Interview with Mohsen Namjoo: Making Music and Memory

October 13, 2014
By Nikki – Senior at Science Leadership Academy

Mohsen Namjoo at University of Pennsylvania campus


In the next chapter of his career, Mohsen Namjoo is dedicated to breaking new ground. Dubbed by the New York Times as “Bob Dylan of Iran”, Namjoo strives for musical excellence, not only for his fans, but also because of his reverence for traditional Persian music and literature. During his visit to Philadelphia, I had the chance to interview him and learn about the influences and inspirations that drive him to be the type of musician that he is today.

Interviewer Nikki:  In your 2007 interview with The New York Times, you mention that as you expand your music and begin to write new songs, your music won’t “belong to the present time and cannot satisfy the younger generation;” it belongs to the generation of “lost music,” your own generation.  As you expand, do you think you will include the youth and change the view you have of them?

Mohsen Namjoo: First off, the reason I make music is to make it for the sake of music. The younger generation, however, pressures musicians to include political concepts in our songs and art. In some of my music, I have done that, to cater to that generation. But right now, due to the calm, soothing environment I live in here in America, the environment inspires me to write music for the art of music. It inspires me to write just for musical concepts and not for non-musical, more political concepts. My musical ideas include different orchestrations, scenarios, and different collaborations with different cultures, like Al-Bustan. They don’t include political agendas. Even if I were going to have some sort of political agenda, it would not be to protest against different government systems. It would be to protest for the beauty in culture and music. 

Nikki:  Interesting, do you think it is easier to be a musician in America or Iran?

Namjoo: Financially, Iran is better. However, unfortunately, right before I hit the peak of my musical career, I had to flee the country. Nonetheless, I’m emotionally satisfied being here in America as a musician.

Nikki:  You were previously a music fellow at Stanford and are now teaching a course at Brown University. When teaching at Brown, do you feel as though it is a learning experience for you or do you see it as a top-down experience for your students?

Namjoo: Any teaching is a learning experience for me. This semester at Brown University, I teach a course about contemporary Iranian poets and about their political power after the revolution. It’s like I am collaborating and competing with my students. I don’t teach and don’t like the traditional teaching method of “I know everything and you, as a student, are here just to listen to me”.

Nikki:  While growing up in Iran, in your teenage years like me, what type of music would you listen to or who? Eastern? Western?

Namjoo: When I was a teenager, my favorite type of music was traditional Iranian music and some traditional Eastern music. Eastern music from India, Afghanistan, and also some traditional Arabic Music. On occasion, I would listen to pop music from Los Angeles as well. However, my taste changed after university. My perspective on music expanded and became much more diverse.

Nikki:  Are there any specific musicians or concepts that inspire you?

Namjoo: I have a few inspirations. First, I am most inspired by Persian literature and modern Iranian poetry. Next, Persian folklore (several songs that Namjoo will perform on the October 18th are from the folklore). Then, Iranian maestros like Shajarian and Alizadeh. Finally, modern western music, Blues and Rock music from the 70s.

Nikki:  Do you feel challenged by the music you produce for your fan base or do you produce music within your comfort zone for your fan base that you know will sell?

Namjoo: Oh, interesting question. I honestly wish I could produce music for myself. But producing music, in general, involves a lot compromising due to financial stability. For example, if I do solo performances with my setar (the signature instrument that Namjoo plays) around the world, for Iranian audiences, all my fans would be satisfied. It would also be financially beneficial for me as well. That being said, I hate to perform this way. I like composing new songs/albums through new concepts so I discover new ways of producing music. But people don’t like that. They prefer just listening to my old songs and styles, instead of the new ones, because it brings back their old memories. They don’t appreciate my attempt of trying new music out.

Nikki:  So, you like to create music more for the artistic aspect than just for the memories.

Namjoo: Yes, exactly. Except, no one appreciates your efforts to incorporate creativity. They need you to be what they want. After a certain amount of time, the people own you. Sometimes, you can no longer be yourself because you have to cater to them. I would rather spend my time learning new vocal concepts, or, for example, if I had the choice to produce music for a movie or to produce music from my hometown, I would choose to produce music from my hometown.

Nikki:  You talk about wanting to create new musical opportunities and new collaborations. Are you excited to collaborate with Al-Bustan? Do you see it as an opportunity to widen your musical horizons?

Namjoo: Yes I am excited and I think it’s going to be a great opportunity to expand my musical experiences.

Nikki:  Al-Bustan often brings together a very diverse audience. Since your music is geared more towards Iranian audiences, do you think, from this new experience, you can produce music that is geared to a more diverse audience?

Namjoo: Most definitely; however, I’m not tempted to create music that is just in English because it will reach a further audience. Sure, it might be fun to do a song or two to do in English; however, I don’t think I’m going to change my musical path to be in English. That being said, I am very fortunate and optimistic about this collaboration with Al-Bustan. I’ve played with many different musicians all the way from Turkey to here in America. But, playing with the Takht Ensemble is different because we all have the same background when it comes to rhythms. In addition, I love the discussions we are having about music with the members of the Takht Ensemble because they are all very knowledgeable.

You can catch see Mohsen Namjoo perform with Al-Bustan Takht Ensemble this Saturday, October 18th, 8pm at Trinity Center for Urban Life, in Center City Philadelphia. More info at http://albustanseeds.org/music/2014/08/mohsen-namjoo

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