Mitra Sumara's "Dream": Seventies retro
To most non-Iranians, and probably even Iranians who weren't around before the 1979 revolution, the words Iran and pop music don't go together. Yet in the 1970s, pop music was just as prevalent on the country's radios as classical and traditional music.
Even more amazingly – and something the current regime would never allow – it was common to hear and see women performing popular music. Dream by the American-based trio Mitra Sumara is a celebration of this music.
Founded and fronted by a potent female singer, Yvette Massoudi, it should come as no surprise that when choosing the material for this album, the band gravitated towards those songs that had originally been sung by women.
For Massoudi, this album is another step on her path towards discovering her personal history. Of Iranian and American heritage, and adopted as a child by Americans, she had spent most of her early life searching for her Iranian birth father. After finding him she also began reconnecting with her Persian roots. Which is how Mitra Sumara was born.
Down the rabbit hole
Her journey of exploration also led her down the rabbit hole of Iranian pop music from the 1970s. It was a place where pop music from North America and Europe mingled freely with Middle Eastern sound. Jazz, funk and many other styles came together under one roof to create something unique to the region.
It is fair to say that in Dream, Massoudi, bassist Ben Rubin and keyboard player Jack Gruber have created another amazing work of timeless music. The album is a wonderful melange of all the styles used in the original songs, but there's also an air of newness to it. This isn't simply a reproduction of what was done before, this is taking that sound and bringing it into our world.
There are jazz and electronic elements incorporated into the tunes on Dream that flesh out their atmosphere in ways that weren't possible in the 1970s. Born of the three musicians' personal experience playing in modern American jazz ensembles, they bring an air of modernity to the songs, making them more relatable to a contemporary audience.
What hasn't changed is the spirit of the songs, now enhanced by combining contemporary music influences with the beautiful lyrics of the original tunes. Reading the translations, you are struck by their sheer poetry, not something generally found in a pop song in North America or Europe in the 1970s.
The opening song on the album, "Aroose Noghreh Poosh" (The Silver Moon Bride), written by Naser Cheshmazar and originally sung by the singer Ramesh, is a perfect example. The first lines of the song – "I'm a silver moon bride/At the dawn of a dawn/For the colourlessness of my impatient heart/The beauty of your eyes is hopeful" – are not what you'd expect to hear in any pop song, whatever the epoch.
The music has a real swing to it. It opens with a horn section playing a punchy up-tempo beat with drums accenting the rhythm to push the song. When Massoudi's voice chimes in, her vocals sway and weave through the accompanying sound creating an almost hypnotic experience for the listener.
Her vocal elements are the bridge between the original and the modern versions of the songs: in her singing, you can hear echoes of how the original singers might have sounded. While she isn't trying to imitate anybody, her ability to recreate a style and a feel lend these songs an authenticity they would lack were she simply to sing them in a contemporary way.
With "Shekare Ahoo" (Deer Hunting) a Persian folk song, the band takes a different approach. Here they use very sparse instrumentation to accentuate the song's striking lyrics: "I want to go deer hunting on the mountain/Where's my gun, Leyli? Where's my gun?/Where's my gun, Leyli? Where's my gun?//On the pillow, you killed your lover/With your lover's blood, Layli dear, you wrote a letter/With your lover's blood, Layli dear, you wrote a letter".
In this case, Massoudi's voice has had effects added to make her sound like she is singing through an old radio. The music is simple: electronic keyboards weave a background of subtle and simple sounds to compliment what has been done to her voice. I'm sure this song is usually performed with acoustic instruments, however, the treatment the band gives it helps to bring home the rather macabre subject matter and lends it an appropriately eerie quality.
"Kalaghaye Khabarchin" (The Crow Spreads the News), by Amir Aram, originally sung by Leila Forouhar in 1971, sounds almost like a polka with its cheeky horn section and almost oom-pah-pah beat. However, it is saved from that distinction by Massoudi's sly vocals and the jazz influences throughout the song.
Lyrically we sre back in the realm of poetry: "The crow that spreads the news/They come in a group of a thousand/With broken wings/They say that your love/Sits in isolation." The imagery is so vivid one can almost imagine the sky being dark with crows struggling to bring the news of the state of this person's love. There is a real beauty in these words that very few have managed to create in pop music.
Dream gives listeners an appreciation for the complexity and diversity of Iranian popular music from before the 1979 revolution. Lyrically the songs hark back to the long tradition of Iranian poetry used in both classical Persian music and Iranian folk music. While Mitra Sumara's interpretations have kept the spirit of the songs alive with Massoudi's wonderful vocal interpretations, they have also taken pains to make them musically relevant to today's audience.
This is a great album that will hopefully open people's eyes to the fact Iran is not the homogeneous mass it is made out to be. As the recent unrest has shown us, underneath the blanket of theocracy exists a vibrant and creative people and Dream exemplifies that spirit.
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