12 November 2003

Shahin and Sepehr: Iranian Cultural Ambassadors through Music

Iranian-American music group creates tunes for "world community"

By Kathryn Schmidt
Washington File Special Correspondent

Washington -- For Iranian-American "world music" stars, Shahin Shahida and Sepehr Haddad, landing their first contract with a record label was more than just a confidence-vote for their unique music style. It proved to be an opportunity for them to live out their self-appointed role as cultural ambassadors between Iran and the West. So when music executives suggested they change the name of their band to something easier to pronounce, the two declined.

"We are proud of our Iranian heritage," says Sepehr. "We consider ourselves to be the face of Iran in the West," he says. The group's distinctive music has garnered them fans worldwide. Known for their instrumental ballads, Sepehr says they have "created music for the world -- no translation needed." Shahin and Sepehr recently added three more musicians to the group: an Ethiopian bassist, Moon Jewad, an American guitar player, Michael Bard, and a drummer/percussionist, Wes Crawford. The group also has guest appearances from artists from India, Cameroon, Holland, and Latin America on their albums. "We are almost like a mini-United Nations with so many nationalities represented," he explains.

The acoustic guitar sound that has become their trademark is a unique blend of Spanish guitar with Persian influence. For the group's new album, due out in mid 2004, the two songwriters have taken a departure from the "usual" and written about half the songs with lyrics. "The lyrics are like beautiful Persian poetry," says Sepehr. The two musicians believe that with the inclusion of lyrics, their sound will appeal to an even wider audience.

Sepehr notes, "Our group is different from other Persian-influenced groups because it is geared more toward the Western world. Other bands similar to ours tend to be geared toward the Persian community alone." Their album "East-West Highway," consisting of their hit songs from previous albums, is a perfect example of their "world community" outlook. "There is all this talk about nationality and politics," Sepehr explains. "We believe in a dialogue of civilizations. Nations can have relations with each other that transcend politics," he says.

Shahin and Sepehr met in Tehran in the early 1970's. After high school, their families moved to the United States and the two entered college. "We were playing music as a hobby," Sepehr says. On a whim, the two decided to send their first album "One Thousand and One Nights" to American record companies that they thought would be interested in an Iranian-American guitar duo. "In addition to the expected rejection letters, we received a personal letter from a record company marketing executive saying, ‘I really like your music, but market research has shown that there is no market for this type of music at this time,'" he remembers. Ironically, a few months later their album, "One Thousand and One Nights" was number six on the Billboard in the New Age category, behind the popular new age artists, Enya and Yanni.

"That was one experience that showed that if you really believe in yourself, you can do anything," Sepehr says. "We never once got depressed with all the rejections," he explains. The duo's unassuming attitude towards success probably has a lot to do with their rise to the top. "We never went into this for the money," Sepehr says. "Income is icing on the cake for us."

After suffering through daily rejection letters, they finally received a contract offer from Higher Octave Music in Malibu, California, now a subsidiary of EMI Music. As the record label has grown, so has the group's exposure. Technological advances have also contributed to their international appeal.

The new "global community" that has emerged with the advent of the Internet has had mostly positive influences on Shahin and Sepehr's international style. "With the Internet, people have much more access to each other's ideas," he explains. "I get hundreds of emails from all over the world every day," he says. "People from as far away as France, Lithuania, Brazil, Australia and Turkey are writing," Sepehr says. The downside to the technological evolution is the common problem popular musicians face today: fans illegally downloading and copying the group's music. "When you work so hard on something, it is frustrating to see this happening," he says.

The group is no stranger to bootleggers. Recently a friend returned from Iran and presented the group with a "Best of Shahin & Sepehr" album, but it was not the same album released by Higher Octave/EMI that made it to the Top 20 on Billboard charts. Instead, it was a different compilation of Shahin & Sepehr songs put together by a zealous fan. "Because there are no copyright laws in Iran, fans can reproduce music and sell it legally." This pirated album was "so popular it was Number 3 on the Iran's Best Sellers chart," he says with a laugh.

Shahin and Sepehr both enjoy performing live. "Our concerts are upbeat. Fans love to hear the music live," Sepehr notes. Touring also contributes to their fast-growing fan base. "We have played in so many great venues," he explains. "We just returned from the Catalina Jazz Fest in California where there were more than 2,000 people there to see us perform." The group plays in smaller venues, as well. "We did a fundraiser at Sheldon Hall in St. Louis, Missouri and performed at the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco." "Our music lends itself well to both large and small venues, and the fans really enjoy it," he says.

Soon fans in Iran will have the opportunity to see the group live. Together with a network of public television stations, the group plans to travel to their native country and perform a series of live concerts. The series, tentatively named "Echoes of Persia," will be filmed and shown in the United States on public television. "We are excited about performing in our native country for fans that have been so loyal," he explains. "It will also be a good way for Americans to appreciate the Iranian people and their culture," he says.

Shahin took a trip back to his native Iran recently, and was pleasantly surprised with what he found there. "You see these young kids running around. As soon as they find out that you are from the United States they totally embrace you and want to know more about you and the U.S.," he says. And he found Iranians eager and open to Western ideas. "What is striking to me is that everyone is very receptive to Western ideologies and thinking," he explains.

As a musician, Shahin explains, it was a thrill to be back in his native country and hear his music played on Iranian radio stations. "The younger kids seem to be listening to everything that is on the charts here in the United States," he says. "Tehran has a real buzz about it. I equate it to being in New York City." He also found a thriving artistic scene. "There is a tremendous amount of talent, and a tremendous need for expression there," he says.

After visiting Iran, Shahin returned thankful for the opportunities afforded him in the United States. "I feel an affinity for to the Western way of life and the Western ideology," he says. "But at the same time, the spiritual side that comes out of the Eastern hemisphere is a very deep and refreshing one," he added. "You feel that somewhere in between would be nice. To have more of that deep philosophical, spiritual experience injected into the Western way of life," he says. Listening to the music of Shahin and Sepehr you get just that feeling.

To learn more about the music of Shahin & Sepehr visit:
www.shahin-sepehr.com, or www.higheroctave.com.

(Distributed by the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)

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