Namjoo serves up ancient poetry and odd rhythms


There’s a jail sentence hanging over Mohsen Namjoo’s head, should he ever return to his native Iran. Back in 2006, his song “Shams”, with its repurposed Koranic verses, caught the attention of that country’s theocrats, following which he was tried in absentia and sentenced to five years’ imprisonment for blasphemy. By then, though, he was already safe in the United States, where he was when the Georgia Straight caught up with him—not at his Oakland, California, home but in New York City, following a gruelling coast-to-coast drive.

By every criterion, he meets the definition of an exile. And yet Namjoo, often described as the Bob Dylan of Iran, would rather think of himself as a citizen of a larger and happier country—the country of art.

“We are artists outside of our own country, and we are living in an exile situation,” he explains, in precise but heavily accented English. “But I’m hoping to be an artist. Like, just an artist, you know. To be a musician, like a pure musician who is just making melodies and writing lyrics. I’m trying, in making my next work, to have access to pure art, not just art that explains our situation as Middle East citizens, or to protest in front of our government.”

It’s not that he’s shy of politics. Namjoo is a fierce critic of Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and has a pointed response ready when asked how Canada’s decision to close its embassy in Tehran will affect the region.

“There are two different answers,” he asserts. “First, as a political situation, I’m happy about this, to be honest with you. Anything against this government which we have right now, I think it’s great. Especially because there was an Iranian-Canadian citizen, Zahra Kazemi, who was a very good photographer and a very brave woman, and we know some details of how they killed her in a very, very bad way. So this situation that’s happening now, I’m happy, because this government—Ahmadinejad and the people who are running it—they deserve to be in isolation. But there were also Iranian people, students, who were going to get visas to have their studies in Canada, and I’m not happy about that. I’m happy, and I’m not happy.”

At the moment, however, his focus is on readying his latest album, 13/8, for its impending release. Named for an unusual rhythm common in Turkey and Central Asia but not often heard in Iran, it finds Namjoo playing with four American musicians and serving up a deeply personal mixture of ancient and modern poetry, Iranian melodies, and jazz instrumentation.

“I just told the other musicians, ‘We’re going to have odd-time rhythms, like 7/9, like 9/8, like 13/8,’ ” the singer and setar player says. “ ‘And we’ll work with the sonority of not just western and not only eastern. It’s something between them. My instrument is going to be visiting you: let’s play and see what happens.’ And right now, when you listen to us, I think it works.”

In other words, Namjoo’s not in exile: he’s at home, in the kind of open-ended world most musicians prefer to inhabit.

“The main goal of music is not just protest,” he says. “For me, it’s beauty.”

Mohsen Namjoo plays the Centre in Vancouver for Performing Arts on Saturday (October 6).

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