Nowruz, the colorful and contemplative Iranian Persian New Years holiday, officially begins with the vernal equinox on Monday, signaling the start of spring.
But in Los Angeles, which boasts an Iranian population of nearly half a million, the largest outside Iran itself, the 13-day holiday, known for its resplendent décor and elaborate specialty meals, began early, with last weekend’s 9th annual Nowruz festival, held for the first time on the sprawling lawns of the UCLA campus.
The popular occasion, sponsored by the Farhang Foundation, a non-political, non-sectarian organization which promotes Iranian culture in the area, drew some 20,000 attendees, many wearing traditional costumes, who feasted on seasonal favorites and took in a myriad of holiday entertainments.
The high point was a rare concert by Mohsen Namjoo, known as the Bob Dylan of Iran. He has been living in exile in the United States after being convicted in absentia by an Iranian court in 2009 to five years in prison for putting some words from the Koran to music.
Namjoo, in one of his infrequent live performances, brought down a sold-out house in UCLA’s Royce Hall.
The musician plays the setar, the traditional Iranian lute, and also the electric guitar. He was backed by a high-energy rock-jazz combo which complemented his eclectic mix of styles from traditional Iranian melodic modes to contemporary beats and other singers also joined in.
Seamlessly knitting together these disparate elements was his unique and winning performance style.
After the concert, Monsters and Critics talked to Namjoo, who will perform again on March 25 at the UC Irvine in Orange County at another day-long Nowruz celebration.
Namjoo described his music as an amalgam of classical Persian harmonies, the major and minor chords of the western tradition and the modal sounds of American blues.
Jazz and rock and roll music are also in the mix, creating an overall style ranging from the lyrical and melancholy to the boisterous and percussive.
His lyrics are influenced by everything from the works of Rumi, the revered 13th century Persian poet, to contemporary street slang and market chatter.
“Many of my songs are full of jokes, exaggerations and parodies about the social and cultural situation in Iran today,” says Namjoo. “This especially appeals to the younger generation who enjoy the humor.”
Namjoo came late to Western music and rock and roll. His turn on was when he first heard The Doors when he was in his 20s.
“When I want to Tehran University to study art and music, everything was boring for me, because I had already learned the classical repertoire and they were just repeating that,” he recalled.
“After I left university, one night at a friend’s house I listened to Jim Morrison singing Break on Through to the Other Side. I thought, who is the crazy guy?
“That turned out to be my first window into Western pop and rock, and that changed my entire approach to music.”
Namjoo grew up in Mashhad in eastern Iran, where one of the country’s holiest sites attracts millions of pilgrims each year.
The musical scene there is active but takes place mostly out of sight of the religious authorities. Public performances are disallowed.
The musician gained a local following through underground performances. In 2007 when Tehran-based New York Times reporter Nazila Fathi wrote an article about him and dubbed him the Bob Dylan of Iran — a sobriquet that has stuck to him since — he started gaining an international following as well, and has performed in several European cities.
When Namjoo recorded his first album but was not allowed to sell it legally, he left Iran in 2008.
First stop was Vienna where he went to study. Shortly afterwards, he was invited to become a scholar in residence at Stanford University, bringing him to the United States for the first time.
In 2009 he was sentenced while living here to five years’ imprisonment for using words from the Koran in lyrics.
That has prevented him from ever returning. And he has no desire to do so.
“I would never go back to Iran,” he says. “Having to deal with a restrictive government and censorship by the Culture Ministry — I am proud not to be part of that.”
While appreciation for Namjoo’s unique artistry keeps increasing here, even beyond his avid fans in the Iranian-American community, he retains a large following in Iran, where his albums circulate.
And numerous live performances are viewable on YouTube. He has an 8th album coming out soon and continues to write new songs. “That’s what I’m all about,” he says.