By Majid Mohammadi
I came across one of Fatemeh Mehlaban’s music videos by pure chance, while going through some Facebook posts. My subsequent internet searches turned up many of her Iranian folk songs, which were mostly from the northern province of Mazandaran. I also discovered a couple of clips of her renditions of classic songs including “Nemisheh” by Golandam Taherkhani, better known as Susan (1943-2004), and “Shokouh” by Sayed Abdolhossein Mokhtabad (1966-).
Her lovely voice prompted me to save many of her tracks and listen to them over and over again. Mehlaban’s voice reminds me of some Iranian and American folk and country music singers including Sima Bina, Shahla Sarshar, Yalda Abbasi, Lee Ann Womack, and Iris DeMent.
While people outside Iran celebrate the works of Mehlaban and other singers, their music and songs have been censored and banned in Iran. These artists are unable to benefit financially from their profession. The Grammy Awards would undoubtedly consider Mehlaban for an award if she lived in America. Iranian singer Mohammad Reza Shajarian received a Grammy nomination both in 2003 and 2005. So I urge Ms. Mehlaban to submit her work to the Grammy Awards for consideration.
Country and western music, which originated in the southern United States in the 1920s, has found global popularity in recent years. In recent months, country music festivals featuring Nashville artists in the United Kingdom and Australia attracted upwards of 50,000 fans each. Country music is a multi-billion-dollar business.
Ideally, there should be recording studios all over Iran producing and releasing folk music and songs by artists who perform in their local dialects. Iranians should be able to listen to these performances on their local and national radio stations. Iranian folk music has traditionally found popularity in other countries including Afghanistan, Turkey, Pakistan and the Republic of Azerbaijan.
The global appeal of folk music – irrespective of its ethnic origin – stems from the fact that it deals with issues that ordinary people around the world have to struggle with every day. It establishes a deep connection with people of all walks of life including workers, farmers, traders, teachers, and others. As with all other folk singers, Mehlaban’s songs tell stories about the trials and tribulations of ordinary Iranians. It also highlights and strengthens the identities of various ethnic groups, something that the Islamic Republic regime has tried to discourage and oppress.
The musical life of a country reflects its social and cultural growth and vice versa. In today’s world, music is a creative process, an industry, and also a business. While the rest of the world celebrates its musical tradition, Iranian folk music, as other art forms, has suffered dramatically in the past four decades.
Half of the Iranian population, meaning girls and women, have not been able to freely express themselves in their daily lives including in the arts for the past 40 years. Iranian folk songs are slowly disappearing, because they are no longer passed on from one generation to another. Music has always been an integral part of Iranian life, and has survived the Islamic Republic’s deliberate and relentless onslaught. The regime has, however, been able to prevent the development of the music industry.
Curiously enough, the state has used traditional and popular Iranian music as a propaganda tool to disseminate its ideology. As a result, folk music has been completely ignored and neglected. Also, Iranians who live abroad know that there isn’t a big market for folk music, so they focus their energy and effort on promoting classical and pop songs.
Nowadays, most people can download music freely from the internet. Hardly anyone buys CDs, which makes it very difficult for musicians to make a living. The Iranian government doesn’t invest any money and resources in promoting folk music in schools, universities, and academies. Most musicians make money only by giving public concerts.
As with all other types of artistic and cultural endeavors, music needs to be supported by society at large. However, religious teachings in Iranian schools have discouraged all forms of artistic expression and creativity in the past 40 years.
Works by Fatemeh Mehlaban and other female artists, therefore, gain special significance under the current hostile climate in Iran, when no efforts are made to preserve the country’s cultural heritage. It is next to impossible for folk singers and other musicians to record and release their songs. The authorities have summoned, questioned and on many occasions detained many female artists.
Translated from Persian by Fardine Hamidi