Old Brown Eyes

When Sattar, the man known as the Persian Frank Sinatra, was on TV, life in Tehran stopped.

“The whole city used to sit and watch it; it was like the Dynasty of Iran,” concert facilitator Carmellia Pirmoradi says, and laughs, remembering Sattar's series, Morad Barghi,the saga of an electrician in love with the youngest of seven daughters. On the nights it aired, in the early '70s, Pirmoradi adds, “The streets were empty.”

Sattar didn't star, but he wrote the theme song, and that was all anybody needed to hear. He looked—looks—nothing like Sinatra, but his vocal range, deep liquid tenor and smoothness put him in the wings with the man who gave us “In the Wee Small Hours” and “One For the Road.” And Sattar delivered: the frothy French pop of “Hamsaram,” the lilting balladry of “Gole Sankhoom,” and, like Sinatra, his appeal spans generations of Iranians: parents nostalgic for the bucolic days before the Revolution fall for his traditional works and youngsters are crazy for his pop tunes.

He headlines Remembrance, an evening of Persian song and dance in Irvine that should make Orange County's Persian population—among the nation's largest—considerably misty-eyed. Featured are violinist Shahram Fasazadeh, ney player Mohammed Nejad, oud master John Bilezikjian, percussionist Aaron Plunkett, classical Persian dance group Naynava, and Siamak Pouian, a former music professor from Santa Barbara—and a tombak player of excellent repute.

A tombak, Pouian says, is a walnut- or mulberry-hued drum covered with goat or camel skin that typically loosens like a guitar string as you play—and must be tightened and tuned in front of a fire. Unless you're Pouian: “It all has to do with what type of skin they use,” he explains, adding that his goatskin is pulled so tight and with such skill that it never needs to be tuned. But enough about a man's goatskin.

The other instruments that make up the meandering twang of the Remembrance Band also claim vivid histories. The ney, or rim flute, is associated with shepherds and the player hums or sings while playing—hence the rich, eerie undertone in many songs. And the oud, according to myth, was developed by Lamak, a direct descendant of Cain. Legend has it that when his son died, Lamak hung his dead body up in a tree, forming his desiccated remains into the shape of a lute.

Like the musicians, Persian dancers stand in contrast to much of modern Western music; they emphasize the downbeat, but they dance stories that are similarly compelling. Naynava's dancers wear leather sandals and press the balls of their feet into the floor with a steady grace, making diamond, circle and line formations. Above this undulating beat, they tilt their heads serenely and liquefy their arms. Hands are twisted and held in front of the face, the eyes used like a magnet, coy yet unapproachable. Other times they work in groups, with lots of folk dance circles and clasped hands. My favorite is the traditional Persian wedding dance, which begins with a young woman sitting on a mini throne while the others attend to her, preening and petting. It's like being at a beauty shop with all your friends, until the young bride relinquishes her throne and they all spin joyfully together.

The beat, the sound, the culture are a world away from most of America—but thanks to the wedding dance and the Chairman of the Persian Board, there's a universality you can't deny.


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