The Sound of Distant Stars

Jordan Raphael's last story for the magazine was about the Internet adventures of comics icon Stan Lee

Shahrzad Sepanlou’s cell phone rings. At her office desk on a Tuesday morning, the 28-year-old event coordinator at UCLA considers her silver Samsung. She usually leaves its calls to the answering service, but she’s already checked her boss’ e-mail, arranged his schedule, paid some bills and sorted the mail. She may as well see who’s calling on the line she uses for her real business.

On the other end is a man from Ahvaz, a large city in southwestern Iran. He had seen an interview with Sepanlou on National Iranian Television, a North Hollywood-based station that can be viewed in Iran only by using illegal satellite dishes. “I just wanted to say good job,” the man says in Farsi.

The caller no doubt imagines Sepanlou as far more glamorous than the singer appears today as she works at her office job in black slacks, a sweater and low-heeled suede shoes, her shoulder-length brown hair in a bun.


“When are you going to come out with a new video?” he asks. N “I’m working on one now,” Sepanlou replies. “It should be out soon.”

“Great,” he says. “Thank you. I won’t take any more of your time.”

Sepanlou hits the “end” button and returns to her workaday job. As an expatriate Persian pop singer, separated from her audience by thousands of miles and a vast cultural gulf, she needs the money.

WHAT SEPANLOU REALLY WANTS TO DO, OR RATHER, WHAT SHE really does, is sing. And like the hundreds of other musicians and performers in L.A.’s Iranian music industry, which by most estimates produces 90% of the world’s Farsi-language pop music, her life is a mixed bag of the glamorous and the mundane.

It means being recognized by strangers in Persian restaurants, markets and music stores that dot the landscape from Irvine to the San Fernando Valley. It means playing the role of sexy songstress on local Iranian radio outlets and television stations, including National Iranian Television--NITV. It means phone calls, e-mails and faxes from fans in Iran, where it is still unlawful to sell recordings by Sepanlou and other U.S.-based performers. “I want you to know that we in Iran very, very much love you and always listen to your beautiful work,” a woman named Yasaman wrote to her by e-mail.

Sepanlou sings to a nation where, since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, dating and dancing are illegal, but where an estimated 65% of the current population is under the age of 25. Her songs, as do others produced in the West, often serve as a soundtrack for a budding rebellion by Iranian youths against a repressive theocracy that, among other things, forces women to cover their hair and bodies. Young people in Tehran and other big cities routinely gather at house parties and underground clubs--the women sometimes arriving in miniskirts under their body-length overcoats--to mingle with the opposite sex and shake their hips to pop singers ranging from Sepanlou to Ricky Martin.

But, given the low profile of the Persian pop scene in “Tehrangeles,” as some Iranians call L.A., Sepanlou’s life is also that of a typical American. She shops at Trader Joe’s unmolested by paparazzi. She lives in a modest two-bedroom apartment near the Miracle Mile with her husband, Amir Fassihi, a medical resident. And every weekday, the Iranian expatriate of 15 years trudges to her clerical job. “I have a double life,” she says.


Sepanlou began her career five years ago in L.A. as a member of Silhouettt, the first Iranian all-girl group--a sort of Persian En Vogue. On their most popular song, “Lady Sun,” the trio exhort their Iranian sisters to unveil themselves.

For Sepanlou, singing about the oppression of women helped establish her artistic direction and encouraged her to break away from the dance-party mold of such Persian pop acts as the band Sandy, whose music blends hip-hop, world music and bubble-gum lyrics.

On her first solo album, “Our Story,” released in 1999, Sepanlou took a more politicized approach than most Persian pop singers, addressing the pain of life in exile, the thrill of love and the unfairness of judging a woman by her past. “In my life I have not been a doll trapped behind a glass/At times I am filled with purity/Other times defeated by sin/Whatever I am and have been/You should want me for who I am,” she sings on the track “My Heart.”

“This is no I-want-to-be-famous-no-matter-how-bad-I-am production seen so often in the Iranian community in Los Angeles,” wrote Jahanshah Javid, a Persian cultural observer who runs, a Web site for expatriate Iranians. “On the contrary, Shahrzad’s songs are sensitive and intelligent.”

“Our Story” has sold only 6,000 copies. (The album that Sepanlou recorded with Silhouettt sold 20,000 copies and was considered a moderate success, she says.) With those numbers, Sepanlou knows she won’t get rich singing Farsi-language tunes. The industry is plagued by piracy in Europe and the Middle East, particularly in Iran, where Islamic clerics for years have tried unsuccessfully to ban Persian pop produced in the U.S., along with most other cultural products from the West.

