In Tehran, the graffiti appeared on a wall near the university: “Andy.” Authorities scrubbed it away; it reappeared a day later. This went on for some time, and the phantom scribbler was never apprehended. So the wall was torn down.
Young women in Tehran, on their way to forbidden private parties, risk imprisonment or public flogging by hiding tapes marked “Andy” under their chadors.
In surveys taken in Iran, when asked who they’d vote into the presidency, hundreds of thousands have penciled in one word: “Andy.” And in Armenia, Uzbekistan, Paris, Montreal, Sydney, Chicago, Houston — anywhere the Persian diaspora has spread — one word will suffice: “Andy.” They’ll know who you’re talking about. He’s the only Andy that matters.
Andy is known as the Persian Elvis, the ultimate supreme superstar from a country where pop music is officially banned. His real name is Andranik Madadian, and he wasn’t always a star. But he moved to L.A.
There are nearly 2 million expatriate Iranians in North America, more than 500,000 of whom live in Southern California and most of whom came here following the Islamic revolution in the late ’70s. It’s a tight-knit community that has generally flourished economically while remaining somewhat obscure in the public imagination. But perhaps once a year, you’ll be driving by the Hollywood Palladium and there on the marquee it’ll say: “Persian Music — Andy.” You won’t have seen a full-page ad in the Weekly or the Times, or heard about it on KROQ or KBLT. Yet the Palladium will be packed.
Kids like Andy, and so do their parents, because Andy’s a good role model — he doesn’t drink or do drugs or smoke or eat meat. Andy’s a handsome guy, with a steely jaw and two sparkling rows of white teeth. He’s a rather different kind of Iranian, descended from the Christian Armenians brought to Iran by Shah Abbas, who invaded Armenia about 500 years ago. “Armenians thrive on happy music,” says Andy, “so when you’re born in an Armenian family, you’re automatically into the music and celebrations and wining and dining, which Muslims are not supposed to. That doesn’t mean they don’t have it — they’re just not supposed to.”
Under the Ayatollah Khomeini, Iran got even more cramped for music fans, and others. Fortunately for Andy, he missed all that; he’d split for America a couple of months before the fall of the Shah. Apparently, Tehran during the Shah’s reign was a heady time. “It was phenomenal,” says Andy. “It was like living in Paris. Musically, we had the best concerts — a lot of big acts from America were touring Iran — discotheques, clubs, festivals.” Back then, the Iranian kids loved their heavy rock — Led Zep, Deep Purple, Pink Floyd, Elton John, Rod Stewart.
So did Andy. He sang with his own band in Tehran, with a black American drummer, a Chinese-American bass player and an all-American blond guitar player. “And that was different at that time, ’cause everyone was into Persian music,” he says. “We were into rock music. And we only did music in English, never in Persian. I was rebelling against the Persian traditional music — it was a little too sad, didn’t have enough energy for young people.”
But Andy, after a short college stint in England and Scotland, enrolled at Cal State L.A., where he studied music. He reconsidered his English-only policy when the revolution in Iran came down and a lot of Persians immigrated to America. “I was poor, so I had to pay for rent and school, and it was much easier to get jobs singing in Persian.” He started playing guitar and bass, and formed a band with his friend Kouros. Andy and Kouros recorded an album in Farsi, and had no major ambitions. “But the album was so big,” says Andy, “suddenly we were famous and we were doing well. Singing in English was a good break for me, because now I appreciate Persian music much more than when I was in Iran.”
Andy’s a modern, though — he digs techno, he loves house and hip-hop. His own music is a string-synth-drenched, very hyper brand of dance-rock. It’s romantic stuff, with an Eastern twist: His recordings often employ a bit of mixing magic that disguises Iran’s traditional 6/8 tumbling triplets into a straight-four disco thump that’s custom-designed to yank people onto the dance floor. “What I do is a trick: I bring the snare down a little bit and let the kick play louder. This way, for Western ears, it comes out ‘1-2-3-4.’ But the Persian listening to it thinks of it as ‘1-2-3-4-5-6, 1-2-3-4-5-6.’ They do those divisions, and they dance to it like that.”
