering Iranian musical system with UNESCO? What is this all about?

SF- UNESCO registers various musical systems - after much deliberation of course - to protect and preserve them mainly against threats from Western music. One of the dangers is that many musicians or singers in countries like Iran, prefer to join a European or American group or singer to produce music that is basically Western pop. This may gradually turn the local music into a mixture of Western and local music. The popular music you hear every day in Iran on the radio and TV is basically Western music. We still have preserved our classical music and hear it from time to time on the radio or TV or buy them on cassettes and CDs but it is approaching the stage of extinction. One of the main reasons is economic and financial; the market overwhelms all, and as the middle class grows in number the demand for popular music increases and for classical music decreases.

Iranian café music band

If we become registered with UNESCO they will aid and support our classical music and those musicians who would prefer to continue their involvement in classical music but cannot make a living from this style of music, UNESCO's aid will free them from the market, from the need to earn their living, thus allowing them to continue composing and performing classical music without financial concern. Another problem is that many versions of different radifs are forgotten with the death of famous musicians. We are presently preparing a file in support of our need for UNESCO's support and I am certain it will convince the people in charge at UNESCO. But this will take some time as UNESCO only accepts such a project once every two years.

E- What hurts you most about the present situation concerning music in Iran?

SF- What hurts me, is what hurts every person who cares about Iranian music: that is the absence of musical instruments and players on the TV. They are banned; you can only see the singer not the instruments. This discourages many top players from performing programs for the TV. Whereas if a high class player appears and plays on the TV, I am sure many young people would be immensely attracted to our classical music and to learning to play our own instruments.

But, with the present situation our young people either listen to popular music which is basically Western or to satellite channels which offer models such as Jennifer Lopez and the like. It's the market that dominates, but with UNESCO's help things can be improved, though the ban on TV would still be a serious problem. We also need to have workshops where young musicians have the chance of trying their compositions with other players who are all paid by the state. This process is costly and must be supported by the state or UNESCO. But it will certainly attract the young musicians from the market to good music.

E- Sometimes it is said that Iranian music is very sad. Is this true?

SF- No! Music is a system, purely a system that can express sorrow or joy. The reason why most Iranians find their music to be sad is that they are not quite familiar with it. In fact they find it boring. The same is true of Western classical music. The young generation in the West is not used to it, and, therefore, finds it sad or boring.

E- The other day a scholar was talking on the TV and he said that Iranian music is the richest of all. Do you agree?

SF- No, again I don't agree. You cannot compare the richness of musical systems just as you cannot compare the richness of languages. Each has developed in line with the tastes and needs of the people who have created it. You hear sometimes that Iranian music lies at the origin of Arabic and Turkish music. This is not correct either. The three musical languages have had positive effects on each other but no one is superior to the other two.

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