Poster of the 32nd Fajr Music Festival in Tehran
Poster of the 32nd Fajr Music Festival in Tehran

Under the Grim Shadow of the Plasco Building Collapse

Raman Mirbahrami


Once again under the management of Hamid Reza Noorbakhsh, the 32nd Fajr Music Festival was held with several differences to last year’s event. The presence of prominent Armenian musician Djivan Gasparyan was one of the major highlights.

Notable points from the most important official Iranian music festival included: the continued presence of alternative music bands in the “fusion” section; the first official concert of this year’s pop sensation Hamed Homayoun; and the presence of The Rembrandt Trio.

At its very beginning, the Fajr Music Festival was affected by the passing of a prominent political figure. Apart from being a blow to the moderate political front, the passing of Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani caused the music festival to be postponed for two days, and the festival – which was due to be held from January 11th to January 20th – instead began on January 13th. This meant that many of the performances originally scheduled for the first two days were moved to the following two days; thus many important performances occurred at the same time and many spectators were forced to miss certain performances. For instance, the concerts of Djivan Gasparyan and the Rembrandt Frerichs Trio were scheduled for the same time, meaning that the audience had to choose between these two important International section performances.

Within one week of Rafsanjani passing, and with only two days left of the festival, another event affected the whole country, as well as, of course, the festival. The 54-year-old, 17-storey Plasco building caught fire, and as firefighters were struggling to rescue people, collapsed – many firefighters and citizens lost their lives. Controversially, this did not cause the festival to postpone the concerts, many of which began with tributes to the lives lost. It seemed that the festival could not reschedule again and postpone any further.

For the first time, the majority of the Fajr Music Festival performances were due to be streamed live on the online platform Haam, meaning many enthusiasts, who could either not afford the ticket or the journey, would be able to watch the performances online, paying only 15-20% of the ticket price. After the Plasco catastrophe, however, this platform stopped the live streaming of the remaining performances.

Like in past years, this year’s festival consisted of traditional, classical and folk music performances, an international section, a pop section and a fusion section. The pop section of this festival has always drawn much criticism, with commentators questioning why often low-quality pop concerts should take up the better share of a state-sponsored festival. The critique has always been that the Fajr Music Festival aims only to make a profit from these performances; the festival has never publicly responded on the subject. Seeing considerable growth, the number of pop performances rose this year from 12 to 20. In the pop section, stars like Reza Sadeghi, the recently permitted Siamak Abbasi, Xaniar Khosravi, and Omid Hajili took to the stage, among others. The highpoint of this section was the first concert of 2016’s pop phenomenon, Hamed Homayoun. Homayoun, who had never previously been on an official stage, had four successive shows, all of which (totalling about 8000 tickets) sold out within eight hours.

The traditional section of the festival this year was not host to as many famous musicians as in previous cycles; however, the performance of the National Orchestra conducted by Fereidoon Shahbazian, with Alireza Eftekhari singing, was one of the major highlights. The collaboration of these two was a reminder of the very successful album Niloofaraneh, which was used as the soundtrack to Dariush Mehrjui’s film Leila. Among all the performances, the Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance, Reza Salehi Amiri, attended only this one. Ali Jannati, the previous minister, was also present.

The concert by the Tehran Symphonic Orchestra along with musicians from the Puccini Festival Orchestra from Italy, conducted by Shahrdad Rouhani and Paolo Olmi, was another of the important performances. The evening had two sections, each conducted by one of the conductors, while the orchestra consisted of musicians from both countries.

