EDUCULT Talks: Golnar Shahyar and Mahan Mirarab
The singer Golnar Shahyar and the guitarist Mahan Mirarab have become an indispensable part of the so-called “ world music“ scene. Born and raised in Iran, the desire to become professional musicians, brought the duo to Vienna. For several years, they have been performing on different stages in Europe, in different musical arrangements (Golnar & Mahan, Aseman, Sehrang, Choub, Vienna World Music Orchestra, etc.). They tell "stories with music from the world, in different languages".
In conversation with EDUCULT, the pair reveal the role of jazz music in Iran and how they are able to frequently think outside of the “world music“ box.
EDUCULT: What brought you to Austria?
Golnar Shahyar: The music. Before I arrived here, I lived in Toronto for nearly seven years. I studied biology there, but then decided that I wanted to pursue music, because it is my passion. Back then my parents were living in Vienna already for professional reasons. Then I came to them and into the land of classical music, which was very interesting to me at that time and which I wanted to study.
Mahan Mirarab: It was similar for me. In Iran I had the feeling that many doors were closed for musicians. I wanted to build more of a future and therefore made the decision to come to Vienna because of music. Here I started slowly as a self-employed musician. I didn’t just play jazz, but also traditional Iranian music. I just wanted to work freely and without stress, and I managed to build a new life here, step by step.
EDUCULT: Were you also involved with jazz music in Iran?
Mahan Mirarab: Yes, but it was very difficult—you cannot survive on jazz there. The scene is quite small and "underground," but very interesting. But I did not see a future for myself in order to develop further. The mentalities, especially of classical and traditional Iranian musicians, are very conservative and it is difficult to make something different.
Golnar Shahyar: There is no official scene for jazz or alternative music developing in Iran. Although there are so many elements, and there is so much potential, this great talent remains untapped. The musicians and artists need financial support to be able to continue working. They need official organizations in which they can exchange and develop together. Such possibilities are simply not available in Iran. It is unfortunately the complete opposite. The artists are constantly confronted with censorship and political and cultural oppression.
EDUCULT: Is training available for jazz musicians in Iran?
Mahan Mirarab: No, not for jazz.
EDUCULT: That means, there is an explicit cultural policy that says it can be done somehow at home or on a smaller scale, but it is not part of Iranian culture?
Mahan Mirarab: Exactly, jazz is "underground" and there is actually no law concerning it. That's the problem. In Iran there is no clear law stating what is allowed and what is not.
Golnar Shahyar: The term "jazz" is often already problematic, probably because it comes from the USA.
Mahan Mirarab: I recorded an album here in Vienna and wanted to release it in Iran. It is called the "Persian Side Of Jazz". But I had to change a lot, the text, the title, the cover, etc.
EDUCULT: That means the authorities are involved in the details, not only what is produced, but also how it is then released?
Mahan Mirarab: Exactly.
EDUCULT: You first said you came back from Canada to study classical music. And now things appear to have turned out a bit differently…
Golnar Shahyar: Totally different. When I was 17 years old and emigrated to Canada with my family, I only took traditional and classical music forms seriously. I did not know jazz at that time.
EDUCULT: Did you also study classical music here in Vienna?
Golnar Shahyar: No, not right away. I tried, but I did not know anyone at first. Then through a few acquaintances, I found a teacher who taught classical, but his way of teaching and his mentality were not for me. It had nothing in common with the original reason why I decided to make music. For me, music was something very holy, very personal, and I think then I was looking for an identity. Music has a lot to do with my own identity and these lessons did not help me in this sense. Then I found another teacher. She was herself. She has her own music and can live from it. She has also expressed her own personality in her music. That has really inspired me.
EDUCULT: What do you think made entering the Austrian music scene with your background generally possible? You have been very successful and have won prizes. Has the Austrian music scene been waiting for you?
Mahan Mirarab: Actually there are very positive sides, but also negative aspects. The positive side is that I know a lot of good musicians, who are also great people, open people. I feel at home when I am playing with these musicians and simply talking to them. But there is also competition with both Austrian and non-Austrian musicians and you really have to fight for your place in the scene.
EDUCULT: Where do you think this conflict comes from? Is it because you're making different music? Or could it be more personal, based on your ethnicity?
Mahan Mirarab: Those in the music industry want to sell music as easily as possible and earn as much as possible. And our music is not so familiar for Austrian ears. The Austrians have heard a lot of Balkan music and also a lot of Austrian folk music, but oriental music is still something new to them. Some say after the concert, for example, that it sounded a bit funny. I understand that too. But you just have to get used to it, listen and be open. With the many people who have fled, e.g. from Iraq or Syria, many good musicians have also come to Austria.
EDUCULT: Would you say that the Austrian music scene has changed with you a bit?
