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Organic Intelligence VI: Iranian Pop On Caltex Records
The Quietus , February 28th, 2022 11:04

In our subscriber only series, Mariam Rezaei revisits her childhood introduction to the glorious world of Iranian pop via Caltex Records

Susan Roshan

We’re not luddites, we just feel you deserve better than some unsatisfying algorithmical advice when it comes to music. This is the sixth edition of our Low Culture subscriber’s newsletter, Organic Intelligence, which features tQ’s favourite people taking a deep dive into their record collections to offer you DJ bag gold, Discogs bargains and all-back-to-mine nuggets. This month musician and writer Mariam Rezaei unearths five gems from the world of Iranian pop on Caltex Records. You can listen to the sixth Organic Intelligence playlist on Spotify, Apple and Tidal (and remember that all your monthly playlists, as well as your exclusive essays, can be found on the Low Culture Quietus page). To get access to the Organic Intelligence newsletter, you need to sign up to our subscriber system via the Steady checkout below.

Listen to the Organic Intelligence Iranian Pop On Caltex Records Playlist on Spotify, Apple Music and Tidal

Growing up mixed heritage in 1980s Gateshead was isolating. My brothers and I were part of a small minority of people of colour in a school of over 300 children, and we felt it every day. My Iranian Dad arrived in the UK at the start of the 1970s to study in Newcastle. He met and married my Mam before they moved to Aberdeen and then Tehran, until she was sent back to Gateshead with my elder brother who had just been born. This was due to the unfurling Iranian Revolution.

I arrived, along with my twin brother, during the mid-80s in Low Fell, Gateshead, pre-Angel Of The North and pre-Geordie Shore. Growing up with tanned skin, dark hair and a Muslim name with a strong Geordie accent meant we had a super power. In one sentence, I could have a stranger believe my name was either Jane Smith or Leila Forouhar. It proved handy during a number of racist incidents and made me realise just how fiercely racism exists. In the 80s my dad owned and ran a takeaway, ‘Riccis’ in Holmside, Sunderland. Making pizzas and having tanned skin, Mackems often thought ‘Iranian Reza’ was actually ‘Italian Ricci’. He often said that being mistaken for an Italian had felt like a safer option until he was stabbed in his shop with a bread knife in a racially motivated attack by a Sunderland football fan. Thankfully, my dad recovered from this incident, but changes had to be made, and so he moved on.

When your home is a mix of two clashing cultures, you realise very quickly that you are ‘other’. Not English, not Iranian, but both, and the biggest insight I had into my Iranian heritage was through music, and more specifically, through my dad’s vast collection of cassettes and CDs.

My dad was born in 1950s Iran. A country well known for its gorgeous Persian rugs, saffron and Shiraz grapes Iran also had a thriving underground arts scene and black market. Without making light of the extremely difficult political situation there now, my Dad was a teenager in the bustling, cosmopolitan Tehran of the 60s. He fondly remembers purchasing bootleg cassettes of Elvis, Neil Sedaka, The Rolling Stones and T-Rex. He describes the Beatles as “meh”, which is his politest insight into how some eastern countries have viewed cultural re-appropriation through the decades. His favourite artists were predominantly female singers who often had incredible album covers adorned with photos of them posing with hands folded under the chin and power-dressed, inspired by the TV series Dynasty and pop groups like ABBA.

Every year, my family would make the long drive down from Gateshead to London to a tiny Iranian grocer’s in South Kensington for Iranian newspapers, pomegranate molasses, ‘gaz’ pistachio nougat and music from artists on Caltex Records. Founded in 1980 by Mehrdad Pakravan, Caltex Records is a Los Angeles based label that releases and licences music from a long list of established Iranian singers and bands. Some of their most famous performers include Googoosh, Kourosh Yaghmaei, Leila Forouhar, Black Cats, Ebi and Moein. Artists like Leila Forouhar have released upwards of ten albums on Caltex, moving from 60s love ballads into 70s Irani-funk and disco, then into 80s soft synth pop and 90s Irani-techno.

While some Iranian music has been influenced by the west, there are distinctive musical traits that are typical of Irani-pop music and these recur no matter which subgenre or artist. There are often long instrumental introductions in which the singer’s main melody is first presented by an instrument, a technique which can be traced back to Iranian monophonic folk music practices; sampled Persian drums are often mixed with MIDI percussion; and many songs have a breakdown, where the tempo slows and the time signature switches from 4/4 to 6/8. Damn, it’s emotional. Iranian pop music culture also reveres its singers more as they get older. Whilst youth is frequently idolised in the West, Iranian singers who could be compared to Tina Turner, Diana Ross or Dolly Parton, have actually become more influential over time. It’s not unusual to hear young Iranians express their love for famous pop singers like Googoosh, now in her 70s who can still sell out the London Palladium in 2022.

