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From National Star to Enemy of the State: Iranian Rock Pioneer Kourosh Yaghmaei Fights On

After 27 years of censorship, the 70s guitar great has released the album he was forbidden from making.

By the time Kourosh Yaghmaei got started on his album Malek Jamshid in the early 2000s, he was scraping at the dregs of his music career.

He hadn't performed on radio or television since the 1970s. The Iranian Revolution of 1979 had brought in a new Islamic government that cracked down hard on his music, and many of his friends and relatives had moved out of the country. Even in his pink-walled studio space at his Tehran apartment, he had trouble expressing himself, with a highway-facing window forcing him to record after midnight to avoid the noise of passing cars.

"It might be unbelievable, specifically for the artists who work in the field of music, that I recorded Malek Jamshid in an ordinary room in my apartment with no acoustic system, without sound engineering, without professional microphones, amplifiers, and other necessary equipment for recording," Yaghmaei recalls.

It took two years for Yaghmaei to finish the album, working with a limited budget and whatever equipment he had on hand. But it took another 12 years to release it, as he struggled with government authorities to obtain the required permit to have it released. Malek Jamshid was finally released this summer—without the permit—on a small label based out of Los Angeles.

In a country that strictly, and often arbitrarily, regulates popular music—requiring artists to apply for permits to perform and release albums, imposing rules like forbidding women from performing as solo vocalists—Yaghmaei has faced the full brunt of state authority. Now 69 years old, he came of age and reached his commercial peak in the 1970s. Then the 1979 Iranian Revolution came, transforming the country into an Islamic republic, and taking Yaghmaei from national star to enemy of the state: His music banned, his revenues seized, and his name stricken from the press. Though Iranian artists today have been able to navigate the government rules, Yaghmaei's experience has left him bitter and frustrated, and his struggles speak to the deadening effects that censorship can have on the creative mind.

"You could never ever imagine the irreversible emotional harm and financial damage and agony and the psychological torture I went through all these years," Yaghmaei tells me in a rare interview, writing over e-mail via a translator from his home in Tehran, the country's capital. 

"Can you believe, accept, or even think of it that 27 best years of your life, when you are in your best to be useful for your country, is taken from you, and you are tortured and punished by being deprived of earning your livelihood?"

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Ask any Iranian music fan today and they'll know the name of Kourosh Yaghmaei. Throughout the 1970s he was one of Iran's quintessential guitar gods—a handsome rocker who, with his long hair and handlebar mustache, resembled a post- Sgt. Pepper's era George Harrison, and who effortlessly mixed Ventures-style psych rock with melancholic lyrics influenced by Persian poets from the 11th century.

Born in 1946 to a well-off family—one of his distant ancestors was a popular poet; his grandfather was a wealthy landowner—Yaghmaei got into music as a child when his father gave him a santur, and started his first band with some friends when he was a teenager. Listening to vinyl imports of bands like Washington surf-rockers The Ventures, they dubbed their group The Raptures and played songs by their favorite garage rock and British Invasion bands. Later he formed a band with his brothers, and by the time he was in his early 20s, Yaghmaei was rising up on the national pop charts with ballads like "Gole Yakh," a melancholic hit from 1973 about a love that endures through the bitterest winters.

"When you stay by me, my loneliness is swept by winds / Winter flowers grow in my heart," Yaghmaei sings in his native Farsi, his voice building in intensity as his brother Kamran play aching string bends on an electric guitar. With its mellow piano chords and featherlight drums, "Gole Yakh" has proven to be one of Yaghmaei's most enduring songs, and today younger artists credit him for helping lay the foundations of Iranian rock.

"He was one of the people who was doing the Western-Eastern kind of hybrid music the right way," says Ashkan Kooshanejad, a musician based out of London who records experimental electronic music as Ash Koosha, and who was a co-star of the 2009 film No One Knows About Persian Cats, about Iran's underground music scene. "Everyone respected him. He wasn't cheesy."

But if Yaghmaei's music earned him many fans, it also made him a target for persecution from the Islamists who took power in the late 1970s. The revolution began as a popular uprising against the US-backed monarchy of Reza Mohammad Shah Pahlavi, who with his father had pushed the country through nation-building and modernization policies while ruling with an iron fist (and censoring many pop artists in the process). When the Shah's regime collapsed in 1979, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the Islamist leader who'd recently returned from exile, took power and a new Islamic Republic was established. 