Golnar Shahyar: I can’t answer that yet. I believe that change takes place in Austria very slowly. There are small scenes that do not intermingle at all. For me, it is comparable to different ethnic groups, which also remain among themselves. Our place is within the world music scene, which is determined by a few players in the music industry. In my opinion, the understanding of music that comes from another country or sounds different is very superficial. In Austria the concept is very, very much – for example, that of multiculturalism. It is sometimes enough to have several people from different countries. But whether the music really fits and works with the quality, whether it really creates a new sound or a dialogue between people is secondary. I think some in the industry do not want to take the risk, and they know little about what is happening internationally. And many musicians are there. You have to survive somehow.
EDUCULT: Do you make Austrian music with a Persian background or Persian music in Austria?
Golnar Shahyar: Neither of the two. My personal musical background is not just in traditional Iranian music. I've always listened to it, and always have it stuck in my head, but I've also lived in Canada and also in Austria. I have influences from all of these countries and I am a person who likes to listen to everything that interests me. So I'm not specialized in Iranian, traditional music.
Mahan Mirarab: There is Persian, classical music, a traditional music that has its own rules. And the other side is the folk music played in villages.
Golnar Shahyar: And they each are very distinct. Many ethnicities and cultures are present in Iran. There is really musical richness, a treasure, within Iranian folk music.
Mahan Mirarab: We have learned a lot from individual projects and collaborations with other musicians, from Cuban, African, Indian, Austrian, Arabic, etc. This is also reflected in our music. We do not limit ourselves to "Iranians" or "Persian music" or jazz.
EDUCULT: But you sing in Farsi?
Golnar Shahyar: I usually sing in Farsi, but I have also begun recently to sing more in English, because I am not able to perform in it in Iran. I would like to communicate with my audience in a different way. It is different if they can also understand what I sing. But I also have the need to sing in Farsi because that is me, that is my culture and I have so much to say in Farsi. If something interests me and if I like a song in another language, then I learn it. So I also sing in Kurdish, Arabic, Turkish, Sephardic or Spanish.
EDUCULT: Do you consider specific target audiences in your music, such as people with Iranian heritage or other groups like refugees who have fled to Europe, and who can understand and speak Farsi?
Mahan Mirarab: No, I wouldn’t say that. For example, we were invited to Switzerland to play for a group of refugees and they were totally disappointed with our music. I think we would need to change a lot of our music so that we can meet the taste of a target group based on their origin.
Golnar Shahyar: Our music is between worlds, just like ourselves. We do not belong to Iranian society, we do not belong here, and we don’t really belong anywhere. It is a musical identity that does not actually have a home. If we want to change that, we also have to change. That is to say, if I were to focus on the taste of a particular audience, I would have the feeling that I had to hide my own artistic identity. I am a mixture of all these experiences that I have had, and all future ones. We do nothing specific for a target group. We are who we are.
Mahan Mirarab: The question is also whether it really helps people when we change and make music to suit their taste.
Golnar Shahyar: It is also the question of whether one thinks of music as entertainment or as an extension of culture, as a bridge between people and cultures. Do we really want to make entertainment music that is based on making money, or do we have a message that we want to transport through our music?
EDUCULT: Music as a part of home and your own identity may not solve problems, but creates moments of confidence and well-being, and then has something to do with entertainment. How are you going to develop your own, individual, artistic profile from all the different facets?
Golnar Shahyar: The experience of leaving your home is incredibly difficult, especially if you do not have any better choice. In Iran, I’ve never listened to traditional music, I’ve never been interested in Iranian pop music, but in Toronto this was an every day thing. I have only found my way to Iranian music outside of Iran. This is totally natural, the music awakens memories and you feel comfortable. This has its meaning. But I have not lived in Iran for fifteen years, and I believe I have developed further. At some point you have to adapt and get to know what is new. But there are also some people who do not know how and this can last years. I was also younger and therefore more flexible.
EDUCULT: Are you Iranian, are you an Austrian, or do you see yourself as cosmopolitan?
Golnar Shahyar: This is a very difficult question. My roots like my native language and some characteristics are influenced by Iran and everything else changes constantly. So, I see myself as cosmopolitan.
Mahan Mirarab: I feel like an Iranian, but I grew up in Tehran, a city, and my environment was shaped by both Western music and art, as well as Iranian traditions. I’m not a real Iranian-traditional musician. But I am also not a real jazz musician. I have also lived in the north of Iran for four years in a very conservative and religious small town. I have also seen these things and know many aspects of Iranian culture. But I feel at home everywhere I go. We also travel a lot and I am very interested in different cultures and would like to get to know new things.
EDUCULT: You now have some years of experience not only in Austria, but also internationally, where you perform. Would you call something typically Austrian, in contrast to the music scenes in other countries such as the USA, Switzerland, etc.? Are there other rules?
Golnar Shahyar: Yes, the rule of the game are different everywhere. Sometimes this makes a big difference. In countries where transculturalism is much more successful, these rules are less restrictive. There is a much better understanding of the unfamiliar and therefore less judgment and categorization.
