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‘Baladi Iran…’: playing Palestinian music in revolutionary Tehran

The Kofia journey to Iran was only one of many stories in a unique band history, which is itself only one memoir in the multidimensional history of Palestinian music.

January 31, 2020 at 2:00 pm

“Culture can make us friends and make us enemies… a people without music culture is not a people.” George Totari

In February 1980, the Palestinian-Swedish band Kofia were invited to Tehran for a concert marking one year since the Iranian people had overthrown the Shah’s dictatorship. Symbolising the internationalism and anti-imperialist solidarity at the heart of the early revolutionary process, activists in Iran were keen to make links with others confronting fascism, and brought political musicians from Palestine and Chile to perform in front of thousands of Iranians. A fleeting moment in a tumultuous history, there are no known recordings of the event but, during filming for a new documentary, Kofia’s members remembered the trip fondly and told of their experience in detail.

In Silvi’s Palestinian restaurant in Gothenburg, Sweden, veteran Palestinian songwriter George Totari laughs at the claim that researchers had thought he had died years ago. Now in his 70s, he left his native Nazareth in 1967 as the Israeli occupiers tightened their restrictions on free movement and waged a war of conquest across the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Jerusalem and the Syrian Golan Heights. Echoing the 1948 Nakba, more than 950,000 Palestinians would leave in the wake of the Naksa (“the setback”) of 1967.

Landing in Gothenburg, Totari found Sweden to be “more Zionist than the Israelis themselves”, with politicians cosying up to the Israeli regime and public sentiment hostile or indifferent to the Palestinian struggle. Nevertheless, he found a support base in radical anti-apartheid and anti-imperialist street movements, and went on to form Kofia with leftist Swedish musicians in 1972, building an enthusiastic grassroots following and recording four albums by 1988.

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Among the many involved in leftist politics in the 1970s, Totari had become acquainted with Iranian activists working to support the movement against the Shah and other international struggles. The Shah had been granted a royal welcome in Stockholm after the US-sponsored coup in 1953 against the democratically-elected Mossadegh government, and Sweden sponsored building contracts under his regime in the 1960s. In late 1979, the musicians received phone calls from Totari to report that Kofia had been invited to Iran. “You had to think twice,” remembers flute player Bengt Carlsson, as “things were tense… there was a revolution going on.” Taking a virtually empty flight through Russia, the few other passengers included a Chilean group based in Stockholm.

Vocalist Carina Olson reports that their Iranian contacts “saw that the Palestinian and Chilean people had their own struggle against imperialism and fascism, just like the Iranian people against the Shah.” During the trip, Iranian revolutionaries expressed their gratitude for the training and support they had received from Palestinian groups in Lebanon. Palestinian percussionist Michel Kreitem, whose family were forced from their Jerusalem homes in 1948, points out that Kofia’s contacts were leftist rather than Khomeinist. Among others, they were invited by a faction of the People’s Mojahedin, “at that time a revolutionary organisation… Kofia´s performance in 1980 in Iran was in support of the people of Iran against the Shah’s regime.”

A year after the dictator fled to the US, the situation on the ground in Iran was still unsettled, with different political trends still able to wield popular support and organise their own means of cultural expression. These included the rising power of the Shia ‘ulama, whose religious leadership was backed by a small but influential merchant class and bazaar-owners, but it also included Marxist and other secular trends based on the working class and student populations of Tehran and other urban centres. By the last days of the Shah, prominent organisations including the Mujahideen (which split into Islamist and Marxist factions), Tudeh and Fedayeen splinter groups all had their own underground publications, weapons and means of organising. The communists had particularly close links to the Palestinians.

