From Iran with Love

Founder of the new wave of Iranian music comes to Marin

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Legendary songwriter Shahyar Ghanbari breaks down language barriers with his songs.

Shahyar Ghanbari might be an unfamiliar name to most in America, but in Iran it is a different story. “Right now I have written 300–400 songs, many of which are sung by famous Persian singers,” Ghanbari says.

Originally from Tehran, Ghanbari traveled to London in 1965 when he was 15, and was immediately captivated by the music playing everywhere. “I loved the Beatles, Pink Floyd, Bob Dylan—I was completely changed by this music,” says Ghanbari. He would later become known as one of the most influential writers of the new wave of Persian modern songwriting. “I returned to Tehran, and I decided to modernize how I wrote songs. I put poetry in all the songs, and for those days this was very new,” he says.

Ghanbari published his first song when he was 18 and continued writing songs until he was 24, when the revolution in Iran started. Ghanbari was outspoken in his poetry and songwriting, and refused to censor himself despite the threats from the government, and eventually he was forced into exile. He took refuge in France, where he would meet his future wife.

Until he met her, Ghanbari had shied away from actually singing the songs he wrote, but then something changed. “She was my first listener,“ he says. “From day one, I would have loved to sing my songs, but I hadn’t the courage to do that. When I lost my family, my country, then met my wife, I suddenly had the courage to sing the songs I wrote.”

Now Ghanbari has produced 14 solo albums, some in French, some in English, and some in his native Persian tongue. His music is passionate, carrying a deep emotional undertone. His lyrics seem to be pulsing with a message for the listener; even when the lyrics are in a different language, the feeling behind his voice diminishes the language barrier.

How his lyrics evolve, however, remains a mystery to Ghanbari. “It is as if someone else is writing those songs for you, because the next day when you read it, it is like someone else gave you the whole thing. It is very strange,” Ghanbari says. “There is no word to describe it.”

Ghanbari will be singing and speaking poetry when he performs with Persian Flamenco guitarist Farzad Arjmand in San Rafael, but he also looks forward to connecting with the audience through conversation. “I always converse with the audience about my songs,” he explains, “because most of them are part of the culture.”

Shahyar Ghanbari and Farzad Arjmand perform on Saturday, March 23, at Fenix, 919 Fourth St., San Rafael. 7pm. $50–$75. 415.813.5600.

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