EDUCULT: What is special about the small Austrian scene? What do you particularly like about the music business here? What makes you stay here too? You could probably go to Germany or to France tomorrow.
Golnar Shahyar: It isn’t that simple. Emigrating again is really a big decision. The scene in Austria is small and self-contained. This, of course, includes great competition. The need to open up to learn things differently is a great investment in energy and also money that many do not want to make. To get to know the unfamiliar has to give something in order to get something back.
Mahan Mirarab: One must also say, that Vienna is a great city with a high quality of life. I have many good friends here, I am very happy with my circle of friends, and try to build bridges for myself personally. Not only musically, but also on a human level. It's not about how well a person plays; it's about how well we play together. There are many refugees from Iran, many different people coming together, whether from Austria, South America or Africa, and I feel that I am doing something here in my small district. That makes me happy.
EDUCULT: What are your future plans? Where is the journey going?
Mahan Mirarab: We have recorded an album, which will be released soon. We also started a new project with the Israeli flautist Hadar Noiberg, which is very interesting for me. In Iran, for example, it is a taboo to work with an Israeli. We also learn a lot from each other musically. I have my own band, a quartet and we also have many international concerts.
EDUCULT: Can you imagine that your life will be anchored in Austria now?
Golnar Shahyar: This is a question we often ask ourselves. To be honest, it is hard to say because I have not lived anywhere else as a musician. I don’t know. But as I see it, it is difficult to get recognition for our music here. There is, for example, the Austrian World Music Awards, but that's exactly what I mentioned before. It is a limited, superficial “box“ that is evaluated there. I have the feeling that we would only be there to show that diversity exists. It's difficult here, but on the other hand, we've managed it somehow. We live from our music. Maybe it will be easier. Despite all this, I find that in many European cities like Vienna, culture is very important and I do not take this for granted. I am aware of this and appreciate it very much.
Mahan Mirarab: Sometimes I think about leaving Vienna, that I want to live somewhere else. But I want to find my balance and then make a decision.
EDUCULT: You often talk about the difficulties of finding balance, and share your courageous attempts to work with an Israeli artist. How do you feel about the social and political environment in Austria?
Golnar Shahyar: I already have the impression that we always receive an exotic label, and that no one sees us for who we really are. We have not yet succeeded in establishing a connection with an Austrian and especially with a young audience. Of course, there are also always some individuals who really know each other. I think a very important aspect to feel at home is the feeling of being connected to the environment. But there are also these walls, which make it very difficult. It is hard to get away from these boxes and labels. Sometimes I feel that I slowly see myself entering such a box.
Mahan Mirarab: I believe that the politicians in Vienna and the event managers could already help to create a good connection between people of different origins. But unfortunately, I observe that there are many projects with a large budget, where immigrants are used as objects. They play a concert and that was it. After the concert we want to talk with the people, we want to get feedback, but there is very little in Austria.
EDUCULT: Do Austrians avoid contact?
Golnar Shahyar: Yes, if they do not know something, they may feel a bit unsure. But once a trust base is established, the friendship is long lasting and honest. I really appreciate this aspect of my Austrian friends. I think Austrians, who have already had the experience of living outside Austria, are different. But because most people are doing well here, they do not have the need to leave the country. This is great, but that also has the negative side that you are not dealing with something else, although that could be important for the social development. The reality, especially in Vienna, is multicultural. There are so many interesting things, but why does communication struggle to actually take place?
Mahan Mirarab: There is an African community; a Chinese community, an Iranian community and some Iranians cannot speak German even though they have lived here for 30 years. Politicians could help build bridges. There are the events, there is a budget, everyone gets funding, everyone is happy. Afterwards, all go home and forget what we they did, what steps were made.
Golnar Shahyar: I believe that decision-makers in the cultural field should have a deep understanding of other cultures. This connection can then also slowly take place at the cultural level. At the moment there is too much money for superficial projects.
EDUCULT: Your recommendation would be that the Austrian musicians should also travel beyond Austria to gain experience?
Golnar Shahyar: Definitely. I can say we connect really well with the Austrians, who either have partners who do not come from Austria or who have lived outside Austria. For the others it is a bit difficult.
EDUCULT: What would you consider to be a positive development for you, your ideal place in five years?
Golnar Shahyar: I would like to deal more with such questions. For me, good communication is particularly important. My goal is that, despite all these obstacles, it is getting better and better. I see the importance of what I am doing, and I would like to bring together different disciplines and work with different people, helping to create a basic understanding between different cultures. I am just like that; I have these different cultures in me. I desire to become more active in this direction.
Mahan Mirarab: I would also like to work with new people, learn new things, of course earn more and not only survive, but build a quality life here.
EDUCULT: Thank you very much for the open and interesting conversation!
Next performances in Vienna: