A year after the overthrow of the Shah, the Islamic Revolutionary Court issued a subpoena with a list of singers and actors who were ordered to surrender to Evin authorities. Second on the list was Massoumeh Dadeh-Baalaa, known to the music world as Hayedeh. The ominous document, scribbled in course handwriting, can be seen in Pejman Akbarzadeh’s encyclopedic video biography of the legendary Iranian diva. Akbarzadeh chronicles Hayedeh’s life with such detail and insight that by the sad end we realize the storyteller has covered territory beyond the life of one artist; he has shed light on the world of the Iranian exile.
Himself a prodigy, Akbarzadeh began his research on Persian musicians when he was a lad of fifteen. In the year 2000, when he was twenty years old he published the first volume of his studies, which is now referenced in Encyclopedia Iranica. So a few years later when he began his video project on Hayedeh, he was already a master of his subject. In terms of expertise, HAYEDEH, Legendary Persian Diva, meets the highest standards of biographical documentaries. If BBC or PBS had decided to produce a program on Hayedeh for a critical Iranian audience, Akbarzadeh would have been the person to make it for them--even though the singer left Iran forever before her biographer was even born, and she died when he was only nine.
After a brief personal anecdote telling us how he came to be fascinated by Hayedeh, Akbarzadeh begins the story at the Golden age of Iranian popular music with an excerpt from her famous Gol-e-Sang. Here, he immediately gains our trust with his sympathy for the viewer. In this video clip we don’t have to wonder where or when the recording was made. Clear subtitles tell us what we need to know: National TV, Tehran, 1976-1355, Music Anooshirvan Rohani, Lyrics Bijan Samandar. This is quite refreshing, especially for an Iranian music documentary.
The on-screen annotations eliminate the customary frustration in putting the images in the context of our own memories, so we are not distracted from Akbarzadeh’s mesmerizing narrative. In this way the documentary effortlessly gives historical depth to the material. For example, I happened to remember that 1976 was also when the Iranian calendar leaped from 1355 AH to 2535 imperial year.
By the time Farah Pahlavi makes an appearance in the video, sharing her thoughts on Hayedeh, the viewer is firmly oriented as to which Hayedeh songs the imperial palace guests may have requested from the singer. As with all the other interviews featuring the elite of the pre-revolutionary Iranian art scene—patrons, composers, producers, etc-- we find little pictures inside the bigger picture. Looking back on a friendship, Farah Pahlavi seems guilt-ridden for not making time in the early eighties to have a heart-to-heart with her favorite singer about the dangers of drug and alcohol abuse. With some understatement she makes apologies, “We ourselves had so many difficulties…”
Hayedeh’s younger sister, Mahasti, a celebrity singer in her own right, denies Hayedeh died of a cocaine overdose. Indeed Hayedeh did suffer from diabetes, which is an alternative explanation for her heart attack. Mahasti also denies that at first she felt jealous when Hayedeh suddenly illuminated the nation’s airwaves with a voice as pure as a Hafez verse, and as magnificent as the Alborz Mountains. But perhaps the sibling rivalry wasn’t that serious, and their producer Manouchehr Bibiyan did not hear Mahasti right when she “Did not use a good word” about her sister.
Akbarzadeh is too sophisticated to take sides, but humble enough to concede that gossip is part and parcel of the celebrity music world. His pragmatism allows the documentary to explore Hayedeh’s world in its full dimensions. One moment we hear respected music critic Mahmood Khoshnam discuss how a Hayedeh song begins in mokhaalef e segah and works its way to segah, another moment we see Majellejh Javaanaan report that Hayedeh has publicly called out the wife of a sports team manager to put to rest a rumor of adultery. Iran’s cultural tectonics were fully active in those times, foretelling the quake that would separate a chunk of the country from the main landmass, flinging it towards the continents of Europe and North America.
About half of Hayedeh’s professional life was spent is exile. Akbarzadeh follows her life abroad, sometimes concert by concert, with critical reaction to her works as she adapted to a changing audience. Despite the gradual decline in quality due to expat market pressure, the intensity of one underlying emotion remained steadfast in the artist. She yearned for home. Many of the clips in the video make this desire clear. One night, though, instead of optimistically hoping for the day of return she sang, “I want to go to the House of God.” In the documentary we hear her tell her audience, “Perhaps I too will not be among you tomorrow.” This was the last night of her life.
Akbarzadeh makes no conjectures, letting us draw our own conclusion from bits of Hayedeh’s last performance and from every other living detail he has painstakingly arranged before us for 100 minutes.
Hayedeh gave voice to the soul of the modern Iranian woman when Radio Iran first broadcast her Azadeh in 1968. By the time of her heart attack in 1990, the female voice had been silenced in her homeland for more than a decade, and every year on Nowrooz she had promised the nation that the songs would return. How much yearning can a human a heart carry for so many before it finally succumbs to zahr e jodaaii?
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