Nonetheless, Sepanlou was recently heartened by word from her father, a celebrated poet who still lives in Iran, that one of her songs--a nostalgic tribute to the former glory of Tehran’s Mirdamad Boulevard--is stirring emotions in her native land. “I love the fact that people are moved by lyrics that I sing,” she says. “This is what I want.”


being surrounded by several hundred thousand Iranian Americans, the largest population of Iranians outside Iran, certainly helps expatriates feel comfortable in Southern Claifornia. Parts of West L.A. and the Valley are peppered with shop signs labeled in cursive Persian script, and chicken koobideh is easier to find than French fries.

Persian pop is an important component of the world that Iranian Americans have fashioned for themselves. For older Iranians who immigrated here, the melancholic songs of Siavash Ghomayshi and Dariush are a way to reconnect with the culture they left behind. Hipper acts such as the Black Cats and the salsa-influenced Mansour help young Iranian Americans forge a sense of cultural identity even as the fast-paced rhythms keep them grooving at Club X in Newport Beach or Cabaret Tehran in Studio City.

Los Angeles is home to the two largest Iranian record labels, Reseda-based Taraneh Enterprises and Caltex Records in Canoga Park, as well as dozens of singers, many of whom relocated here after the 1979 revolution that put the fundamentalist government of Ayatollah Khomeini in power. One of those singers is Leila Forouhar, a middle-aged diva whose latest album, “Tasvir,” combines techno beats with classical instruments such as the tablah, an Arabic hand drum.

Forouhar was a famous singer in Iran during the 1970s; when the revolution came, she was forbidden from recording music or performing in concert under penalty of imprisonment and hefty fines. Members of the komiteh, the religious police who enforce Islamic law, tried to persuade Forouhar to sell her piano. In 1986, frustrated by government censorship and the country’s impoverishment, she left Iran illegally and eventually settled in Los Angeles.

Starting over in a music industry subsidized mainly by other Iranian expatriates, she recorded 14 albums and became one of the most prominent U.S.-based Persian pop artists, as well as a role model for young performers such as Sepanlou. Forouhar’s lyrics aren’t overly political--typical for most Persian pop acts--although one of her songs, “Warning,” is a call to young Iranians that better times are ahead.

“I think she is a great artist in her own right,” Sepanlou says of Forouhar. “But I’m trying to deal with more serious issues, which women have generally avoided.”


Forouhar tours constantly in this country, as well as in Europe and Australia--wherever there is a population of Iranians who will pay to see her. Several years ago, she traveled to Asia to give a concert for a crowd of 3,000 Iranians living in Japan. Like many of her colleagues, Forouhar earns very little from album sales and supplements her income by singing at weddings, bar mitzvahs and private parties.

Iranians are renowned for their lavish celebrations, spending anywhere from $3,000 to $14,000 to hire performers like Forouhar or the popular balladeer Moein to coax people onto the dance floor. Still, Forouhar believes her biggest audience resides in her homeland, where solo female artists are not allowed to perform for male or mixed audiences.

“My only wish is to go back and see my people, my street and my home,” Forouhar says. “I hope one day I can sing on a stage in my country.”

To many citizens of Iran, the United States is “The Fortune Land,” and Los Angeles epitomizes the easy life. Millions of Iranians live vicariously through American culture, watching CNN and MTV on contraband satellite dishes and listening to bootlegs of CDs by artists such as Mariah Carey and Dr. Dre that they buy on the black market.

A few years ago, Iran’s hard-liners began financing the production and distribution of government-approved pop, with slower tempos and ostensibly chaste lyrics, to help Iranian youth resist the music seeping in from the West. One of the most popular of these “Tehran pop” acts is Shadmehr Aghili, a male teen idol who sings, “You know that life is hard without you, but how easily your eyes take death from my heart.”

With the Islamic government looking over his shoulder, Aghili would probably never get away with the relative sensuality of lyrics such as those by the L.A.-based Black Cats: “With her sweetness, when she dances, my heart weakens and my hands and feet begin to shake.” Nor would any officially sanctioned female performer (of which there are only a few) be allowed to sing these lyrics from Sepanlou’s “Like Other Days”: “My hair flows in the wind/My heart is drunk with happy moments/And my body is as warm as the sun.”


It’s not surprising, then, that despite the republic’s version of rock ‘n’ roll, L.A.’s Iranian pop singers are cherished in Iran. They evoke memories of a time before the revolution. Although it is now acceptable to possess CDs and tapes by Iranian expatriates, such as Dariush and Ebi, their music cannot legally be sold and it continues to be distributed through underground networks.

