Roxana Vilk’s Personal History of Iranian Music

20 June, 2022
Rox­ana Vilk per­form­ing live with the Vilk Col­lec­tive and Squid­soup (pho­to Khali Ackford).

 

Melissa Chemam

 

Rox­ana Vilk is British Iran­ian mul­ti-dis­ci­pli­nary artist in music, film, TV and live per­for­mance, whose work often explores the themes of human rights, cul­tur­al iden­ti­ty and migra­tion. More.

“Since the 1979 Rev­o­lu­tion, Iran­ian female solo vocal­ists are per­mit­ted to per­form only for female audi­ences. Excep­tion­al­ly, they can per­form for male audi­ences as a part of a cho­rus,” British Iran­ian singer Rox­ana Vilk tells me on a spring day, on a bal­cony over­look­ing the Bris­tol har­bor. The fact that in Iran until today, women are not per­mit­ted to sing for a mixed audi­ence is galling, yet the country’s patri­ar­chal oppres­sion failed to stop her from mak­ing music the cen­ter of her life.

Her extra­or­di­nary jour­ney, from Iran to Abu Dhabi, Eng­land, Scot­land, then Bosnia and to Eng­land again, has allowed her to cre­ate music that trav­els beyond bor­ders and bound­aries. I want­ed to meet her for the June edi­tion of this col­umn to explore her incred­i­ble jour­ney with and through Iran­ian music, and with the col­lec­tive she found­ed more recent­ly with her hus­band, Pete Vilk.

The Vilk Collective’s new song, “Ocean Deep,” dropped on June 17. For this new project, they record­ed with musi­cians Yann Seznec, Allan Fer­gu­son, Algy Behrens, and Simon Heath.

 

Iran­ian on her mother’s side and British on her father’s, Rox­ana was born in Tehran, before the Rev­o­lu­tion, shar­ing three flats in the same build­ing block with her fam­i­ly in a trans­gen­er­a­tional hap­py way, where her grand­moth­er and friends were always singing. Far­si is her moth­er tongue. And the local folk songs pro­found­ly infused her taste in music and still sur­face, over 40 years lat­er, in the songs and per­for­mances she cre­at­ed with her part­ner, Pete, as part of the Vilk Col­lec­tive, now based in England.

“Music was nev­er some­thing from out­side to be learned, for me,” Rox­ana con­tin­ues, “it was the sound­track of our days, espe­cial­ly when my grand­fa­ther drove us from Tehran to the Caspi­an Sea. He would sing and tell sto­ries all the way. Some­times, he was so involved with the sto­ry that we even got lost!”

Then the Iran-Iraq war broke, and Roxana’s par­ents had to leave the coun­try. “My grand­dad gave me a tape with some Iran­ian music and I nev­er stopped lis­ten­ing to it. For years, none of us, not even my Eng­lish dad who loved Iran, thought we had left for good.” They first moved to Abu Dhabi and trav­elled back reg­u­lar­ly. “I car­ried on the music and the Far­si singing in my own way,” she adds. “I lis­tened to the mixed tape con­stant­ly too, but it was nev­er nostalgic.”

Her jour­ney in and out of Iran is so exem­plary that she direct­ed a film about it for the BBC, titled “Iran­ian Enough?” which can be seen on her website.

Among the songs that nev­er left her, one had a major role in her journey.“This is a very mov­ing emo­tion­al track,” she adds about “Mara Bebus.” “My grand­par­ents and moth­er used to sing it a lot and often cry when doing so. And I then learnt it and taught it to a choir, when I was a stu­dent in Scot­land. I think pret­ty much every Iran­ian knows this song…”

 

Rox­ana explains that “Mara Bebus” is about a father who finds him­self in a prison cell, sen­tenced to be exe­cut­ed, and is singing to his daugh­ter. The com­pos­er was Majid Vafadar (1913–1979), who went into exile after the over­throw of Prime Min­is­ter Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953. The lyrics are by Hay­dar Reqabi, a friend of Vafadar’s, who dic­tat­ed the lyrics over the phone to the com­pos­er. The singer is Hasan Gol­naraqi whose father, a promi­nent mer­chant, was strong­ly opposed to his son becom­ing a pro­fes­sion­al musi­cian, appar­ent­ly for reli­gious rea­sons. The song was record­ed with­out Golnaraqi’s knowl­edge or con­sent, and he nev­er record­ed anoth­er song.

On many occa­sions in her career, Rox­ana had the oppor­tu­ni­ty to sing this song. She even sang “Mara Bebus” with a choir at the Edin­burgh Iran­ian Fes­ti­val in 2015, in the nation­al muse­um. “It was real­ly spe­cial to teach it to the choir,” she says, “and very mov­ing as after the pop-up con­cert an Iran­ian asy­lum seek­er came to me, gave me a huge hug and was cry­ing his eyes out…”

 

 

Talk­ing fur­ther about Iran’s musi­cal influ­ence, Rox­ana says that one of the many tracks that she heard from her par­ents’ col­lec­tion of pre-rev­o­lu­tion Iran­ian funk, “when things were freer for music shows,” and “such a melt­ing pot of influ­ences,” was “Soul raga” by Abbas Mehrpouya.

 

She also, like many Iran­ian kids, grew up lis­ten­ing to Goo­goosh, “our famous female singer,” she adds.

For almost ten years now, the Vilk Col­lec­tive has been mar­ry­ing sounds from Per­sia, North Africa and the Balka­ns, where Rox­ana and Pete met, in Mostar, Bosnia, pre­cise­ly, just after the war, to orga­nize a fes­ti­val dur­ing a three-week-long cease­fire, at the Pavarot­ti Music Centre.

Nour­ished by their pro­found­ly unique expe­ri­ences, their music now com­bines folk songs from their youth with ele­ments of jazz and electronica.

Rox­ana and Pete are musi­cians and film­mak­ers; war was a back­drop to both their child­hoods, as Rox­ana fled Iran when the Iran-Iraq war start­ed, and Pete’s par­ents fled for­mer Czecho­slo­va­kia to Lon­don when the Russ­ian tanks invad­ed in 1968.

They also dis­cov­ered that they were both teenagers in Lon­don, lis­ten­ing to eclec­tic music, from folk songs to funk, jazz and punk, which still influ­ence their cre­ativ­i­ty. In addi­tion, Rox­ana stud­ied the­atre. She sings in many lan­guages, most­ly Far­si and Eng­lish, but Far­si is espe­cial­ly dear to her heart, and con­nects her to her homeland.

 

You can lis­ten to more music from the Vilk Col­lec­tive, via these links:

The Vilk Col­lec­tive on Band­camp; on YouTube; and on Vimeo.

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