Sunday, August 4, 2013

Jazz Mirrors Iran#6: Paraded Beauty

Women in Iran: a hot topic, no matter how you look at it, from European feminists studying the country to Iranian men sipping cups of “smuggled” Starbucks coffee while cruising up Tehran’s Jam Avenue. Whatever helps to glamorize these young ladies on the streets comes to their service: heavy make-up, flamboyant haircuts which under the veil turns the head into a piece of early Cubist art, bold colors that remind one of Gauguin in Martinique, tight dresses that generously exhibit the female figure, high heels and leather boots that make the infamous Betty Page look like a modest housewife - cigarette smokers, driving behind the wheel of expensive sport cars in northern Tehran, listening to loud music - patrons of Tehran’s reputation as the nose job capital of the world, as if all Persian girls rival themselves with Nicole Kidman in how properly whittled noses should look.
photo by Reza Hakimi

Art and culture aside, what impresses Western visitors in Iran are these apparent dichotomies of beauty and street fashion, all the more exotic to foreign eyes as defiance within the stringent rules of the Islamic Republic regime. “Women are so chic there,” Mark Cousins, an Irish filmmaker told me one time while making a documentary in Iran, “it’s like a European country, but a strange kind of Europe.”

Pari Ruu, Lloyd Miller and the Heliocentrics

Lloyd Miller and the Heliocentrics
If there’s anything to know about jazz enigma and ethnomusicologist Lloyd Miller, it’s his love for Iran’s culture and music. He spent a great deal of time in the country, first as a teenager, then again as a researcher, arts writer and popular TV variety show host. He’s a vocal ambassador for maintaining the traditions of Iranian music, as well as a musical pioneer in his development of “Oriental Jazz.”

This series’ last installment looked at the intersections between the American jazz and Iranian culture; here we have a third party- Great Britain. Miller’s 2010 collaborative album with UK-based jazz collective The Heliocentrics is both result and extension of his lifelong dedication to creating that middle ground where both Western and Middle Eastern music can co-exist, yet not interfere with each other’s form. The result is nothing less than extraordinary and one of the best “fusion” records of the last years which manages to blur the boundaries between East and West, jazz and Persian music, and groove and “dastgah.” One song in particular, Pari Ruu (Angel Face), brings us back to the “angel face craze” in Iran.

It is true to some degree that the obsession with Iranian female beauty under wraps is the continuance of a historical fascination with the Western style of life in Iran. Yet past romanticizing of “the other” cannot fully explain the phenomenon of street fashion in major cities of Iran, particularly in terms of cosmetics, in a country with such strict rules for women and the way they should appear in public. It seems that in the absence of the public spaces, which allow different sorts of social interaction to the youth, the street scene has turned into a parade of beauties who want to shout out their very existence and presence in colors and forms of fashion.

It is a paradox beautifully captured in Miller’s Pari Ruu.

Buy the album here.

“Although structure exists in the composition,” NPR noted about the song, “it floats freely from one part to the next like a dandelion seed being blown by a soft but steady wind.” This sense of floating starts with Miller playing tonbak (a percussive instrument played by bare hands) in a rhythm that is very Persian and sometimes associated with the female figure in motion. The strong bass lines of Jake Ferguson doubles the beat, and drums add the third rhythmic line to the opening statement. The funky mood then abruptly changes when a trio of Persian retuned piano, flute and santur starts a haunting, folkloric melody, as if a Pari Ruu has set her foot on an old street in Iran with 100 year old cedar trees high on the sky.

As one expects from Miller, Pari Ruu is a meditation on the beauty of the female soul rather than body. Even though the song’s name literally refers to the facial beauty, the music addresses something else: Miller, disgusted with the consumerist culture of billboard charts, jeans and noise-as-music, seeks the spiritual sounds in the fables of Persia and the music of that land.


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