SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA ENTERPRISE : Immigrant Cashes In on Sounds From Home : Importing: Encino firm caters to the tastes of Iranians who’ve settled in the United States.
One might say Mehrdad Pakravan owes a lot to the late Ayatollah Khomeini.
Pakravan, who emigrated from Iran in 1978, founded Caltex Trading Inc. in Encino in 1979. That same year, a militant Islamic revolution, led by Khomeini, ousted the government of the late Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, setting off a mass exodus of Iranians fleeing the control of conservative Islamic clergymen.
Nearly half a million Iranians would eventually settle in Southern California--now the largest Persian community outside of Iran. Caltex Trading, now a $50-million holding company based in Canoga Park, has thrived serving the growing Persian immigrant community here and around the world.
“There were not many outlets for Persian goods in 1979,” said Pakravan, 40. Today, divisions of Caltex Trading, supply food and other products to 150 Persian specialty stores in 45 states and abroad. Caltex is even a household name in Iran where millions of bootlegged cassettes of recordings by Persian pop musicians on the Caltex Record label circulate despite the government’s ban on popular music.
The record division, whose stable of artist includes the popular Persian musician Bijan, is by far Caltex’s largest, and most successful, division with annual sales of $35 million to $40 million.
Bijan, a violinist whose compositions are similar to American soft jazz styles, is considered the “Michael Jackson” of Persian music because of his extraordinary popularity in Persian communities. He recently sold out the Greek Theater in Los Angeles, leaving a thousand disappointed fans outside the gates.
Like Bijan, many Persian musicians defected to the entertainment capital of the world after the Islamic government banned nightclubs and non-traditional music, including romantic ballads.
Thus, Caltex has become the nucleus of a thriving Persian music scene in Southern California. The company has about 500 titles (including some of the oldest Persian songs in existence) and 50 artists on its label. It controls at least 75% of Persian artists on the market, the majority of whom are based in the United States.
Pakravan says his next goal is to bring contemporary Persian music into the mainstream of the American popular music scene. It’s only a matter of the right marketing strategy, he declares.
Caltex artists produce a music that is “universal,” says Pakravan, who acts as producer for all the musicians on the label. The music company has artists who both specialize in the traditional Persian music which goes back 3,500 years and others who have copied American popular styles. A lot of the traditional music uses instruments such as the tar, a predecessor of the guitar, and the oud, an old form of the banjo.
Many of the Caltex artists “have a (traditional) Persian influence but sound totally contemporary,” said Suzanne Doucet, a former German pop singer and Grammy committee member, who is in charge of promotion for Caltex’s American market. “The music has not been introduced on the right track so they (American listeners) can go out, buy it and listen,” she said.
Contemporary Persian music has a mixture of Western pop, classical and soft jazz influences that appeals to so-called New Adult Contemporary (NAC) listeners, who enjoy it for meditation and contemplation, says Doucet.
Contemporary Persian music has been well received by fans of KPFK-FM’s weekly world music show, which is heard from Bakersfield to Mexico, says KPFK’s music director Mario Casetta. “I have had good responses and they like my selections,” he said.
With the blend of pop and Persian sounds, “there is definitely a potential (for Persian music), especially in the dance genre,” said Amy Sharafi, marketing and sales director for Beat magazine.
To attack the broader American market, Pakravan recently created Caltex Records International and a new label, called “Aladdin,” to produce and market music by Persian artists specifically for American audiences. The company also set up a new division, Caltex Film Music, to produce music for movies.
Pakravan said he hopes Alladdin will be able to distribute 50 albums to major music retailers within the next three years. Artists on Aladdin will include Bijan and fellow Persian musicians Rohani, Siavash, and Farzin.
Caltex Records is just one way Pakravan’s company has gained influence over Persian communities in the United States.
His company also created and produces “Tanin,” a popular Persian television show. The show, which feature Persian films, music videos, and talk about Persian culture and politics, airs weekly on KSCI, a local cable television channel. Created in 1992, the show can also be seen on the International Channel Network carried by cable companies and satellite services across the country. The company also packages and sells tapes of Tanin programs.
The smallest of the Caltex three subsidiaries is Caltex Foods, which sells Persian delicacies, including dehydrated vegetables, canned foods, and stews to various distributors.