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Iranian Singer Googoosh Raises Her Voice To Keep Her Nation's Culture Alive

Reza Teimouri
courtesy of the artist

Singer Googooshhas been called "The Voice of Iran," but in 1979 her voice was silenced by the Islamic Revolution. This year, she's celebrating 21 years since she broke that silence, with a new album and a tour of North America that stops next in Washington, DC, on Oct. 2.

Interviewed in California a few days before the start of her tour, she says there's one reason she wants to continue singing in Farsi for the young generation:

"Because I love my country."

For Iranians forced to leave their country, Googoosh is herself a symbol of home. "And children are growing up as non-Iranian," she adds, "but I'm trying to remind them." Younger generation of Iranians, whose parents were forced to live outside of Iran, are forgetting their language, she says. Her songs, she notes, can help them regain it.

Born Faegheh Atashin in Tehran in 1950, Googoosh started performing when she was three years old with her father, who was an acrobat working in a night club. She began singing by imitating songs of famous artists.

"When my father noticed that I have this talent, he found my talent," she recalls, "and he made me sing in front of people." At age nine, she made her debut in the 1959 film Fear and Hope. In one scene she strums a toy instrument, singing Peggy Lee's "Johnny Guitar."

As a teen growing up in Tehran, Googoosh absorbed all the pop music coming from the West. In the late 1960s, she covered one of Aretha Franklin's hits, "Respect." She says Western music had a major influence on her career path.

"That's why I chose the way I wanted to sing," she explains. "It was not traditional, it was not old songs, style. I mean, I knew that I want to be different."

Her career took off in the early 1970s with songs such as "Gharibe Ashena" or "Familiar Stranger," whose lyrics say:

Familiar stranger, I love you
come, take me with you to the city of fairy tales
hold my hand in your hands.

In the mid-1970s, Googoosh recorded the theme song of a popular Iranian TV series called Divorce. The lyrics, sung in Farsi, state:

Hear me, my traveling companion,
together we traveled on the road to agony,
together we cried through this journey.
We suffered in the silence of our crying.
We made a story out of the bitter passage of time.

But her career came to a halt in 1979, when the Revolution overthrew the Shah of Iran and the new government declared the country an Islamic Republic. During that time, Googoosh was in Los Angeles.

"After a few months, I had to go back to my country, because I couldn't stay here," she recalls. "I didn't have anything, and I couldn't work." Googoosh went back to Iran, where the government forced her to stop singing.

She was forbidden from participating in any type of public gathering. "They tried hard to erase me—I mean, erase my name, erase my position, erase my songs, erase my face, erase the memory of me," she says. "But they couldn't."

At the peak of her career, Googoosh was forced to live in silence for 21 years. Then, in July of 2000, the government granted her permission to visit her family in Los Angeles, and she left. Her first stop was in Toronto. At the Air Canada Center Arena, 18,000 fans waited for her return with open arms.

Reminiscing about that auspicious day when she returned to the stage, Googoosh tears up. "I was speechless, and then I had fear," she explains. "I didn't know if I can take care of these people. But it happened."

Pianist Thomas Lauderdale, founder and artistic director of the band Pink Martini, is collaborating with Googoosh on a forthcoming album. "In the world there are these singers, people like Feyrouz, Edith Piaf, Chavela Vargas – in this country, Billie Holiday or Nina Simone – who represent and are the voice of the people," he says. "They transcend politics, they transcend religion, they transcend all of these constructs."

Lauderdale recalls taking Fahti Yamin, a friend who had introduced him to Googoosh's music, to meet the iconic vocalist in Los Angeles. "When I brought Fahti to meet Ms. Googoosh here in Los Angeles, she broke down in tears," he relates, "because it was just such an overwhelming emotional experience to meet 'The Voice of Iran.'"

Googoosh performing in concert.
Reza Teimouri / courtesy of the artist
courtesy of the artist
Googoosh performing in concert.

At her first concert of Googoosh's Twenty-One World Tour, in San Jose, Cal., on Sept. 11, more than 2,000 fans listened and sang along to dozens of her hits. One audience member, 30-year old Sheyda, lives in Cupertino. She says she's been listening to Googoosh since the day she was born: "When I miss home, I listen to Googoosh, 'cause it reminds me of my parents, the time we had together. Not only my parents—my friends, the whole country."

When asked if she hopes things will change in Iran, Googoosh turns to the recent events in Afghanistan. "With this position America made in Afghanistan, make it difficult for us." She says what's happening right now in Afghanistan is what happened to Iran in 1979. It's heartbreaking, she says, and she's worried how it might affect the people of Iran.

Still, Googoosh says she will continue to sing, and give hope to Iranians around the world.

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Betto Arcos
Betto Arcos is a freelance music journalist. He writes stories about music from around the world, with an emphasis on Latin America. He has been a contributor to NPR programming since 2009, when he began reviewing music for All Things Considered on the weekends.