Amid the clashing of cultures of my childhood, there were many happy memories. My Mam embraced every part of our Iranian heritage and looked hard to find dolls for me that were brown. The music in our house prioritised strong women in a wide range of genres, and my parents supported all of my musical ventures, whether they involved classical piano, hip hop DJing or the Iranian santoor. Whilst I didn’t look like Kylie Minogue or Madonna, and I definitely didn’t like the Thatcher-loving Spice Girls, I was able to sing my heart out in the family car and saw reflections of myself in singers like Mahasti and Hayedeh.

Many readers of tQ will know Finders Keepers’ Pomegranates compilation of 60s and 70s Persian Pop, Funk, Folk and Psych, all of which was licensed from Caltex Records. Caltex Records’ unique culture of reissuing music via a wide range of thematic compilations focusing on such ideas as ‘Wedding’, ‘Disco’ and ‘Dance Party’, leading audiences to discover new singers alongside popular favourites. I’ve chosen five of my favourite compilations with songs sung by some of my favourite female singers.

Mahasti – ‘Benshin Kenare Man’ (from Persian Love Songs, Vol.2)

The Persian Love Songs compilations from Caltex Records include Mahasti’s famous ballad ‘Benshin Kenare Man’. It opens with pounding piano chords reminiscent of Dolly Parton’s ‘9 To 5’, as synths and strings are peppered between off-beat melodies before the tempo doubles. The title means sit next to me, and as such is a dramatic ballad in which Mahasti pleads “I am broken”, asking her lover to stay with her. The melody of the song is doubled up with colourful string orchestration, playing on the timbral quality of vibrato in Mahasti’s singing. “My chest is screaming your name”, she sings, “but my tears won’t let me scream”.
Mahasti performed in Newcastle’s long since closed The Mayfair in the mid-90s, a 1,500 capacity ballroom more famously known for hosting acts such as Led Zeppelin, Queen, Thin Lizzy, The Who and Nirvana. Businesses from across the Newcastle and Gateshead’s Iranian community would often join forces to put on huge events there that would see audiences driving across the country for a slap-up koobideh kebab and a full evening of live entertainment. Nowruz – the Iranian new year – was the best excuse for a massive party with live music in big venues, giving audiences a good excuse to dress up in their finest suits, sequinned dresses, medallions and gold jewellery. Other songs in the compilation include Leila Forouhar’s ‘Bahar Eshgh’ with licks of the Miami Sound System and calypso rhythms and Moein’s epic ‘Namaz’, a powerful tribute to Islamic Prayer not to mention Martik’s 80s soft rock track ‘Khoda Asheghet Koneh’, which has flavours of Pink Floyd and Richard Marx.

Leila Forouhar – ‘Del Ey Del’ (from Persian Dance Party, Volume 2)

Leila Forouhar’s Irani-pop anthem ‘Del Ey Del’ opens with rolling daf and tombak drums. Pizzicato MIDI strings make way for an incredible flute solo before a massive ululating choir join in singing the title refrain, which translates as “heart, oh heart”. A minute later, Leila Forouhar joins in, singing, “Oh heart, no-one cares about you anymore, you are cursed”. Much like we find in disco and techno, the dramatic lyrics of many Irani-pop songs can feel at odds with the mood of the music. Forouhar joins in with the choir for one final, lavish chorus that abruptly ends with heartbreak on the dance floor. In the late 90s, one of my Iranian uncles ran the ‘Ali Baba’ Persian restaurant on Newcastle’s infamous Bigg Market. Locating this restaurant in such a busy part of the city’s nightlife was a bold risk, but for many years, Iranian food and culture at Ali Baba’s was embraced by the Geordies. To celebrate Nowruz one year, my uncle invited Leila Forouhar to perform to a sold-out audience. This was a much smaller affair than the Mayfair events and the DJ played between courses of salad olivieh, saffron chicken and faloodeh rosewater ice-cream, as the night geared up to the main event. The live band played each song as an exact replica of the recorded tracks, and Leila Forouhar’s singing was stunning. As a teenager, I’d never seen a pop star that I could identify with up close before. It doesn’t take a genius to work out where my love of long red nails, fake eyelashes and curly long hair comes from. While it’s probably quite normal to hear this kind of thing from any pop fan, one thing I observed from Forouhar was that not only can you be beautiful, brown and a fabulous musician, you can also be in charge of the whole show. Other stand-out tracks on this compilation include the disco-fuelled ‘Deyar’ by Shahram Shabpareh, Nahid’s acid techno-laced tune ‘Delakam’, and Hassan Shamaeezadeh’s ‘Ye Dokhtar Daram Shah Nadareh’ with its very bizarre saxophone and glissandi tubular bells and Yamaha keyboard orchestral hits.

