Re-Interpreting Googoosh: An Interview with Musician Payam Bavafa

Sholi Hejrat EP cover

Meet Payam Bavafa, songwriter/guitarist in a San Francisco-based experimental rock band called Sholi. The band’s most recent EP, “Hejrat,” features an awesome cover of Googoosh’s song by the same name. We asked Bavafa, the group’s sole Iranian-American member, what Persian music means to him, and why he and his bandmates – drummer Jonathon Bafus, bassist Eric Ruud, and keyboardist/percussionist Greg Hagel – decided to cover the Persian pop legend. Here’s what he had to say.

Pars Arts: Tell us about Sholi; how’d you guys get together, and how’d you pick the name?
Payam Bavafa: I started playing music with Jon (the drummer) in Davis, where we were both going to college. I wanted to have a Persian name for our group, and Jon liked “Sholi,” the nickname that my dad gave my brother and me when we wrestled as kids.

PA: Your newest release is a 7″ entitled Hejrat, which is the name of the famous Googoosh song you’ve covered. Why the fascination with Googoosh, and why did you choose the song Hejrat?
PB: Googoosh was the predominant soundtrack to youth in Iran in the ’70s. My mother came to the United States then as a college student, and like many other young Iranian girls of the time, she was fascinated with Googoosh… her voice, her looks, her dancing, her fashions. For today’s middle-aged Iranians, including my mom, listening to Googoosh’s music is reminiscent not only of Iranian ’70s music, but the family and the culture they left behind. Thinking about how powerful this inherently nostalgic music must have been to my mother and other Iranians struck a particularly strong chord in me.

My original idea was to do an entire album of Googoosh covers, reinterpreting them with Sholi as a means to turn American audiences on to her music and story. However at the time (November 2007), this seemed a bit ambitious, and also political rhetoric between Iran and America was escalating in such a way that I felt the urge to make a more concise statement right away – one that would turn an American artist’s fan-base on to Iranian music and culture and vice-versa. That is still pretty ambitious, I suppose…

It was also then that I read an essay by Hamid Nafisi called The Making of Exile Cultures, about the impact of media, particularly television, on Iranian expatriates looking back to images/sounds/relics of their pre-revolutionary past for a sense of cultural identity. This led me to thinking about how I seek out my own cultural identity, with Internet and new media playing a prominent role. The YouTube video and audio clips we sampled for the 7″ – the front-cover image of Googoosh on the TV taken from the Hejrat music video, the image of Joanna on the back cover taken from the Sprout and the Bean music video, and the audio clip of Iranians being interviewed about what they do for fun at the end of Sprout and Bean, are all a testament to Nafisi’s ideas and also the way I connected to the songs myself. My good friend Michael Aghajanian posed our parents watching Googoosh on television at his house in LA for the cover shot.

As for why I chose “Hejrat” in particular… it started with seeing the music video and being intrigued. After looking further into the lyrics and speaking with some Iranians, I realized that it’s commonly regarded as one of Iran’s most beautiful songs. I believe that the literal translation of the title is “Migration,” and it’s about a lover that has departed. I wanted to re-frame the song to be about Iran itself leaving the hundreds of thousands of natives who were essentially forced out of their homeland at the turn of the Islamic Revolution, a theme that I think Googoosh herself embodies.

PA: You’re the sole Iranian in Sholi’s lineup. How did you introduce Googoosh to your bandmates? Have you guys explored other Persian music, and do you have plans to do other Iranian covers?
PB: We don’t have plans for more covers at the moment, but I think that Persian music is something that is inherently explored within this band… in the melodies, rhythms, tunings, 1-chord song structures.

I introduced Eric (our bass player) to Googoosh’s music a long time before he was in the band. I could tell he was moved by it, not even knowing what the song was about. More recently I gave everyone “Googoosh: 40 Golden Hits,” a best-of compilation on Taraneh Records my friend Razmin turned me on to.