According to Kevan Harris, a sociologist at the University of California, Los Angeles who studies Iranian politics and culture, the leaders of the new government were eager to crack down on Western-influenced artists like Yaghmaei in an effort to curb the spread of American and European power—part of a broader nationalist discourse happening in Iran as well as in many other countries at the time.  

"US mass culture had a dual effect in the postwar period — the spirit of liberation as well as the significance of US power," Harris says. "Almost every Third World country in the 1970s had a movement which demanded a return to 'authenticity' and 'national values.' Islamists took part in this discourse, but it was far larger than Iran."

According to Yaghmaei, when the new regime came in, the authorities swiftly shut down the music. Barred from releasing records, traveling, and performing live, he was ordered to repeatedly report to the newly established Revolutionary Courts, where alleged opponents of the regime were tried and sometimes put to death. For the first several years after the revolution he says he also reported to Evin prison, a notorious detention center in northwest Tehran that has its own section for political prisoners.

Yaghmaei had three children before the revolution, but the government seized his funds and forced him to go underground, amounting to what he says is 27 cumulative years facing extended periods of censorship. He acknowledges now that there was plenty he could've done to get around the rules—bribing officials, writing songs for other artists, or leaving the country altogether. Many other musicians fled Iran after the revolution, setting up in exile communities in major cities like Los Angeles. His brother Kambiz moved to Europe. His son Kaveh, also a musician, now lives in Vancouver, Canada.

But Yaghmaei opted to stay in his home country, sticking to his principles even if it meant risking arrest by making money teaching guitar lessons.

"I believed that if I changed my career, it would be an obvious insult to music and to myself and ignoring my cultural roots," Yaghmaei recalls. "Now that I look back, I am glad I did not bribe anyone or bow to pressures, but lived all these 37 years with honor. I believe even in an unequal battle, resistance is preferred to giving up."

Can you believe, accept, or even think of it that 27 best years of your life, when you are in your best to be useful for your country, is taken from you, and you are tortured and punished by being deprived of earning your livelihood?

In the late 1990s, the Iranian government implemented a series of political reforms with the election of President Mohammad Khatami. A new generation of underground Iranian rock artists emerged, and after years of silence, Yaghmaei received permission from the government to release a studio album called Sib-e Noghre'e, or The Silver Apple. The project put him back in the spotlight and provided some much-needed revenue, but his struggles with government censors continued. Though Western pop and jazz was enjoyed throughout the country, many rock bands still rehearsed in their basements, enduring a strict government approval process set firmly in place for rockers, women, and other artists who wanted to release albums or perform in the mainstream. 

First, Yaghmaei says, he was forbidden from putting his face on the album's cover. Then, when he finished Malek Jamshid, he waited over a decade to hear back from the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance about a release permit. Noisey made repeated attempts to contact the Iranian Ministry of Culture but was unable to receive comment.

Yaghmaei says the album spent many years gathering dust in a state archival office. At one point, he says, the master recordings and CD copies were taken from the office and authorities claimed they'd disappeared. This summer, the album was finally released digitally and on CD by the LA-based label Now-Again Records.

Now-Again previously reissued Yaghmaei's older material in a beautifully designed, three-LP package titled Back from the Brink, but, alas, the new album doesn't have the magic of his older tunes. Malek Jamshid opener "Key To Miaei (When Do You Come?)" sounds like the title theme to some imaginary 90s sitcom, with Seinfeld-ian digital slap bass and heavy-handed rock guitars. In "Ghatar (Train)," a Latin rhythm makes way for dramatic keyboards and Farsi lyrics—like a Persian take on Carlos Santana and Rob Thomas' 1999 hit "Smooth." Yaghmaei seems aware of his music's shortcomings, but points out that because most studios in Iran weren't up to standard at the time, he had to track the album in his apartment, where faced a slew of technical difficulties and had limited equipment—including a computer, a Roland keyboard, and his beloved Ovation Breadwinner electric guitar.  

"I hope those who are listening to this album consider these basic shortcomings," he says.

