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Iranian Malaysians – Interview: Behrooz Azad

Ahead of this week’s Six Pillars to Persia show produced by musician Behrooz Azad, we discuss life in Malaysia.

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Photo: Behrooz Azad

My sister came to Malaysia with her husband for their post-graduate studies, before leaving home she suggested I join her as living overseas life is full of opportunities and experiences that are exciting and interesting. I believed it could help me in my career and personal life, as while doing my academic studies in Iran I realised Music is not really a supported career. I’d already taken private classes with the lecturers at my music university and learnt most of what they were had to teach me there. So I felt studying overseas would give me a better chance to succeed. Even though I was accepted to enter university to continue my music studies, I opted for Malaysia. My plan at first was to study Music here and I was accepted at a university (UCSI) to study Classical Music Composition. Yet after finding out more the music industry and education here, I decided to pursue my career without depending on educational institutions, so that I could focus on a related career that broadens my knowledge and understanding about art. So I chose to study Film and Animation, which comes with a more supportive community here, in order to develop a multi-dimensional career combining music with visual arts.

Is yours a common story, what’s the history of Iranians in Malaysia?

The Iranian community in Malaysia includes people coming all walks of life who come from different cities and distinguished backgrounds, with different mind sets and goals. It is like experiencing the whole of Iran on a small scale. Despite all these differences, there are similarities in their life style compared to other races and nationalities here. Iranians usually come to Malaysia to study, although their future plans are to leave for other countries such as UK, USA, Canada and Australia, or they just choose to go back to Iran.

-Is there a cultural and social scene there amongst the Iranians?

You barely meet Iranians who intend to permanently stay in Malaysia. Some leave right after graduation, others stay for a while to work, to gain experience before going on to other countries. It’s hugely difficult to get permanent residency in Malaysia, and like any other countries foreigners are not given the same rights as local people. But we have a lot of families moving from Iran to Malaysia in recent years. Also, due to recent the economic recession in Iran a lot of students and families faced intense financial barriers, which forced some of them to move back to Iran.

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The home studio

What’s the Iranian cultural scene over there like?

Even though you can see various races and nationalities in Malaysia, there is usually a greater bond among people with the same race. Communities here are usually distinguished according to their nationalities. Iranians do a lot on both their social and cultural scenes. They usually make use of their potential to promote Iranian culture and art, participating in cultural festivals and social gatherings. In academic institutions like universities, there are usually one or more Persian social and cultural clubs, focusing on promoting activities during Persian as well as international festivities. We also have internal online communities for people with the same interests who share their works and ideas on social networks like Facebook. In the non-academic communities, Iranians have been active in establishing and developing entertainment and leisure time activities. Almost in every in city with Iranian residents, the neighborhoods include several Iranian restaurants, supermarkets where Iranian food and products could be found. Plus there are plenty of night clubs organized by the Persian community where people spend their free time hanging out and having fun while listening to Iranian dance music.

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Behrooz and his oud

-Is there a music scene there amongst the Iranian community, what’s it like?

There’s a musical society consisting of Iranian musicians, although it lacks communal identity in that it doesn’t maintain a certain overall direction. Everybody is focusing on their own projects and bands, which are distinct from each other and all have different moods.  Most of them are contemporary musicians, focusing on different genres such as jazz, electronic and rock. They present themselves in different manners according to the genres of music. Jazz and rock musicians usually perform gigs in bars. Some of the electronic musicians work as DJs in night clubs, while others focus on studio recording and forming an online community instead.

The Malaysian constitution guarantees freedom of religion while making Islam the state religion. How does this affect the Iranian migrants in their religious practise?

Islam is the primary religion in Malaysia and it is practised widely by local Malaysian people. Other Religions such as Christianity and Buddhism and Hinduism are actively being practised by their followers including Chinese-Malaysians and Indian-Malaysians. Therefore, there is a quality of religious freedom and flexibility here where everybody can live with each other despite their differences. Iranians in Malaysia, to a certain extent, are less involved with religious activities. While you can find a sense of harmony in all local Muslims, Iranians usually come with different beliefs and interpretations of their religion and each practice it to a different intensity compared to another. They generally have a more complicated perception of Islam. While some of them value their Islamic identity, others let this go and somehow become atheist or agnostic. There are people who convert to other religions, especially Christianity, although they are a very small community compared to those practising Islam. From what I’ve seen, the community mostly consist of secular people who still believe in God, but do not practice any religion up to a certain level – agnostics. People who come over with a strong Islamic belief, practice Islam as they did back in Iran, and they form a larger community compared to the atheists. The biggest group of all however is those people who practice agnosticism. The smallest group of all would include the ones who convert to other religions, such as Christianity.

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Playing the tar

-Is there a music scene there amongst the Iranian community, what’s it like?

Malaysia is more active in the contemporary music scene. Certain sub-genres of rock music are really popular here, including hard-rock, alternative rock and heavy metal. The bands and people are noticeably influenced by rock bands such as Metallica, ACDC, Guns n Roses and the Scorpions. Even though many of the local bands follow the old-school rock music of the 80s and 90s, some of them are really well produced. I am not really involved with the local music industry  here, but I do know there are bands such as Wings and Hujran who are popular with the local community. Bands with a more contemporary approach take their inspirations from bands such as Linkin Park and Paramore. Emo music and death-core metal is also widely listened to by teenage locals.

On the other hand, I personally like to attend performances by the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra in Kl Convention Center time to time. The orchestra consists of international musicians together with local talents, and their performances of Western classical music are pretty good. Overall attention of the local music industry and live events is usually on contemporary music rather that classical. There are several international festivals focusing on jazz and electronic music, presenting both local and international musicians. Malaysia is also frequently toured by Hollywood and European Commercial bands and Musicians.

