Diggin' up Roots in the Music of Pre-Revolution Iran

What was it like when our parents were growing up? It's a question that follows us through life, answered in bits and pieces by our mothers and fathers, popular culture and sometimes visiting the places they lived. We get a sense of it over time, while resigning to the fact we'll never know first-hand. 

But understanding on even a basic level is not so easy for the children of immigrants, especially when their parents have no interest in returning to their homeland. For our good friend Joe Sharaf, whose parents emigrated from Iran before he was born at the start of the Islamic Revolution in 1979, that means a general uncertainty over what coming of age was really like for them 8,000 miles away. 

"I'm dying to see it," Joe told me recently, sipping tea over a game of backgammon, and talking about Iran. "It's always been my parents who have been completely against going there. It'd dangerous but it's beyond the dangerous factor that they don't want to go back. They left right as the revolution started and Iran has been taken over by monsters. They don't connect with what Iran is now."

"That's when Persians started calling themselves Persians and not Iranians," he added, "because they're ashamed of what Iran is now and they wanted to be considered something else."

As a kid, Joe's house was filled with music from Iran. His dad had a nice stereo and a tape collection of mixes that he'd made while living in Iran, each labeled with track listings written in Farsi. "He would just vibe out sometimes and have a drink and blast this stuff," Joe said.

  Joe's dad (middle) and his friends at the beach.

Joe's dad (middle) and his friends at the beach.

Joe said he knows more about his dad's youth than his mom's. She grew up kind of sheltered in a family without a lot of money and stuck to more traditional beliefs. But his dad, he can go on about, almost glowingly. Joe tells the story of his dad as a teenager with a champagne-colored 1960s Ford Mustang that he'd saved up to buy, and his friends would come over just so they could wash it themselves. He had girlfriends and partied, and with a modest uncertainty, Joe said he probably enjoyed most things American teens of the time liked: movies, drive ins, dance parties, and so on, as well as the cultural appreciation for backgammon and tea. 

But to a degree, like the rest of his, so much of this is his imagination making assumptions. Only more so. Really, he said, has no Idea of what it was like in Iran during the 1960s under the Shah's reign and his push to Westernize the country. 

"I've never even been to Iran but it's interesting that it's in my blood and I was raised by these people and that's where they're from and I've never even been to the country either," he said. "I've never touched it, felt it.

  Joe's father (middle) playing his only rock show with his still best friend on guitar (right). Despite how it may look, the performance was apparently awful. In the background photo is the Shah with the royal family. 

Joe's father (middle) playing his only rock show with his still best friend on guitar (right). Despite how it may look, the performance was apparently awful. In the background photo is the Shah with the royal family. 

With time, Joe's defined his own style exceptionally well. Looking through photos of his dad, there's a strong resemblance both in appearance and presumed swagger. Complimenting this, is his own general love of rockabilly, ska and soul music and their cultures, all channeled through his American upbringing. Except in family settings, Iranian culture has little influence on his life day-to-day. 

So, as a means of exploring his own identity a bit and sharing it with us, he assembled and shared with us a playlist of music that does — most of which he learned from his parents. The music stands on its own, but it's elevated to imaging it as a tool for Joe to retrace his lineage. And even though he's fluent in Farsi, he doesn't know what most of it means either — the lyrics are heavy and the grammar is too poetic, he said.

Listen to Joe's "Pomegranate Seeds" playlist on Spotify, follow him on Instagram, and read on for some highlights.

Viguen: "Chera Nemiraghsi"

Viguen is supposed to be the father of jazz of Irani music. Classic.

Kourosh - "Saraabe Toe"

Kourosh had a new compilation album called Back from the Brink that came out a few years ago with a lot of literature and he talks about Viguen and he puts him on a pedestal. Kourosh made music before the revolution, it was this amazing rock & roll, psychedelic, surfy stuff. Then, everything he owned was taken away from him — it applies for all Persian artists, they weren't allowed to make music anymore after the revolution because it became this whole religious thing. 

Googoosh - "Digeh Geryeh Delo Va Nemikoneh"
Googoosh is the most famous Persian singer from the early 70s to today, I feel like. She puts on concerts every now and again in the U.S. But my mom was always obsessed with Googoosh and when she was young she would get the same haircut as her and dress like her. My mom used to have a bob cut and she had a gap tooth and it was the "Googoosh look."

"Baba Karam"
So this song has a very specific dance. This song will come on randomly in the middle of a Persian dance party and automatically a circle is made. It's a man's dance and anytime it happens my dad and I have this thing where we go and do the dance together. It's like this kind of weeping vibe, it's like slow and the song has a really cool story behind it. It's about a servant in a kingdom and the king has this harem of women and the servant falls in love with one of the girls that belongs to the king and he can't have her and it's about him weeping about not having this girl. 
The majority of the songs you listen to you can hear some Western (American) in it, where this song is a completely traditional. It's very Persian. 

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