Mohsen Namjoo and His Useless Kisses
His towering vocal range and head of hair are as unpredictable as his music. He bends, adds to, alters, and twists the sacred--whether it being the poetry of Hafez, Shamloo, et al or the traditional melodies of Iranian music. He is a progenitor and iconoclast, he is the artist: Mohsen Namjoo. And, while I tread the dangerous territory of generalization, I will say that there is no spectrum of listeners--you either love him or hate him. His shock and awe brand of reinvented traditional Iranian music only leaves the amoebas of listeners unaffected. You are either brought to your knees by what you perceive to be pure, genius-once-in-every-few-generations-artistry, or you shudder at his vocal and lyrical manipulations, maybe, even classifying them as aural assault. I am not here as the peacekeeper of musical punditry. No. I am here to explain why Namjoo’s explosion into the underground music scene in Iran mattered and why he continues to matter now that he is residing in Northern California.
His new album, “Useless Kisses”, is the first he has recorded and released in the US. Unlike his previously released works—whether unofficially and illegally released via the Internet and YouTube, or officially on his albums—is the first album in which he collaborates with recognizable figures from the Northern California Iranian music scene, mainly members of the popular band, “Kiosk.”
The album is in many ways a departure from what we are used to hearing from Namjoo. Intense vocal acrobats no longer jolt you, i.e. Namjoo having screaming fits ranging many octaves, nor are you peppered with lyrical and melodic quotations from Rock bands that are part of the Rock canon, i.e. “The Doors” and “Nirvana.” The album consists of Namjoo reciting poetry over music, much of which is Classical Western music. The concept in this recording is love, the gruesome nihilistic love that Namjoo is so artfully adept at.
Classical music gives new flavor to previous hit songs, but also raises the question of, why Namjoo is reworking his old material. I cannot help but wonder about the cliché (this cliché seems ever more popular amongst Iranians these days) of an artist leaving their home country--in this case a repressive Iran that was the stimulus to Namjoo’s storytelling--and no longer living up to their creative past. In the piece titled, “Cordoba/Scenes from Summer,” Namjoo begins by delivering poetry previously unheard, creating a profound musical ambience with rhythmic recitation, subtleties in sound, alliteration, onomatopoeia, and the such. Tara Kamangar enters on the piano glittering the listener with technique and passion, transporting us to a new land, when Namjoo reenters reciting his famous hit song, “Gis.” If it were not for Tara Kamangar’s superhuman abilities as an artist, Namjoo covering Namjoo would not have been as plausible.
Dripping with romantic eroticism is the track, “Tango.” Namjoo’s poetry weaves into the music of Francisco Tarrega (the composers name is spelled incorrectly inside the CD jacket). Siamack Sanaie’s clean touch on the guitar is accompanied by Namjoo’s signature out of tune setar. The slippery flutters of the accordion that build up throughout the piece only add to the drama and associations made to a tango; yet, however beautiful the poetry and simple the music, Namjoo’s wizardry is in making you believe that he is seducing you, and no one else. In the song “Haftat” he returns to more traditional singing and orchestration. Namjoo the artist, both famous and infamous for a high on crack reinterpretation of traditional music and poetry, here gives us a rendition more akin to cheesy songs that are usually touted on Iran’s Islamic airwaves. Worth mentioning, not surprisingly, is the fact that the lyrics on this track can stand alone as a work of art.
The use of backing vocals, common in Namjoo’s live performances, is a new addition to his latest recorded work. Vocalists Tannaz Jafarian, Serwah Tabak, and Shadi Yousefian, at moments, add dimension and color to Namjoo’s palette, but their ultimate function is dubious. On the track, “Baghali” the backup singers sing so boldly out of tune that it seems as if either a practice session has been accidently recorded onto the CD or they are simply tone deaf. Another question needs to be addressed. Why are the three female singers all singing on the same note one octave higher than Namjoo, neither creating harmony nor counterpoint. Their voices become a subservient instrument that copies what Namjoo sings. Never once do we hear them singing a variation of the melody.
There is no doubt that Namjoo is limitless when it comes to his poetic prowess and tremendous abilities as a singer. Yet, more than half of his pieces remain in the key of A-minor, with similar chord progressions, seldom straying from harmonic expectations. The storyteller that he is he’s often compared to Bob Dylan, but I beg to also compare his brand shock-mystic poetry to Jim Morrison. Both Morrison and Namjoo come from academic backgrounds in cinema/theater and ended up as the ambassadors of musical transgression. While Morrison was being fined and harassed by American authorities in the 60’s Namjoo’s permit to perform in Malaysia was recently revoked because of Islamic fundamentalist who oppose his blatant blasphemy. With a single setar Mohsen Namjoo is able to keep audiences, not just interested, but also intoxicated. He will be visiting Orange County for a solo performance on April 15th, at the Barclay Theater, in Irvine. Trust me when I say you will be moved, in one direction or another, that of course applies unless you are an amoeba.
Yassmin Manauchehri is a music journalist living in Southern California.