At once masterful, cheesy, overproduced, and under produced, the pop music of the Iranian diaspora in the 1980s and 1990s represents a unique time in music history. After the 1979 Iranian revolution, thousands of Iranians found themselves newly transplanted in Los Angeles and other cities around the world for the first time. Many of those who left Iran or fled to the United States brought with them Iran’s pop music tradition.
In the immediate aftermath of the revolution, the Iranian state began to exert greater control over the production and release of pop music. Many musicians such as Googoosh, one of Iran’s most iconic singers in the 1970s, were forbidden from performing. In the 1990s onward, the state did move to open restrictions on domestic pop music production and began to encourage an approved cadre of pop musicians. Some of these artists even achieved crossover success, such as Shadmehr Aghili and Benyamin Bahadori. Until Iran’s domestic pop music industry was resuscitated, the diaspora was the main incubator for new Iranian music.
Iranian musicians in the United States joined communities of other diaspora performers from the Middle East and Mediterranean. At the same time, Greeks were emigrating during their economic turmoil of the 1980s, Armenians were increasingly moving to the United States, and many Arabs were continuing to move to the United States and put down roots. In cities like New York and Los Angeles, these communities not only lived side-by-side but built upon the shared foundations between their cultures. Just as Middle Eastern markets in Los Angeles typically have bargain bins of CDs and tapes with music from across the region, instrumentalists from different countries often performed alongside each other.
Unique to this time of cultural exchange is the sense that the borrowing between cultures was exciting yet organic. One of the artists featured on this mix, George Abdo, was a leader of an early popular “Belly Dance Band,” which today is seen as one of many early “fusion” Middle Eastern acts. Abdo, unlike modern “oriental” or “belly dance” bands, were able to produce a particularly meaningful form of musical fusion.
One of his contemporaries writes in a blog post dedicated to his memory: “It’s important for me to mention here that even though Abdo and his band were doing “Fusion music” they did not stray far from the indigenous, cultural context and details of the songs, rhythms and structures. So important is this, as to make this music have its proper form, yet be something new as well. This is something so evidently missing from many groups here today doing American-Middle East music.”
This mix presents this sort of fusion not just with Abdo’s music, but even in the more canonical Persian pop of artists like Shohreh and Aghasi. When they brought Persian song into conversation with newer music trends like the drum machine or the synthesizer, great care was taken not to abandon the soul of the music being performed while still presenting something innovative. Somehow, this era of Iranian pop music found a way to be innovative and nostalgic all at the same time. This mix even has a nod towards the beloved soul and pop singer Lionel Richie, as an acknowledgment of the diverse sounds that these immigrants and musicians were exposed to during this time.
The videos, photos, and aesthetics of this era have not necessarily aged well. Yet where the fashion sense of these singers was not timeless, their music arguably was. History has shown that these artists have succeeded in earning a place in our hearts. Years later, many of the songs of this era continue to be staples of Iranian and Middle Eastern parties around the world, and have created a certain canon of their own.
1) Davood Behboodi – Asal
2) Harout Pamboukjian – Ghapama
3) George Abdo – Raks Mustapha
4) Aghasi – Aroosi Dezfuli
5) Shohreh – Shabeh Sher
6) Lionel Richie – All Night Long
7) Parviz Ghadarkhani – Maste Mastam
8) Siavash Shams – Dokhtar Irooni
9) Alabina – Alabina