PA: The B-side of this album is a cover of the Joanna Newsom song, “Sprout and the Bean.” Again, an interesting choice, as Newsom’s ethereal folk-style contrasts so much with Googoosh’s 1970s disco-chic. What does Newsom’s music represent here?
PB: I think “Sprout and the Bean” is beautiful and poses an interesting counterpoint to “Hejrat,” thematically. The song climaxes with a chorus of voices asking “Should we go outside?” Googoosh’s answer, through “Migration,” the name and theme, is delivered on side A. The backwards sequencing here – implying action or “migration” preceding thought or choice or questioning – is suggestive of many Iranians’ sudden plight at the turn of the revolution. A large number of these exiles still look to the past for answers in their search for happiness and a sense of cultural identity. While Joanna’s and many Americans’ existential dialogue is far-removed from political pressures, Googoosh’s and the expatriated Iranians’ dialogue is heavily centered on their cultural displacement. Joanna embodies the fantastical and other-worldly, and works within an original, mystical universe that she’s seemed to have created all on her own. I think that her work moves the audience forward into a fantasy realm, rather than backward into a realistic, nostalgic one. It’s full of “danger of broad boats,” “hollow chatter of tadpoles,” among a myriad of other fantastical constructions that are characteristic of her free-flowing musical ideas. To me, what Googoosh represents now is a repressed cultural icon. Her songs have rigid, repetitive structures, and are mostly romantic in nature. Her work, in its current context, is most often interpreted as nostalgic, turning listeners back to the way their lives were before political circumstance changed everything.

PA: You’re touring now, with recent stops in Brooklyn complete. How has your music been received thus far, especially the Persian-language Googoosh cover? A couple of your stops were in my old neighborhood, Williamsburg – I’m so curious about what the hipsters made of your show.
PB: I think we were received well at [Brooklyn venue] Union Hall. The place was a strange combination of hipster kids and 30-something parents with their babies playing bocce. This Norwegian prog band called Ungdomskulen played with us. They were awesome.

Oddly enough, the Googoosh song has been the highlight of many shows among Americans and Iranians alike. In Portland, this very nice Iranian woman came to the show with her American husband, and they liked it so much they welcomed us to stay the night at their house! I feel like in some ways doing such a cover has allowed us to connect with a crowd of people who would have never connected to our music otherwise… the main example of that being my parents. Another highlight was a Take Away Show we recently did with director Vincent Moon (yet to be released). For one of the videos we walked through Dolores Park in San Francisco carrying guitar, cello, and bells, playing “Hejrat” to hundreds of unsuspecting listeners.

PA: What other Persian music has influenced your and Sholi’s music?
PB: Lately I’ve been listening to the Golha Radio Programmes (The Flowers of Persian Poetry and Song) on radiogolha.com. They are very beautiful and inspiring; it’s so nice that they’ve been digitally archived since their original broadcasts from 1956-1979.

When I was young, I listened to a lot of Andy and Kouros, and actually still do. I think Balla is one of the best Iranian pop albums. Besides that, Shajarian, Javad Maroufi, Ebi, Hayedeh, Marzieh, Dariush and probably a hundred other artists that I couldn’t name that my parents have filled the house with since I was young. A lot of traditional Persian music.


Hear Sholi’s music here:

Interviews with Young Iranians: Azad, Life Goes on in Tehran Photo Blogger

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The photo blog Life Goes on in Tehran highlights ordinary Tehran life in an effort to dispel Western myths and poorly slanted media coverage about Iran. It has a very insider quality that makes you feel like you’re on your own Tehran visit. The man behind the site, 28-year-old Azad (last name withheld for reasons outlined below), documents his life there on a camera phone and updates the site with new pictures and captions each month. We sent him some questions by email, and here’s what he had to say.

