Persian American percussion performer and instructor Behnaz Bibizadeh plays the tombak during the concert by the Sama Ensemble at the Library of Congress, April 25, 2007.
The United States is home to the largest number of Iranians outside of Iran, many of whom arrived in two major waves of immigration in the second half of the twentieth century. The first group of settlers arrived between 1950 and 1977, before the Islamic revolution of 1978-1979. An economically and politically favorable climate for travel at that time encouraged many highly-educated Iranians to explore options abroad. Many students came to attend universities in the United States, especially in the 1970s. After the revolution a great many Iranians in the United States who had intended their stay to be temporary found themselves in exile, and a second wave of immigrants from Iran came as many Iranians fled a repressive Islamic regime. Today, the largest Iranian American communities are in California, New York, New Jersey, Illinois, Texas, and Washington, D.C. Due to the political turmoil of Iran in the late twentieth century, Iranian Americans commonly identify themselves as Persian, which refers to an ethnic, rather than a national, identity.
Soon after the revolution, the religiously conservative Islamic regime sought to repress music that included Western European and American influences. Popular music artists left Iran, with many choosing to settle in the United States. Iranian artists who settled in Los Angeles created a global center for Persian musical culture. American "Persian pop" music that grew out of these events is sometimes described as one style, but actually includes many genres of music. Some groups perform in many styles, especially dance music styles from North and South America. In addition to dance music, some artists produce romantic songs and songs for more contemplative listening. Shahrzad Sepanlou is an example of a singer who combines jazz with Middle Eastern themes supported by a mix of Western and Middle Eastern instruments.
This blending of Persian and Western music coming from artists outside Iran is what is called the "LA style" in Iran today. Some Persian American artists, such as singer/songwriter Siavash Shams and the American reformation of the Iranian group The Black Cats became wildly popular in Iran. These styles of music had such a strong impact in Iranian culture that, beginning in the 1990s, the Iranian government attempted to create a native popular style of music that could be regulated in the hope that it would replace music imported from the United States and Europe. However Persian American artists have continued to be popular in Iran. The Iranian restrictions on the publication of musical recordings have also continued to cause singers, composers, and musicians to emigrate. Many Persian American artists have crossed over into the world music scene in the United States and other countries as well. While most of these Persian singers record in Farsi, many also sing in Spanish, French, English, and other languages in order to market their recordings widely and to give concerts in many parts of the world.
While strictly controlling popular music, the Iranian government continued to endorse the work of traditional Persian classically-trained musicians, so that fewer Iranian classical musicians have sought to immigrate to the United States. As a result, traditional Persian music performers in the United States are a relatively small group compared to the singers of popular music. One example of a traditional Persian music group is the Sama Ensemble, which emerged in the late 1990s from the work of the Center for Classical Persian Music in Northern Virginia. This group, inlcuding vocalist Bahman Ameen and the group's founder, Dr. Ali Analouei, performed at the Coolidge Auditorium at the Library of Congress in 2007 (select the link to view the video).
Sama, a Sufi  listening ceremony, is a means of meditating on God through focusing on melodies and dancing. Sama emphasizes the singing of hymns, known as qawl and bayt, and also includes instrumental interludes on such instruments as the tambourine, bells, and flute. Sufi styles of music have influenced non-Persian artists in the United States, such as Madonna, to produce their interpretations of Middle Eastern trance song.
While Sufism and the musical forms that are part of its tradition occur in many countries including Iran, Radif is a specifically Persian classical music form. In the United States the band Axiom of Choice found success in a contemporary interpretation of Radif that included compositions and arrangements for both traditional and modern synthesized instruments by the Iranian-born composer Loga Ramin Torkian. As part of his effort to blend the music of Western cultures and Persia, Torkian altered his western guitars to play the quarter tones of Middle Eastern music. In addition to songs drawn from spiritual traditions, the group recorded songs speaking to the Iranian exile experience, such as Torkian's song "Desert Storm," dealing with the Gulf War (1990-1991). The group produced albums between 1998 and 2002 that met with acclaim among aficionados of world music. Mamak Khadem, formerly the vocalist for Axiom of Choice, is now a successful solo artist, performing a blend of traditional Radif and Western music.
Today Loga Ramin Torkian is composing and performing as a member of the group Niyaz, which has continued to blend traditional instruments with synthesized music while also recording and performing acoustic music using traditional instruments. The group draws from many traditions, including Sufi chant and Persian Radif. As both Torkian and his wife, Niyaz lead singer Azam Ali, spent some of their youth in India, the music and poetry of India also influence their work. The seasoned artists in Niyaz have produced albums that have done very well in the world music market and the group has also contributed to soundtracks for films.
- A mystical branch of Islam. To find out more about Sufism, see Sufism: A Beginner's Guide by William C. Chittick (OneWorld 2007). [back to article]
- "Middle Eastern Music," by Anne K. Rasmussen in The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music Volume 3: The United States and Canada (New York and London: Garland Publishing, 2001) pp 1028 – 1041.
- See more articles about Ethnic Song in America.