The Pop Heard Round the World | Music Review | Chicago Reader

The Pop Heard Round the World 

The Western tunes that reached Iran and Brazil in the 60s and 70s spawned wild hybrids that still sound vital today.

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Brazilian Guitar Fuzz Bananas: Tropicalia Psychedelic Masterpieces 1967-1976 (Tropicalia in Furs/World Psychedelic Funk Classics)

Pomegranates: Persian Pop, Funk, Folk and Psych of the 60s and 70s (B-Music/Finders Keepers)

Over the past decade or so record labels in America and Europe have been rediscovering pop music of all stripes produced in far-flung corners of the world as early as the 1950s, resulting in a steady stream of fascinating reissues that shows no sign of abating. It's a big planet, and Westerners have only had easy access to such material since the Internet matured as a music-distribution system a few years ago—in other words, they've got a lot of catching up to do. It's hardly a chore, though, because so many of those reissues are so good. Two new compilations are cases in point: One collects pop made in Iran in the late 60s and 70s, much of which was hugely popular in its time and place. The other unearths obscure rock from Brazil, recorded during roughly the same stretch, that may be reaching more ears now than it did then.

click to enlarge Pomegranates: Persian Pop, Funk, Folk and Psych of the 60s and 70s

Many of the 16 tracks on Pomegranates: Persian Pop, Funk, Folk and Psych of the 60s and 70s have been reissued before, but this is the first time they've been broadly distributed or packaged for non-Iranian audiences. Exact dates for the original releases are hard to come by—as the liner notes explain, Iranian singles mostly used boilerplate label designs that didn't include such specifics—but one thing that's certain is that they predate the Iranian Revolution of 1979. The shah's regime, as autocratic as it was, had overseen a rapid modernization of Iranian society; when it was displaced by an Islamic republic under Ayatollah Khomeini, pop music collapsed alongside the rest of the entertainment industry, buried by a wave of anti-Western sentiment. Nightclubs, record shops, and labels were shuttered, and decadent secular influences were purged from the radio.

During the period documented on Pomegranates, though, Iranian music was enriched not just by sounds from the America and the UK but also by cultural traffic with India, Spain, south Asia, and other parts of the Middle East. Modern music from abroad and traditional music from nearby countries like Turkey, Afghanistan, and Azerbaijan fused with local styles in vibrant and unexpected hybrids. Perhaps most surprising, given the conservativism of Iranian society even at its most progressive, are the strong currents of funk and disco—most of the tracks on Pomegranates are clearly dance music. An artist named Zia from the southern coastal city of Abadan subverts the indigenous Bandari rhythms of the Persian Gulf region, jacking them up to sound a bit like a James Brown track—his tune "Helelyos" layers a beat worthy of Fela Kuti with wild, wordless vocal interjections, a fat bass line, and blasts of martial brass. Even stranger is Mehrpouya's "Soul Raga," an instrumental Indian funk jam that collides tabla beats, sitar lines, and free-floating flute melodies with blaring horns and hypnotically looping bass. According to Mahssa Taghinia of the Finders Keepers crew—an Iranian-American living in LA, she helped compile this disc and wrote the liner notes—Mehrpouya gave sitar lessons in Tehran and traveled all over the world.

On "Biya Bar-e Safar Bandim" singer Mohammad Nouri transforms a traditional melody with a heavy, loping groove; he uses a quarter-tone Persian scale, which has twice as many notes in an octave as a Western scale, and juxtaposes a flute that sounds like a ney with decidedly modern touches like electric keyboard riffs and saxophone curlicues. Sima Bina, now a fantastic and internationally famous folk singer, delivers the regional melody of "Naz Kardanet Vaveyla" with great force and easy soulfulness, accompanied by pure disco rhythms swathed in lush strings and propulsive electric guitar. Even on the songs that don't foreground a dance-floor beat, the Western elements are still pronounced: "Cheshm-e Man," a tender ballad by Dariush, opens with piquant acoustic guitar reminiscent of flamenco, and "Gol-e Yakh," an equally mellow track by Kourosh Yaghmaie, glides on elegant piano comping and soft-toned electric-guitar arpeggios.

Pomegranates also includes two superb tracks by Googoosh, perhaps the most dominant Iranian pop singer ever and one of several on the album who also had a successful film career. Her 1971 hit "Gol Bi Goldoon," the closing track here, was a watershed moment in Iranian pop—she ditches traditional song structures and instrumentation in favor of distinctly Western electric keyboards and a beat that's almost bossa nova. Her personal style set the pace for Iranian fashion—the liner notes include images of her and other female pop artists with uncovered hair or bare arms and legs—and though she's now living in LA she remains an icon to young Iranians. For more than 20 years after the revolution Googoosh put her performing career on hold, complying with the new regime's religious ban on solo female singers; in 2000 the government returned her passport, and she embarked on a world tour that included what I'm pretty sure was her only Chicago date since then. It's tempting to wonder what she'd sound like now if her development hadn't been interrupted by fundamentalists. Actually, given how fascinating every track on Pomegranates is, it's tempting to wonder the same about Iranian popular music as a whole.

click to enlarge Brazilian Guitar Fuzz Bananas

The subtitle of Brazilian Guitar Fuzz Bananas: Tropicalia Psychedelic Masterpieces 1967-1976 is a bit of a misnomer; tropicalia has become a catch-all for lots of strains of modern Brazilian music, but strictly speaking it refers to a short-lived and reasonably well-defined artistic movement in the late 60s that included musicians like Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, Gal Costa, Tom Ze, and Os Mutantes. None of the 15 artists collected here was part of that movement. Most were probably influenced by its enthusiastic embrace of Western sounds and the wiggy hybrids that resulted, but in tropicalia, Brazilian styles always remained a powerful presence. That's not always the case on Fuzz Bananas.


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