Pars Arts: You are anonymous on your photo blog; without revealing your name/identity, can you tell us more about who you are and where you grew up? Can you also talk about why you’ve decided to be anonymous?
Azad: I was born and raised in Tehran and then moved to the Los Angeles area when I was 14. Following the awkward assimilation period of high school, I attended USC where I got my BA in Cinema-Television in 2001. After graduation I paid my bills doing web design, while affording myself the opportunity to make short films and travel for months at a time.

There are multiple reasons for wanting to stay anonymous. For one, I don’t want the website to become about me. I like it as it is; Tehran from the point of view of a former Los Angeles resident, regardless of who that resident is. Plus, I often point my camera at unsuspecting friends and family members at private gatherings and parties. In order to hide their identities, I feel like I should first hide mine. A more dramatic reason would be staying away from either Evin prison in Tehran or a secret CIA prison somewhere in Eastern Europe! But really, if someone tried hard enough, they could find out who is behind the photo blog. So what it comes down to is me trying to stay out of Tehran’s spotlight.

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PA: Why did you move (back?) to Iran?
Azad: Ironically, I moved (back) to Tehran to jump-start my film career. Most people go to Los Angeles to do this; I left. I think the Hollywood film scene is for when you’ve already made it. You don’t fare well in Hollywood as a struggling filmmaker. In order to meet my personal goal of making my first feature-length film before I’m 30, I weighed my options and felt that I would be more likely to do so if I were to move to Tehran. Plus, if I get started here, I will always have a base to come back to.

PA: What’s been the biggest surprise about living in Tehran for you? What’s been the most difficult part of adjusting to life in Iran? What do you miss most about your LA life?
Azad: I tested the waters with a couple of short-term stays before finally making the big move. So I had an idea about what life in Tehran might have in store for me and I can’t say there were any surprises. If anything, the fact that it’s similar to living in LA, for the most part, is a surprise in and of itself. It’s more about moving from one big city to another. I have, however, narrowed down the differences to three main things, the absence of which makes life in Tehran a tad more difficult: respect, trust and freedom to choose. Most everything that might annoy someone who has lived abroad fits in one or all of the above categories.

This is not to say that Iranians are disrespectful or untrustworthy. On the contrary, in personal interactions and relationships with people you know they’re perhaps more respectful, kind and trustworthy [than people in Los Angeles]. But when it comes to dealing with “them,” things get shady. And the place where this is most apparent is the relationship the government has with its people. All three are missing in that particular marriage. Needless to say, the three things I miss most about LA are: respect, trust and freedom to choose. I won’t get into specifics, but if I have done my job right, you’ll see examples of this on my site.

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PA: I’ve frequently wondered whether being Iranian-American (or any other sort of Iranian hyphenate) is a barrier or instead lends a certain cachet to those that grew up abroad and then move back to Iran for work/to live. Any first-hand observations/thoughts on this? Is there a sizable community of people who have moved back to Iran?
Azad: It’s definitely not a barrier. For some reason, people here take Iranians coming from the U.S. very seriously. Perhaps too seriously. This is surprising considering the type of junk-TV a handful of Iranians in Los Angeles beam to their living rooms. If my only image of Iranian-Americans were those of the LA pop stars and TV anchors as seen on satellite TV, I would question anyone who associated with anything American. But fortunately most everyone — at least among the middle-class Iranians — has a relative in the U.S. Because of these relatives, lines of communication are always open and the general public is aware of what life in the US can be like. So there’s this thought process of “Oh you lived in the US? Lucky you! Want to run my company? You single?!”

I am sure a medical degree from Harvard deserves the type of respect here as it does anywhere else in the world, but as for my own degree, well, my film degree means nothing to me or to anyone in Hollywood. But here, they introduce me as “So and so, who studied film in the US.” Before I have a chance to discredit my degree, they already take me for some genius that I am not. This I find amusing. Some people use this to their advantage. I’ve run into folks who have taken courses at Santa Monica City College who consider themselves “U.S. educated,” and you’ll be surprised to see how it opens doors for them. This is not to bash on SMC or any other community college, for that matter, but it perfectly demonstrates the type of weight being Iranian-hyphen-anything carries.