The hunger persists. Whenever Iranian singers in Los Angeles appear, for example, on NITV talk-show programs broadcast to Iran, the new generation clamors to make contact.

“Every day I get 20 phone calls from Iran,” Forouhar says. As a relative newcomer, Sepanlou receives a smaller stream of correspondence, but it is equally admiring. “I am proud that we have such an artist like you,” an Iranian medical student named Vahid wrote to her by e-mail from south-central Iran. “It’s too bad we can’t do anything with you here but listen to your songs--I hope to one day honor you as a guest here in Shiraz.”


LOS ANGELES MAY BE THE HUB OF IRANIAN POP MUSIC, BUT IT’S NOT the home of Googoosh, the most famous Persian singer. Born Faegheh Atashin, Googoosh was an actress and a pop diva of Madonna-like stature in pre-revolutionary Iran. When the Islamic Republic declared Western-style singing corrupt, Googoosh chose to remain in her homeland, going into self-imposed seclusion.

For more than two decades, she lived a quiet life, obeying the restrictions placed upon Iranian women, which included no musical performances. Then, last year, government officials gave her permission to travel abroad, and in July she returned to the stage for a concert tour of North America, Europe and the Middle East. For her first U.S. show in August, Googoosh sold out Inglewood’s Great Western Forum.

Googoosh’s reemergence was criticized by some expatriates, who accused her of soft-peddling the current Iranian regime’s repressive nature. She caused further controversy when she reportedly disparaged the post-revolution work of many of Los Angeles’ Iranian musicians. The Iranian government is trying “to use Googoosh for advertising,” Forouhar says. “They want to show that they are a nice country, that they are democratic. But it wasn’t like that. They didn’t let us sing in Iran.”


Of course, none of that mattered to the 12,000 fans at Staples Center in October for Googoosh’s third concert in Los Angeles. Before the show, business was brisk at the Figueroa Bar. People hurried to their seats carrying Wetzel’s Pretzels and stadium-sized containers of nachos and cheese.

Sepanlou was there as well. As a child in Tehran, she was entranced by the older performer’s mix of Middle Eastern looks and European chic. “Her music is dear to me. It’s so beautiful,” Sepanlou says. At the concert, Sepanlou sat in $100 loge-section seats with her husband, who also is an Iranian emigre. When the lights went down, Googoosh appeared onstage in a long, white silk dress, the strains of her pre-revolutionary hit “Talagh” (“Divorce”) playing in the background. Surveying the crowd, Googoosh immediately broke into tears.

“I’ll try not to cry again,” she said in Farsi. “One day I hope we can do this in Iran.”

During the song, Sepanlou leaned over and whispered, “This brings back memories of when I was 6 years old.” Her eyes, too, were soft and wet. “I can’t help it,” Sepanlou said. “It’s just coming out.”

Googoosh launched into “Gol E Bee Goldoon,” (“Flower Without a Flowerpot”), and the crowd, a mix of young and old, sang and clapped along. The metal floorboards of the loge section reverberated from stomping feet. Above the cheering came shouts of “We love you, Googoosh!” in both Farsi and English.


AMONG IRANIAN AMERICAN youths, there are many devoted Persian pop fans. Some even trade Farsi-language MP3s on Napster. But the lure of the American culture into which they’ve been transplanted can be hard to resist.

Mayar Zokaei, who has lived in L.A. since he was 9 years old, says he turned away from Persian music when he was a teenager, listening largely to R. Kelly, Boys II Men and Eminem. “There’s a much greater variety of music here,” says the 21-year-old UCLA student. “They have black people, white people, Hispanic people. In Iran, it was just Persian people.”


Lately, however, Zokaei’s interest in Iranian pop has been rekindled. “It’s become more innovative,” he says. “It’s got a little taste of American style, but it’s still distinct.” On his car CD player, Mansour, Leila Forouhar and Armenian-Iranian superstar Andy are in rotation with “The Best Man” soundtrack and a homemade hip-hop mix disc.

Unfortunately, the interest from young Iranian Americans such as Zokaei is not widespread, laments Rafik Avanesian, manager of Taraneh Enterprises, which releases a dozen or so CDs per year. Indeed, the Persian pop industry is shrinking.