Last year, a section was added to the festival which aimed to provide a chance for young bands in genres other than pop and traditional to be seen; this section was called “rock and fusion”, which to some degree covers the alternative music scene in Iran. This section became a gathering place for bands who had so far not found a chance to perform in the most important national music event. With the establishment of this section, a wide spectrum of bands and musicians were newly taken seriously. Despite some weaknesses in the previous year, with respect to the capacity of the performance halls, this section had the most popular performances in the festival. For these concerts, the audience could see two bands with a single ticket, which was both to the benefit of the audience and the artists, as more groups could perform. This year, however, this section was organized differently. The chaos, indiscipline, and uncertainty in various aspects of this section was clear at a glance. The performances were not consecutive and orderly: two performances on the first day, one on the second day, two in the next two days, and one in the last three days. For convenience and time, an entire session (between 90 minutes and two hours) was allocated to each band, and this year, the audience had to pay the same (sometimes even more) for this single band as they had paid last year to see two performances. Furthermore, the names seen in this section were generally already known as pop bands. To clarify this statement, bands like Kako Band and singers like Hojat Ashrafzadeh and Kaveh Afagh may have radically different styles, but, based on their fanbase and how they introduce themselves, they are considered as pop, as well as performing in venues that generally attract a pop music audience. All in all, this decision was both detrimental to the bands, who could have performed for a higher number of viewers, and the festival, which made less profit, and brought the identity of the fusion section under question.

Last year, the “rock and fusion” name was emphasized, while this year it was merely “fusion”! Apparently, the attempt last year to normalize the term “rock” in the official national music scene was unsuccessful. One positive point in this section was the presence of Arya Aziminejad, the renowned Iranian composer. Arya took to the stage with a rock ensemble, complemented with him playing a setar himself. His presence on stage, following a severe illness, was a pleasant sight.

This year, the Fajr Music Festival had a new section entitled “Research”. In this section, four expert sessions were held. Azin Movahed, Mohammadreza Fayyaz, and Ehsan Zabihifar were the experts of the session “A Review of Academic Training in Music Departments”. Reza Asgarzadeh, Rimond Moasesyan, and Ramin Mazaheri (three famous sound engineers) discussed “Sound, Recording and Equipment Concepts”. Nader Mashayekhi, Hamidreza Ardalan, and Kiawasch Sahebnassagh held another session entitled “Revisiting the Impact of Modernity and Modernism on Contemporary Music of Iran”. Hooman As'adi, Babak Khazraee, and Reza Samim held a discussion on “The Taxonomy of Different Musical Styles”. Despite presence of prominent experts in this new festival section, the “Research” section was not received with much enthusiasm.

One of the most important debates in the previous (31st) festival was that the number of performances, which was usually around 120, had dropped to 60. The organisers claimed that they had wanted to pay more attention to quality, and that they had made a better profit compared to previous years. In the 32nd Festival (2017), the number of performances rose to 85, which showed that this issue still remains. Fajr Film Festival, as a comparison, does not have an established approach towards this matter.

For the second year in a row, Fajr Music Festival handed out the Barbad Awards to those chosen. Albums released between September 2015 and September 2016 were eligible for these awards. In comparison to last year, when the awards were met with much objection and controversy, the Barbad Awards were handed out with less hassle and controversy this year, with an altered jury. The reduction of the jury to five members per section (last year, for instance, in the Traditional section there were 17 jury members) and the omission of those individuals present in the competition from the jury were among the most important alterations. Homayoun Shajarian, who last year was awarded the most important Barbad Award (the Special Award, which was omitted this year), was this year awarded the “Best Traditional Vocal Album” (for “The Lords Of Secrets”) together with Alireza Ghorbani (for the album “Fairy-like Girl”). Awards were handed out in the following sections: vocal traditional, instrumental traditional, pop, fusion and classical.

Although Hamid Reza Noorbakhsh was not officially re-assigned as the festival director at the end of the 31st Festival (2016), in the closing ceremony of the festival this year, the Minister of Culture declared Noorbakhsh as the director of the festival for next year. Apparently, the officials in the Ministry of Culture were satisfied with the performance of this year’s organising committee. We must wait and see what Noorbakhsh has in store for his third year. Will key changes be made, or should the festival expect to face the same issues as this year?


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