But Yaghmaei's passions and politics still show through. The album is named after a king from Persian mythology, who was said to have ruled over the world for hundreds of years and provided his subjects with all manner of inventions and necessities. In the liner notes, Yaghmaei talks about his family's hard times in the post-revolution years, but also name-checks influential poets, traditional instruments and world conquerors from Persian history. Over e-mail, he writes at length about the Persian conqueror Cyrus the Great and argues that the violin (common in Western classical music) was copied from a Middle Eastern and Central Asian stringed instrument called the rebab. He emphasizes a proud (and, the sociologist Harris has argued, nationalist) vision of his homeland—a vision that stands in pointed contrast to the current government while staking a claim for global influence.

"We have seen and heard about the countries which try to steal the names of the poets, philosophers, artists, etc. from other countries because in their histories they are deprived of rich culture, and in this way they want to make up for their weaknesses," Yaghmaei says. "But we have never seen or heard of a country throwing away its cultural and artistic assets or denying or hiding them!!! It is obvious that in a horse race, if you stopped the strong and powerful horses, any donkey could win the race!!! So unfortunate is the country without its artists and scholars!"

Eothen "Egon" Alapatt, the owner of Now-Again, says album sales for Malek Jamshid have been slow. He initially didn't even want to release it—the label largely focuses on reissues of older material. Ultimately, however, he saw it as an outlet for Yaghmaei to articulate his experiences.

"There's a lot of people that he represents. Not just in Iran, but all over the world—Indonesia, Zimbabwe, Nigeria, Ethiopia. Everywhere," Alapatt says, noting that many artists experience similar struggles with state censorship. "It's sad but it's true. There's a lot of people out there that haven't been able to get their words heard, and this is my one chance to kind of representationally speak for all of them."

Over the years, scholars have said that even state-sponsored media organs in Iran have come to embrace pop and Western-style music. Meanwhile, artists have established thriving underground scenes—often literally underground, as the director Bahman Ghobadi makes clear in No One Knows About Persian Cats. Set in Tehran, the poignant docu-fiction film follows Kooshanejad and his bandmate Negar Shaghaghi as they navigate practice spaces and studios tucked away in basements, on rooftops and even in a barn. The movie came out in 2009, right around the rise of the Green Movement protests over the contested reelection of president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad; a new president has since come into office, and some Iranian musicians say the rules have become more lax. The Quietus recently reported on a rising crew of experimental techno artists based out of Tehran, and musician Siavash Amini told the magazine that he and his fellow artists still have to apply for permits to perform, but can get them with ease in part because they play instrumental music.

Raam, a singer and songwriter who used to front the New York-based indie-rock band called Hypernova with a group of fellow Iranian musicians, recently moved back to Tehran and now performs to a growing following under the name King Raam. He says over email that he much prefers being a musician in Iran compared to competing with a million other bands in New York.

"Returning back home was the best move I ever made. It was my own smaller version of Searching for Sugarman. The rest of the guys stayed in New York but I was fed up with the cliche hipster lifestyle over there (not to disrespect or generalize; the problem with NY is that there is too much talent)," he says. "Over here back home I'm actually making a difference."

But Ashkan Kooshanejad, aka Ash Koosha—who was forced to apply for asylum in England after Persian Cats came out, and hasn't been home since—argues that the problem with the system in Iran is that it gives the authorities power to shut down any provocative artist who gets too popular. This puts a ceiling on peoples' ambitions, making it harder to move beyond a local or national level.

"I'm not going to do something that's half-baked onstage because it's going to get permission. Because I've been working my ass off," he says. "If notice there's soul in your music and it's connecting to more people, they would definitely take it away."

Today, Yaghmaei ekes out a modest living in Tehran, surviving off of the inheritance he received from his grandfather. As Iran has seen a rush of nostalgia for the pre-revolution years, he's enjoyed a bit of a renaissance with his own music. Labels like Now-Again and Finders Keepers have reissued many of his songs, bringing him to a wider audience of record collectors and psych-rock heads. His music is up for sale online, videos of him from his glory years are all over YouTube, and last year the young DJ Kasra V devoted an entire two-hour program to Yaghmaei on the London online radio station NTS Radio.

Now, with Malek Jamshid finally out to the public, Yaghmaei says he's not worried about government backlash: The damage has already been done.

"Every human being is dropped in this world without being asked. The quality and style of living is different in different countries and sometimes contradictory," he says. "But whatever you may call this stealing the time, I can't call it living, based on witnessing my life. Perhaps you may call it 'passing through life.'"

Peter Holslin has never been censored. He's on Twitter.

Illustration by Stephanie Santillan.