The airy, often minor-ish melodies and perfumed harmonies are quite unlike the musical colors Western ears are accustomed to — the old music seems to seep through. “With the Iranian kids, it’s not cool to dance to Iranian classical music. It’s like in America, when you’re growing up and you’re 14 or 15 years old, you wanna be as rock as possible — you don’t wanna be affiliated with Beethoven. But even if I don’t consciously use [the traditional Iranian forms], unconsciously they’re always there. If you listen to my music, you will hear this old Persian melody and in the bridge you’ll hear a big orchestra playing violins, oboes and cellos.”
In Persian music, poetry plays an important part; traditional songwriting almost dictates that the melodies take their inspiration from the lyrics, a technique that Andy adheres to. Vocally, too, Andy sounds different from American or English pop singers. He laces his husky tenor with a yodeling vibrato, sliding up and down into a phrase. “Well,” he says, “I have to say I am not that good at that.”
Sounds good to me, though.
“The fact is,” he says, “because I grew up thinking and playing American music, my vocal cords were not conditioned like an average Iranian singer’s are. They have these trills and ornaments naturally in their voices, and I don’t. So, coming back from Western music to Iranian music, I just used my own ornaments. The Persian singers do this perfectly, and beautifully. I do it totally differently, and maybe people like you like it. And that’s great. But it’s not Persian.”
Andy is a bona fide superstar; recently, he played to a crowd of over 30,000 at the Rose Bowl. But he wants more, and he’s going to “cross over” to get it. He’s even recorded English and Spanish versions of some of the songs on his forthcoming album, Silk Road, due in late May on the Cherokee Productions label. “Before,” he says, “we were producing for Persians, and now we are thinking about the non-Persians. It’s still gonna be my own music, but with more ‘world’ edge — political.” To ensure maximum danceability, American electronic producer Richie Rodriguez has remixed several cuts.
Andy’s music is studio-glossy enough as it is, but he’ll never neglect the Persian elements of his sound, and his new record features a mind-blowing array of Iran’s finest expats.
“I have Ararat, one of the best Armenian duduk players — duduk [an oboelike woodwind] is called the saddest instrument in the world.” He laughs. “I have Mirzadeh, who’s probably the best kamouncheh player — kamouncheh, you set it on the ground and you play it. They call it ‘carpet roller.’ And the santoor [hammer-zither] player, Garnik, who happens to be my cousin, he was visiting from Paris. We have Ali Tavalali — he’s the best zarb [one-sided drum] player. And we have an instrument called djembe [a conga-type drum], which is African, but the origins are probably both in Iran and Africa at the same time, because we use it in our bandari music, and it’s, like, perfect.”
Andy’s seven CDs are available through the Persian labels Caltex and Tareneh (and you can hear him singing the title song in the Leave It to Beaver movie), but he’s looking for a major-label deal just like everyone else. Meanwhile, he’s playing in the Middle East a lot, and he’s just come back from a tour of Uzbekistan, where his latest album, Devoted, held the No. 1 spot on the charts for six months — better than Michael Jackson’s. “I don’t want to sound conceited,” he says, “but Iran’s music right now is the biggest form of music in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Arab countries, the Central Asia republics and Armenia. And my music is Persian, and it’s popular, so it’s obvious that they have our stuff.”
Exactly how they got their hands on his stuff, however, is a sticky point. Andy, with the possible exception of India’s Bally Sagoo, ranks as the most bootlegged musician in the world. Which explains why he’s a star but maybe not the billionaire he ought to be.
“There’s a famous quote among Iranian artists that we are the poorest artists in the world, and mainly because we are not allowed to sell our products in our home country. We sell millions of records, but they are sold illegally and bootlegged, which means we don’t get a dollar out of it. So as famous as we are, we are hurting financially — which also makes us work twice as hard.”
But Andy knows how to chill — he loves soccer (he’s a former professional player) and still competes twice a week, in Glendale and the Valley. “Actually,” he says, “the Iranian soccer team just entered the World Cup, and they’re playing against the U.S. in June, in Paris. So I have organized a big concert one day before the game; we’re gonna do the concert there, then go to see the game. It’s gonna be really tough to try to cheer the Iranian national team or the U.S. team, they’re both dear to me. I actually think they’re gonna tie.”