551936_3764773438943_1429772765_n What’s the experimental music scene like? 

I barely hear of musicians who take an experimental and avant-garde approach towards music; but the KL Convention Centre also holds concerts for bands who are less commercial and focus more on experimental sound and music. Experimental music, along with other forms of experimental art such as films and paintings, are not popular either with musicians themselves or the general public. Thus there’s a small community of people consisting of local and international artists who form festivals that focus on the experimental scene who have little or no concern about financial profit. For festivals I could name KLEX (KL Experimental Film and Video Festival) which is as annual event where a very small community of local and international participants present their experimental videos and sounds on screen. I was invited by my university lecturer organising the festival to participate in the sound and visual session. I played an experimental-atonal improvisation on tar (a Persian string instrument), I played over a video that my friend Mostafa Mahmoudi and I had created for the performance.

What’s it like belonging to a country that is split as Malaysia is between the two islands, do people come and go from each a lot or is there little mixing?

Malaysians travel frequently between two islands. Especially eastern Malaysians travelling to the western side of the country to study and work. There are less international residents in eastern Malaysia. Depending on their nationality, some foreigners even need to get a separate visa to go east. 

Is there any Irani-Malay fusion going on; marriages, recipes, cross-words…?

There’s a huge cultural difference between the Iranian and Malaysian community. However I’ve heard about cases of inter-marriage. We share similar words that are taken from Arabic, such as Salam, but not enough for us to fully understand each other in a conversation. Food’s also really different around here, on several levels including the ingredients and ways of cooking. Although in some cases we use the same ingredients the final result tastes really different! I’ve personally always found Malaysian culture interesting and tried to adapt myself to it in a logical sense.
558067_4460450030423_601075541_nYou studied music, tell us about your interests and ambitions musically.

Over my musical journey I’ve learnt to be flexible and open to all genres, from classical to contemporary. I was academically trained as a classical musician but had a more experimental and avant-garde approach towards it back in Iran. Since moving to Malaysia, I’ve more interest in the commercial music industry, and while I still hold onto my original musical style which is of experimentation and creativity, I’m opening up more to the commercial scene now. Currently I am focusing on electronic music, seeking opportunities to present it especially in the West where there’s greater support compared to Asian and Middle-Eastern countries. Based on what I have seen, having good ideas and production values in music doesn’t necessarily guarantee career success. That’s where having an active music industry is useful for promoting and presenting work. In the West there’s support for music of every genre whether experimental or commercial, one just has to look in the right places. So far I’ve taken every chance to explore new aspects of music and my future plan is to combine all the knowledge and experience I’m gaining every day to create something new and original. It is a long way to go, but it is possible! Also my career in film and animation has opened up new dimensions in my music and I’m broadening my knowledge and experience about film scoring too.

What’s the best bit of recorded music you ever heard and live performance you saw?
I’ve a big collection of my favorite sounds and music, stuff which I find inspiring in terms of composition, mix and mastering as well as presentation. As far as recorded music goes, I’d say I enjoy listening to Depeche Mode, Nine Inch Nails. I like the use of sounds and the textures they have in their songs, and everything is neatly mixed as well. I also enjoy listening to bands such as Anatema and Blackfield. Their music sounds emotionally loyal and I can connect to it. On a more experimental approach, I like listening to artists such as Giovanno Sollima mainly because of his strong composition technique that combines modern classical qualities with experimental sounds, and also Alva Noto, who is known as a pioneer in glitch music.
My favorite type of live performance is concerts where music combines with visual arts and innovative lighting, creating a more dynamic and creative atmosphere. I’ve seen great concerts performed by other bands where the visuals play a more important part on stage and I’ve seen bands such as Nine Inch Nails and Muse live, that really inspired me.
And what does your music mean to you?
I’m involved with music more that I ever imagined I possibly could be. It turned out to be my life, from serious career to having fun. It’s no longer merely an interest that makes me go for it, it’s a sort of addiction, a journey that gets more interesting as I go along. It is worth taking the risks, I can’t imagine myself without music.
I’m trying to build a stable career in music and animation, there are risks. I’ll continue to learn as a music producer and independent artist ’til I get a break in the west. Meanwhile I’m considering my chances in film and animation and try to make a connection between everything, whether it is sonic or visual arts, and recreate myself though it.
Kurdish Iranian group The Kamkars at their concert in the Kurdish mountains

Kurdish Iranian group The Kamkars at their concert in the Kurdish mountains

If you could hold a concert in Malaysia and bring over any Iranian performers you like, which 3 acts would you invite?

On the contemporary scene, I would ask electronic duo Deep Dish, based in USA.
For an experimental approach, I’d be honored to collaborate with Keyhan Kalhor.
For a more traditional approach, I love the Persian music ensemble the Kamkars.
Behrooz Azad is a singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist. He uses his own vocals, writes lyrics, is an animator in 3D and a rig artist. He holds a Diploma in Music from the Music School of Tehran, a degree in Film and Animation from The Multimedia University in Malaysia. He is currently working for animation company Animonsta Animation Studios as an Audio Designer, Music Composer and 3D Rig Artist. Born in Tehran, Iran he is currently residing in CyberJaya, Malaysia. How fitting is that for a hometown to a 3D animator? Azad is multi-skilled like many young people with access to online influences and direct training these days. He will produce this week’s episode of Six Pillars to Persia, which features music from Iranians living in Malaysia. Hear it at 18.30 Thursday 21st, repeating 08.30 the following Monday on 104.4FM across London, www.resonancefm.com elsewhere.
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