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The Bob Dylan Of Iran


Four years ago, Iranian singer Mohsen Namjoo was touring in Italy when he learned he would not be able to go home. The Iranian Revolutionary Court had ruled that one of Namjoo's songs disparaged the Quran. He would have to serve five years in prison if he set foot back in Iran. But the music that concerned the court was somewhat unusual for Namjoo; most of his music actually steers clear of religion and politics.


MOHSEN NAMJOO: (Singing in foreign language)

WERTHEIMER: Today, Mohsen Namjoo is living in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he is making music and touring the country. He joins us now from our studios in New York City. Welcome to the program.

NAMJOO: Thank you so much.

WERTHEIMER: So could you just give me a little bit more about why your music got you into trouble?

NAMJOO: I think the main problem was one of my songs, called "Chance," and it was based on song verses of Quran.

WERTHEIMER: What you were basically doing was singing in the style of American rock 'n' roll, to some extent, but you were using more sacred music as a sort of basis for that.

NAMJOO: Yeah, in a concert - you know - like, especially in the modern age, you are always feeling very paradoxical forces; that they are pushing you to the difference where one of them mainly is tradition, and another is modernity. One of the ways for me was this kind of mixing, bringing traditional music to my new generation, who are forgetting about traditions.

WERTHEIMER: Let's listen to a little bit "Chance."


NAMJOO: (Singing in foreign language)

WERTHEIMER: So the very beginning of it sounded a lot like rap to me.

NAMJOO: Yeah. It is about the rhythm of the lyrics, rhythm of the words.

WERTHEIMER: You have been living away from your home in Iran now, for a number of years. So how has life in exile been for you?

NAMJOO: Actually, I - from the first days, I just could use this world for myself, world of exile. Here in the U.S., I got mostly concentration on my work. I got my - silent; I got respect. I got - many things. Definitely, I miss my mom, I miss my family, I miss my friends. But not the concept of Iran - it's dead for me.

WERTHEIMER: Now, Iran has just elected a new president, Hasan Rouhani. We have the impression here in the United States that he might be perhaps not quite so conservative. When you understood that he would be the next president, did that give you any hope that you might be able to go home?

NAMJOO: I'm not sure yet that it's going to be that big change that big change so every one of us can go to Iran as soon as possible. I think it needs time more than this. But hope is the only thing we have.


NAMJOO: (Singing in foreign language)

WERTHEIMER: As you know, the New York Times referred to you as a Bob Dylan of sorts. What do you think about that?

NAMJOO: Musically, I think it's not that part. The best award for him is Nobel Prize for literature.

WERTHEIMER: So, he is a poet, is what you're saying.

NAMJOO: Yeah, yeah, yeah. You know, he's big poet. With this comparing, I definitely am absolutely proud of me.

WERTHEIMER: So, you're doing different things with the music than he is doing, right?

NAMJOO: Yeah. And also, one of the main things in my career, in my musical career, is my voice.

WERTHEIMER: Well, there would be no way to compare you to Bob Dylan then as far as singing is concerned. Let me ask you then if you would play and sing something for us to sort of end this part of our program. I understand you have your sitar with you.


WERTHEIMER: What would you like to play?

NAMJOO: (Foreign language spoken). It means I don't give up until reach you.

WERTHEIMER: If you could play that for us, that would be wonderful. But first, Mr. Namjoo, thank you so much.

NAMJOO: Thank you so much.

WERTHEIMER: Iranian singer-songwriter Mohsen Namjoo. He joined us from our New York bureau.


NAMJOO: (Singing in foreign language)

WERTHEIMER: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.