Hayedeh & Aref Arefkia – ‘Negah Kon’ (from Best Of 70’s Persian Music 1970 - 1979, Vol. 7)

Translating as ‘look’, ‘Negah Kon’ is a duet between prominent Iranian singers Hayedeh and Aref. The tune opens with distinctive Latin percussion which quickly folds into funky riffs on sax, guitars and horns in a slinky, sexy 60s vibe, a la Quincy Jones. Sister to Mahasti, Hayedeh has a classical music background and was famous for her powerful voice and dextrous vocal skills. Accompanying Hayedeh is the ‘King of Hearts’, Aref Arefkiah. With a long career as a keen collaborator, the smooth crooner has released numerous duets with other Iranian singers including Ramesh, Googoosh, Pouran and Sattar. Hayedeh’s solo career began at a young age on live Iranian radio. A keen improviser and singer with classical music ensembles and orchestras, her study of Persian singing technique, avaz, placed her in a classical music context which she later expanded to include pop music. I was lucky to see Hayedeh at The Mayfair ballroom, but I was so young, I don’t really remember the concert. The song ‘Negah Kon’ is a gorgeous cocktail of musical influences and conveys what I imagine to be an authentic snapshot of the bustling, cosmopolitan culture of early 1970’s Iran. Other tracks on the compilation include another stand-out Kourosh Yaghmaei track, ’Nameh’. With rinky-dink Shadows-like guitar and spicy Beach Boys inspired vocal harmonies, the instruments slip between triple and quadruple time with great ease. Another favourite song of mine, ‘Ghasam Beh Tou’, is a passionate, funky cowbell-fuelled ballad from the gorgeous Leila Forouhar.

Susan Roshan – ‘Shahzadeh’ (from Best Of 90’s Persian Music Vol 4)

Leaning more into dance music with a hint of disco rhythm, ‘Shahzadeh’ opens with a solid four to the floor, and is representative of Susan Roshan’s transition from ballads to electro-pop. Her track is full of instrumental licks whilst a full choir adds colour and depth through harmonies and romantic whisperings. The influence of dance music here is of its time, calling to mind the period when Todd Terry produced remixes for Michael Jackson, and Tori Amos scored a club hit with Armand Van Helden’s remix of ‘Professional Widow’. In another mid-90s Nowruz celebration at Ali Baba’s in Newcastle, Susan Roshan gave a solo performance in sexy and revealing outfits. The performance was consummate and she stole many hearts from the audience that evening. This compilation includes ‘Faghat Beh Khatere Tou’ on which Mansour builds up an electro beat with vocoderized singing whilst Viguen’s synth-heavy tune ‘Yaramo Mikham’ has a touch of Tom Jones’ warble about it.

Giti – ‘Gole Maryam’ (from Best of 70’s Persian Music, Music of 1970-1979 Disco Songs, Vol 14)

I spent my whole childhood looking in every shop window in vain, hoping that one day, someone would buy me a personalised mug or a hairband with my name ‘Mariam’ crudely written on it in glitter glue. ‘Gole Maryam’ is MY song. Hell, they’ll play this at my funeral and everyone will cry whilst they dance, ‘cause let’s face it, with a bum-shaking groove like this, how could you deny me one last dance? Named after the Farsi for the tuberose flower, ‘Gole Maryam’ was originally a Greek song, written by Vasilis Vasiliadis. Later translated and sung by Giti, it was her one big hit. Giti is a massively underrated singer and composer who deserves time and love spent on preserving her work. Sadly, she lived a short life and the revolution ended her career as a writer. While we’ve gone through a number of songs, I have largely skirted around the issues of women and minority identities suffering oppression. Other singers on this compilation include the very famous Googoosh, widely recognised as an icon for Iranian LGBTQIA+ rights. It is by persistently producing new work that artists like Googoosh, Giti, Mahasti, Leila Forouhar, Hayedeh and Susan Roshan fight. Audiences in the west are able to appreciate the boldness and strength of art by Iranian women, however they may choose to represent themselves.