The Kofia concert at the city’s main university campus was totally DIY. A mixed crowd of over 6,000 people packed into the hall, with many sitting cross-legged on the floor. As the crowd gathered, “they were chanting their songs from the revolution”, Carlsson recalls. The show did not quite run smoothly. As Kofia began to play the lights in the venue went out. Some suspected that the performance had been sabotaged but, on reflection, the university may have experienced a power cut. As if to emphasise the guerrilla quality of the gig, somebody wired up a set of car headlights to the doorway and the rest of the Kofia performance went ahead, with this makeshift stage lighting. Outside of the concert setting, the musicians — two Palestinians and three Swedes — would jam with their Iranian friends in celebratory mood, sharing protest songs with the comrades and families of the Tehran participants. Despite travelling around in the cars of Iranian comrades, Carlsson recollects being tailed and stopped, and having to open his flute case to prove that it was not a weapon; on another occasion the Swedish musicians were misidentified as US agents.

Kofia meets Iranian leftist musicians in Iran 1980

Kofia meets Iranian leftist musicians in Iran 1980

Kofia had already made links with the Iranian cause. For the group’s second album Earth of My Homeland, recorded in 1978, Totari had set to music a poem by Iranian guerrilla Ashraf Deghani, who had herself been imprisoned and tortured by the Shah’s regime. Her organisation, the communist People’s Fedai Guerrillas, were among “the first organisations to fight back”, says Carlsson, and was popular among Kofia’s Iranian comrades, who introduced Totari to Deghani’s writings; her prison memoirs reveal that, during interrogations, the Shah’s Savak guards denounced her as an “Iranian Leila Khaled”. The album notes pay tribute to Deghani’s writings and urge solidarity with the Iranian people. Presented with the bilingual Swedish/Arabic title Iran Mitt Land/Baladi Iran (Iran My Country), Totari and a female chorus sang:

Iran, my land, from the Gulf, streaked with blood 

to your tall, proud mountains, rabid dogs rave

Look how the clear water from your depths

is sucked into the sewage that is imperialism

But, Iran, my land, I vow, 

I vow to answer,

the silence of your night

With the clamour of bullets;

the darkness of your night…

Though sung in Swedish, Totari’s songwriting style is evident in an arrangement that uses the maqam kurd Arabic scale, playable on the European instruments that accompany his oud and Hassan Bakri’s percussion, including flute and Greek bouzouki. Unlike most of Totari’s other songs though, the text is treated like a short qasida (a through-composed poem), with no chorus and little in the way of the repetition at the heart of traditional Palestinian songs. The lyrics to other Kofia songs were written by Totari and it may be that the group wanted to keep Deghani’s message intact without any structural changes; other songs on the album put women centre stage and its cover features a Palestinian mother baking bread.

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Recorded before the victory of the revolution, Totari saw Baladi Iran as part of Kofia’s contribution to a global movement of revolutionary musicians during this period: “South Africa, South America… Music is always used in the struggle against oppression, even here in Europe and Sweden too. Songs are not the main weapon but they are a very important weapon. For instance, using music, I am able to reach other people… It is not because our representatives are going to speak, it is because of our music.”

The Kofia journey to Iran was only one of many stories in a unique band history, which is itself only one memoir in the multidimensional history of Palestinian music. Kofia’s Tehran concert gave a snapshot of a country in revolutionary upheaval at a particular moment in history; many of the political forces involved were later suppressed or fell into obscurity. Others, like the modern incarnation of the “People’s Mojahedin” (Mojahedin-e-Khalq), have collaborated with arch-imperialists like John Bolton and Rudy Giuliani in the big dollar business of US plans to destroy the Iranian state. “It’s all about profit and international capital,” Totari says of the confrontations in the Middle East.

Kofia remained active during the 1980s but some musicians dropped out after their fourth and most recent album, Palestine Lives, in 1988: “They had to pay the rent,” reflects Totari. Their leader has retained his energy for songwriting and recently reformed the band for concerts in solidarity with the Palestinian Great March of Return protests. As the winds of interventionism and war become fiercer, the musical interactions of Kofia point to an alternative legacy of political and cultural resistance and, ultimately, the power of the masses.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.