Profit margins on U.S.-based Persian records have always been slim; a top-selling CD by Andy, say, might move 50,000 copies, barely a blip on the American music charts. But since the early 1990s, Avanesian says, overall sales figures have decreased, due in part to counterfeiting but also to a lack of new customers. “The teenagers who were born here, they don’t listen to Iranian music. They prefer ‘N Sync, Britney Spears,” he says. “The culture is gradually dying.”

The Persian music industry’s dilemma is that the core of its audience--more than 62 million Iranians--buys CDs and tapes in pirated formats in the alleyways of the Tehran bazaar and under the counter at government-licensed music stores. Record labels such as Taraneh and Caltex never receive a dime from those sales. And, of course, L.A.-based Persian acts can’t tour in Iran, where they likely would draw enormous crowds.

“Imagine if all the American artists couldn’t perform in the United States,” says Hooman Jafari, a 20-year-old singer with the Black Cats, a youth-oriented band that plays two to three weddings per weekend.

Mehrdad Pakravan, co-owner of Caltex Records, figures that if Persian pop were legalized in Iran, some of the albums by his label’s 25 artists would sell as many as 2 million copies. Even though there is no way to fight the counterfeiters, he says, Caltex will keep producing music. “They say our music is not good for people, and they have tried to discourage people from listening to it, but they haven’t succeeded.”



ON THE FAREWELL FLIGHT out of her home country 15 years ago, Shahrzad Sepanlou waited until the Lufthansa jet had cleared Iran’s airspace before she removed her gray manteau and her head scarf. She stuffed both into a plastic bag.

The manteau, a loose-fitting coat that she wore to conceal her body from her neck to her knees, in accordance with Islamic law, went to a thrift shop soon after. She kept the white cotton head scarf, occasionally showing it to her friends when she attended Los Altos High School in Hacienda Heights.

On a shelf in her apartment, Sepanlou has a photo of herself taken in April 1979, standing on a street corner in Tehran, her fingers held aloft in a victory sign. She was 6 years old, and like everyone else, she couldn’t have known the indignities she would face in the years to come. Sepanlou remembers that when the economy crumbled, her middle-class family slid into poverty. When new Barbie dolls got too expensive, she played with hand-me-downs that were missing arms and legs, pretending that the Barbies had been injured in the Iran-Iraq war.

She remembers swimming at a mixed beach on the Caspian Sea, wearing her manteau and head scarf, the sand sliding into the folds of her pants legs, weighing her down. “I felt like I was in chains,” she says.

And she remembers her run-in with the komiteh at age 12. She was walking with her best friend, both girls clad in head scarves and overcoats, with blue jeans underneath. To make a statement, they decided to roll up their blue jeans, mimicking the dress in American pop videos, and revealing the pairs of brightly colored socks they had on. Some passing agents of the komiteh were not amused, and they stopped the girls.

“I was shaking,” she recalls. “They said, ‘Young girls like you shouldn’t be dressed like this. You should be ashamed.’ They took down our names and addresses. We never did that again.”


Nowadays, Sepanlou enjoys freedoms that are denied to women in Iran. She can drink alcohol and smoke, wear whatever she wants, socialize with men who are not her husband and, most importantly, sing in public. “I wouldn’t take any less than what I have right now,” she says in her slightly accented English. “I’ve become an American.”

Her CD collection--Duke Ellington, Pink Floyd and Fiona Apple alongside Googoosh and Leila Forouhar--reflects her dual upbringing and hints at her future aspirations. She is working with a producer on an English-language demo tape she hopes will help her break into the American market. She finds it easier to write in English and yearns to break out of the Iranian community. “It’s comforting, but it almost holds you back.”

She has sold nearly all the copies of her solo CD, which she and her husband distribute out of a home office. They are still paying off the bank loan they secured to finance its production. At this point, quitting her job is not an option, although she would much rather be spending her days at the gym, working in the studio or preparing for her upcoming concert at the Key Club in West Hollywood.

“Sometimes I am envious of singers who have 10 people taking care of their business,” she says. “But I realize you can’t become that overnight, especially for an Iranian artist living in America.”

On a recent Wednesday, Sepanlou finishes printing out her boss’s e-mail and sneaks a peek at the e-mail account for 1001 Productions, the record label she formed with her husband. There’s a message from a woman in Tehran named Maryam: “Me and my two daughters really love you, and we try to get your tapes because we are living in Iran and it is kind of hard to receive them--you already know what I am talking about--you are living over there but you haven’t lost yourself. We admire you for that.”

Today, Sepanlou has a cold and coming to the office was a struggle, but the message lifts her spirit. “It gives me hope of an exciting life, of doing something I really love in the future,” she says and then heads into her boss’s office for a meeting.