When I found out that the Tehran-born blues/rock/jazz group Kiosk was going to be playing at Yoshi’s Jazz Club in San Francisco (2 shows on July 4th, 8 pm and 10 pm), I could no longer wait for a chance opportunity to chat with bandleader Arash Sobhani about the band’s unique style. Kiosk has a stunning way of altering hand-me-downs from Dire Straits, Pink Floyd, Bob Dylan and others into a powerful new style with an emergent voice entirely its own. So I invited myself for beer and pizza to Sobhani’s 9th floor apartment overlooking the San Francisco Bay Bridge. The first order of business was to congratulate Kiosk for being invited to play at Yoshi’s.
Yoshi’s is a major stopping point for top rated jazz musicians familiar with mega crowds who, for artistic reasons, need to touch bases with a smaller audience of true aficionados. In the past, jazz greats like Oscar Peterson, Bud Shank, Pat Metheny, Freddie Hubbard, McCoy Tyner… have all chosen Yoshi’s to be at their most unpretentious with their listeners. This is what thrilled me about Kiosk appearing at the famous club. Being on Yoshi’s stage is a very simple honor. You just play. Unlike the Grammys, Emmys, or Oscars where glamour rules the evening-- and you can’t be sure how much politics or business is mixed in with the affair--nothing comes off Yoshi’s stage that’s not pure musicianship. This straightforward invitation to play is a reverential acknowledgment of a new music style born out of Tehran’s metropolitan angst.
Much like his lyrics, Sobhabi’s words in casual conversation pack a lot of meaning in a few words. Seconds into our discussion of music style, he hit me with the word “form.” And soon I realized that just as, to me, sonata is a form or waltz is a form, to Sobhani “Bob Dylan” is also a form. The fact that the listener associates a specific singer or guitarist with, say, the Pink Floyd sound, does not deter the Iranian artist from planting new crop in the same field. With Kiosk it’s not about sticking a stylistic flag in the ground with the band’s name on it, it’s about humbly constructing the sound texture demanded by the emotional message. Sometimes the building blocks are pre-fabbed and sometimes the band labors to stomp in mud and straw to cast its own material. Kiosk’s
Yarom Bia--with Mohsen Namjoo--is an example where the two approaches have been mixed to spectacular effect.
Kiosk, like Led Zeppelin, Grateful Dead, The Doors, The Who, Janis Joplin, Jimmy Hendrix…is a war child shifted in space by a few degrees of longitude, and in time by no more than a decade. Sobhani’s artistic life began in Iran’s 80s, a period in our history where the individual was less a unit of action than armies of individuals. Our inner struggles, the tragic destructiveness, sacrifices for love, the betrayals, the pointlessness, the painful consequences, all found larger metaphors in what our society as a whole was experiencing. It was touching to hear Sobhani speak of the band’s early beginnings in what he called “basements underneath the basements.” The country was already living in an underground bomb shelter, and Sobhani’s songs were politically underground music in a physically underground society.
Kiosk’s has its roots in a Terhan band named Esm e Shab (military password) co-founded by Sobhani, The teenage Sobhani and the IRI censor haggled over the name before the band could release its works. The shrewd censor didn’t want anything with a hint of social protest associated with the war. Finally the squabbling parties settled on the name Raaz e Shab (night secret). The regime would have been happier with a cool and catchy javoon pasand name like Hayoolaa or Baheemeh. Sobhani observed as a teenager that the regime wasn’t afraid of the cool and fashionable in art; what it feared most was social insight. The IRI is terrified of collectively relevant art, which is why Kiosk is music non grata in Iran these days—and perhaps would have been at any period in Iran’s history.
In fact, for the same reason, Kiosk is subversive music to today’s political establishment in the US—the rebellious lyrics being in Persian mutes the message somewhat but not all the way, and I don’t mean Kiosk’s message per se so much as its artistic motive power, which can be measured in kilotons. American youth stands in awe of the activism of Iranian youth. Iran’s historical drama has put our artists at a vantage point where they can influence the political choices of the 21st century.
Sobhani is keenly aware of this and seems frustrated by the fact that some Iranian artists come to trade their talent in the Western political market for instant fame and cash. Valuable treasure for pretty beads, on the historical scale. To some extent this is understandable. Kiosk is Iran’s foremost international band, yet the group ends up donating the proceeds from many of its packed concerts to causes which would otherwise be financially supported by a socially awakened populace--as was the case in the Viet Nam / Civil Rights era US in the 60s and 70s. Sobhani has to make up his Dollar balance by working full time as an architect in San Francisco
The great Spanish poet Federica Garcia Lorca says of the musician’s fingers over the guitar,
Heart mortally wounded
By five swords
So I tried to wound Arash Sobhani to see what sound would come out. I asked him if living in the comfort of San Francisco does not dull his senses and emotions to irrelevance in the light of the political battleground that is Iran these days. In response he mentioned Rumi and gave me a CD copy of some cassette tape songs from Kiosk’s early incarnation, Raaz e Shab.
Rumi was a war and upheaval child himself. His family emigrated westwards from Balkh to Anatolia (modern Turkey) to escape Iran’s political unrests and the Mongol threat. Yet the classical poet still voices the quintessence of the Persian soul. Track 13 of the Raz e Shab CD quotes Rumi’s view of art over and over again:
رقص آن نبود که هر زمان برخیزی
بیدرد چو گرد از میان برخیزی
رقص آن باشد کز دو جهان برخیزی
دل پاره کنی ور سر جان برخیزی
Arash Sobhani says Iran is not defined by a geographic boundary, but by its cultural range. Tehran, San Francisco, Balkh or Konya, Iranians are Iranians. Once again his artistic intuition is on target. The mythological Arash used the bowstring to settle Iran’s physical boundary; Kiosk’s Arash has used the guitar string instead, and the cultural arrow is due to arrive from half way around the globe in Tehran to Yoshi’s Jazz Club in San Francisco. It thrills me to know that I’m going to be there to see this arrow land on July 4.
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