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Persian folk, funk and psychedelia win new generation of fans

It might not have been your typical party-time call and response, but the sold-out crowd at Cinefamily last week was as enthused as any frat house -- ready to thrust fists and shake hips in homage to Persia’s pop past.

“I say . . . ‘Disco!’ You say ‘Iran’!”

“Disco!” . . . “Iran!”

“Disco” . . . “Iran!”

Hundreds were at the Fairfax Avenue theater to celebrate both the Persian New Year and the release of “Pomegranates” -- an eclectic, infectious mix of long-lost Iranian pop -- 16 tracks culled from an era of both the shimmy . . . and the shah.

“This music is from a time when Iran was hip,” said the evening’s co-host (and the disc’s co-compiler), Arash Saedinia, “when they were wearing miniskirts under their hijabs.”

“Pomegranates” offers an Iran that many might not know ever existed -- an exuberant collection of ‘60s and ‘70s psychedelic, funk and folk music that reflects a society completely in sync with the revolutionary music of the era. With the shah’s policy of rampant modernization and Westernization, the country experienced both an undercurrent of discord as well as an embrace of global grooves.

The compilation is evidence of this dichotomy -- as traditional Farsi folk music collides with everything from Serge Gainsbourg-inspired bubble gum to swinging London swank. This strange collision is immediately evident on the album’s first track, “Helelyos” by Zia.

“It’s a sui generis funk tune,” explained Saedinia, “but it’s rooted in Khuzestani folk rhythm and slang from Abadan, a city in southern Iran.”

Saedinia and his partner in the album’s conception and compilation, DJ and beat digger Mahssa Taghinia, are second-generation Persian Americans -- raised in Los Angeles but connecting to their roots through their discovery of Iran’s forgotten pop heritage.

In Saedinia’s case, this happened when he returned to Iran in 2003 for the first time as an adult. “My mother presented me with a suitcase filled with vinyl,” he recalled. “The records were fascinating. Iranian pop artists played a variety of styles: traditional folk music, garage rock, disco and funk, to name a few. Many of the songs fused traditions. My mother [was] collecting records by Persian pop stars such as Googoosh and Aref along with records by James Brown, Shocking Blue, Serge Gainsbourg & Jane Birkin, Toots & the Maytals and the Beatles.”

While Saedinia was discovering his mother’s obsessions, Taghinia was seeking out rare vinyl and putting her encyclopedic knowledge of underground world music to use in both her gig working at Amoeba Music and behind the decks for her popular DJ nights. Eventually, the audiophiles met via MySpace, where both curate online archives of their musical discoveries.

“We were both contemplating a release of vintage Persian popular music,” explained Saedinia, “and we agreed to work together on a compilation.”

Taghinia had already developed a collaborative relationship with U.K.-based DJ and collector Andy Votel, whose B-Music/Finders Keepers label eventually would release the album.

For the curators, “Pomegranates” was as much about finding lost hits as finding their own identities as young Persian Americans. “I’ve co-opted the nostalgia that surrounds this music as my own, in a way,” admitted Taghinia, “as my parents’ memories of their past and the disconnection that has occurred post-revolution lent in a lot of ways to my struggle in identifying myself.”

“It was fascinating to discover this music,” said Saedinia. “The songs in the compilation were recorded during a period of modernization in Iran, and they are evidence of a vibrant, fairly cosmopolitan popular culture.”

Taghinia agrees and calls the period “wonderful, strange times of change all around the world, and Iran was very much part of that global scene, sociopolitically and musically,” she explained.

“The shah’s modernization programs forged Iran forward in a lot of different ways. Not only was the entertainment industry thrust in this modernization-machine, but so were the people, of course. The music reflects this urgency and is kind of a mutant pop form that is not completely Westernized and still retains a lot of Persian elements.”

As a result of this fusion, “Pomegranates” hosts a patchwork of sounds, a cut-and-paste mix drawn from a truly global era of music explorations. There is the playful, folk-chanteuse flirtations of pop icon Googoosh; the sensual, flamenco-inflected, female-fronted rock ‘n’ roll of Ramesh; and the guitar-psyche musings of Kourosh Yaghmaei. “Pomegranates” offerings are notably multifaceted -- the tracks drawing on everything from deep African American funk to Turkish progressive rock. It’s definitely not the Persian music many might expect.

“ ‘Pomegranates’ is fascinating,” enthuses Mark “Frosty” McNeill, a DJ and founder of the online radio station/collective Dublab.com, “because these are electric exclamations of a people whose creative lineage has shined for eons but in recent decades has far too often been shrouded by heavy politics and religious fanaticism.”

The last few years have seen an explosion of reissues from around the world that focus on this fertile musical period. Boutique labels such as Sublime Frequencies, Honest Jon’s and Soul Jazz have searched the globe in search of lost or buried sounds from the ‘60s and ‘70s.

That Iran was part of this era, with a vivid pop cultural life of its own, is evidenced again and again on “Pomegranates’ ” 16 tracks and in the archival images presented in the album’s liner notes.

The miniskirts Saedinia promised are there, as are the headbands, the tight jeans and the flowing locks. Sixties and ‘70s Iranian fashion icons such as Ramesh and Googoosh, (whose personal hairstyle became a rage known as “The Googooshi”) are captured in all their glamorous glory. Yaghmaei sports a handlebar mustache and a satin shirt. Zia, a silk ascot.

But it’s not merely about fashion -- however unexpectedly Mod -- or even about the music. For Iranians around the world who fled amid the revolution and the fall of the shah’s regime, the album is also a simple reminder of home.

“I grew up with this music,” explained Taghinia. “It was the music, the stories and the memories involving them that my parents brought over when they moved to the States after the revolution.

“I was born here but have been going to Iran almost every year for the past 20 years. A main objective for putting together this release is understanding amongst Iranians and non-Iranians alike. Understanding our collective past is crucial to moving forward.”

At Cinefamily, the overflow crowd, representing a wide range of age and backgrounds, seemed proof positive of that movement.

“ ‘Pomegranates’ puts to rest simplistic notions of East and West,” said Saedinia. “This compilation comes at an important time, as awareness of popular dissatisfaction in Iran demonstrates the hunger for freedom among Iranians.

“As a result of that -- the response to this music has been tremendous.”

calendar@latimes.com


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