One of the primary benefits of the Rough Guide recordings is that they open windows onto unfamiliar types of music, and, therefore, offer new perspectives on different societies. As listeners hear the music of different countries, they are able to see beyond stereotypes and view other cultures in a more honest, intimate light. On the latest entry in the series, The Rough Guide to the Music of Iran, the new perspective granted by these recordings is especially important. The media is quick to describe Iran’s fundamentalism and antipathy toward the West; however, this new collection proves that the country is just as remarkable for its wide variety of rich musical traditions.
Each Rough Guide is compiled by a renowned expert on the featured music. These compilers essentially make or break the albums through their song choices. Fortunately, compiler Simon Broughton, the editor of the world music magazine Songlines, has more than succeeded in his survey of Iran. Each song not only presents a new facet of the music, but also flows logically into the tracks before and after.
The fact that the album opens with a pop song invites an historical footnote. Following the Islamist Revolution of 1979, Western popular music was banned in Iran until 1998. During the period of prohibition, however, Western pop was available on the black market, and the music continued to influence Iranian culture. This influence is prominent on several tracks on the album. The interplay between Western styles and traditional Iranian instruments on these tracks is fascinating, and, more importantly, musically compelling. On “Dar Har Rage Man (Within Each of My Veins)”, Barad sets the words of Sufi poets to rock music, and on “O-Hum”, Darde Eshgh plays melodies informed by Persian classical music on distorted electric guitars against a driving backbeat.
Pop music accounts for a relatively small portion of this album, however. The Iranian Rough Guide covers a large and diverse amount of musical ground by providing examples of everything from classical to folk styles. Some of this music is energetic, such as “Zârengi Hossain Yâr” by Haj Ghorban Soeimani. Some of it is subdued, as is “Dashti” by Abdolnaghi Afsharnia. All of the music, however, is absorbing: the haunting melodies and intense, mesmerizing rhythms which surface throughout the album are sure to grab listeners’ ears and hold fast. Often listeners will also be rewarded with tender beauty, such as is found on the track “Sari Galin”, a duet between Hossein Alizadeh and Djiavn Gasparyan that features lyrics in Farsi, Armenian and Azeri.
Although the Rough Guides are mainly compilations of previously released music, The Rough Guide to the Music of Iran features three songs which have never appeared on CD. Foremost among these is “Jahlé”, which was recorded by the BBC’s James Birtwistle for a program on Iran that Andy Kershaw was preparing in 2004. This track, the captivating effect of which owes largely to the commanding timbre of a nay jofti (double reed), seems to encapsulate all the finest aspects of Iranian music and offers special value for serious collectors of world music.
As is inevitable with any compilation as diverse as this album, listeners will find some of the songs on The Rough Guide to the Music of Iran more appealing than others. Although every listener may not like every song, anyone who listens to the album should find at least some of the tracks to be musically rewarding. The variety of high quality music on this Rough Guide makes it a release equally suited to those who are collectors, connoisseurs, or simply curious. This album succeeds wonderfully as an introduction to the traditions of a rich musical culture and is therefore a welcome addition to a popular world music series.