I have also decided to keep my U.S. citizenship a secret. What is shadier than being taken more seriously at what you do because of some U.S. education is finding yourself in a relationship with someone who likes you for your passport! Luckily I haven’t experienced this, but I am told to be cautious. It would be really sad to have that be a qualification (but unfortunately some fellow Iranian-Americans do).

PA: Several of your images capture and comment on Iranian media consumption (satellite dishes, newspapers, film, art). Are the art, culture, and media produced in Iran – and the various means of consumption that defy censorship – vastly different from what you thought they would be?
Azad: This is too broad a topic to try and tackle with a general statement on what art/culture/media Iranians produce and consume. I personally never had any expectations or pre-conceived notions of what this may be like in Iran. But because there are many more obstacles and bans on creation and consumption in Iran, people tend to not take for granted what is readily available in the U.S. For example, in the US you can watch any movie your heart desires, have access to any website or go to any play, but you don’t necessarily take advantage of this. Because you take your freedom for granted. When you come to Iran, you start to seek that which the government wants to keep from you. Suddenly watching a banned movie or going to a blocked website becomes a more valuable (and pleasurable) experience. Then in the process you feel more “cultured.”

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PA: A lot of your photos appear to be shot in northern Tehran – a more affluent part of the city. Much of the lifestyle press coverage coming from Tehran seems to be focused on this area also (or it’s very much the opposite, looking at abject poverty), but I think you do a good job pointing out the economic context of your photos in your short captions, which is where a lot of mainstream reportage about Iran fails. I assume you shoot mostly things happening around you, but do you have plans to venture further south in the city and capture a different socioeconomic scene also?
Azad: I am not a reporter and therefore I don’t go out of my way to report on life in Tehran (unfortunately many mainstream Western reporters do the same!). My main goal is show that life in general, my life in particular, goes on in Tehran. So I point the camera at my immediate surroundings, which happens to be that of the more affluent middle-class northern Tehran. There’s no shame in this. Because it is exactly this socioeconomic scene that is under-represented — by both the Iranian media as well as the Western press coverage. One could take away from this the very fact that Tehran is so large a city that you could live your whole life in one neighborhood and never cross paths with other less or more fortunate souls in other neighborhoods. Same is true with any large cities. Many Iranians living in Beverly Hills have never set foot in Compton or South Central LA, even though they’re only a few miles apart. That said, I do have a few photos from South Tehran. One in particular is of an elderly man near Khorasan Square in the south who had lived his whole life there and had never seen Pasdaran or other neighborhoods in the north.

PA: What kind of feedback have you gotten from people that follow LGOIT?
Azad: So far I’ve only received positive feedback. Many Iranians abroad write and tell me that the site brought tears to their eyes. They thank me for finally portraying life in Tehran in such a way that they can proudly share with their non-Iranian friends. I can relate to their sentiments, because I think when you live outside of Iran, the situation is such that it becomes really difficult for you to prove to your non-Iranian friends and family that Iran isn’t all that bad, that there’s more good than evil, more positive than negative, and most importantly that we are not backwards, but similar to them, that we share many of the same values and ideals.

I also get many emails from Americans and Europeans who thank me for showing a side of Iran they had no idea existed. One American visitor even joked about me receiving a Noble Peace prize for my efforts. Because he thought it would be much tougher for the Bush White House to start a war with Iran if the word on my site were to get out and more tax-paying Americans were to see it. And the word is getting out. As of this interview I have had thousands of unique visitors from 97 countries in over 1700 cities. I for one find all this very inspiring and with each new visitor I get more motivated to continue what I’m doing. What started out as a simple site to assure my friends back home that I’m safe in Tehran has gotten a life of its own. Hopefully I will one day look back at the archives of Life Goes On In Tehran and feel that I did my small part in changing world public opinions about Iran and stopping a catastrophic war.

(Photos courtesy of Life Goes on in Tehran)