Hermes Records of Iran: An Appreciation by Henry Kaiser

The intrepid guitarist and music enthusiast on discovering an amazing Iranian label.
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For years I haunted the world music sections of Bay Area record emporiums, hunting for the inspiring, the surprising, the alien, and the obscure. I searched things out both to inspire myself musically, and to share with my friends and KPFA listeners. The music of Iran was always one of my favorite areas to explore. It is certainly one of the most powerful and expressive tributaries of the great rivers of the musics of Islam.

During the past decade, with the great disappearance of many of the Bay Area’s record shops, and the shrinking of world music sections in the stores, I turned to the Internet to find much of my world music CDs.
There seemed to be several suppliers of Persian music in the Los Angeles area and I ordered many CDs from them online. One of the best sources for Persian music seemed to be Music Box. Sadly their website seems to be unavailable or gone,. A little over two years ago, I had noticed that among most of the favorite of the dozens of the CDs that I had purchased from Music Box were those from the Hermes Label in Iran.

I went directly to the label’s website and was astonished by what I found there.

Take a look at:

Take a look now.

You will find a catalog of over 73 releases that encompass New Music, Jazz, Persian Classical, Tribal Music, World Music Collaborations, Armenian Music, and more.
The label’s mission and history statements include this information:

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There is no reason for Music. It simply exists.
Hermes Records was founded in Winter 1999 aiming to produce and promote modern persian music, discover creative musicians and help artists approach new horizons. While the music industry in Iran is devoting most of its attention to popular and traditional genres, artists from diverse backgrounds have been brought together to explore common understandings and new musical colorings under the slogan Music for Music. The trust of talented persian musicians as well as artists from abroad has helped us walk through this path and continue searching for new ideas.

Our Vision
- Creating a joyful and inspirational environment to generate musical ideas.

Our Mission

- to attain and sustain international reputation for persian music and artists.
- to utilize advantages of persian music
- to establish a share for persian musical productions in the global market.
- to defend the legal rights of persian artists
- to make people enjoy music!

1999 - November - The idea clicks!
2000 - January 11 - Hermes Records officially established
2001 - June - first release (Earth Whisper - Mohammadreza Aligholi)
2002 - October - first official presence abroad (WOMEX - Essen, Germany)
2003 - January - first live event (Ensemble EA concert in Tehran)
2004 - October - first concert abroad (Nour Ensemble, Paris)
2007 - Grammy nomination for best World Music album in 2006
(Endless Vision - Hossein Alizadeh, Jivan Gasparyan
2009 - November - 50th release (Thousand Acacias, Hooshyar Khayam)
2010 - January 11 - Hermes Records' 10th Anniversary

I have more than a couple of dozen albums from the label. The engineering and recorded sound is typically on a level with the best ECM productions. The musician’s sound is inspired and “in-the-zone” performance-wise. The music is unusual to Western ears and traditional and experimental at the same time.

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I am kind of amazed that this label has received almost no notice and press in the USA. True, it’s a time of musical xenophobia with the US music industry, and relations with Iran are not exactly the most friendly in the history of such between the two countries. But that’s also a time for musicians and listeners to try to bridge the gaps, a time to share, and a time to celebrate the pure joy of music.

I asked Ramin Sadighi, the owner and founder of Hermes Records a few questions about the label:

What is your model for the label and your curation and production of the musics?

This is always the toughest question for me!. Frankly said I never thought about which lines to follow or which kind of music to invest on or exploit. From the very beginning I only clarified the “What I won’t do”s. Despite my own personal taste which varies from Early Music to ordinary Pop Music (but of course with great fondness to Progressive Rock, Jazz and Classical Music), my model for Hermes was to exclude Pop, Pure Traditional or Folk and routine Classical Music. Whatever would be out of this criteria but could catch me could definitely have a place in my label. To conclude I have to say that in general I have no tendency to categorize music and believe that our slogan speaks to it (Music for Music). So if a musical project (which in many times gets initiated by myself) or any musical idea could have a hook on me, then I simply jump into it.

The albums on Hermes all have such excellent sound/engineering. Was this an easy thing to achieve?

Wow, you made a great compliment which I appreciate very much! Being a musician myself I always had the obvious concerns of a musician regarding sound quality. Now and since I stopped making or playing music myself and dedicated my life in production, I still carry these concerns on behalf of my musicians. I am not that typical rich/wealthy producer who just signs cheques or produces only according to the market demand. Actually a good working bank account is the only thing which I don’t have at all! As a producer I feel as responsible as the musicians for creating proper sounds. And of course I feel blessed that the whole Hermes Network is actually formed around a circle of friends which we made music since 30 years ago. So we understand each other blind and throughout the past 14 years after establishing Hermes, we all enjoyed this environment to bring out the sound we all desire. In the beginning Hermes was a hobby. A hobby with no serious vision towards profit. More an environment for doing things we wished to do if you like. Therefore quality was one of those wishes which the lack of it really hurt us throughout the years. This we never sacrificed for any benefit and became our identity even after my hobby became my job and turned in the Jobby I still stayed loyal to it.

Where is most of the Hermes product sold?

Surely Iran is the main market. Despite our online sales via the digital downloading portals, our physical sales abroad are mostly in France, England, Greece and Turkey. In the USA we still can’t have an official presence (due to the sanctions and custom hurdles) and in spite big interest there we have to stick only on the digital sales and small quantity orders via our website.

Tell us about the music scenes that you are involved with and most enjoy in Iran?

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Parallel to production and releasing albums we also sell licenses abroad for compilations or for secondary usage (films, documentary…) as well as organizing concerts. Hermes doesn’t really act as an event organizer and only concentrates to organize concerts for its own musicians (both in Iran or abroad) which reaches a limited number of concerts (up to 10 per year). But I myself in collaboration with the Fadjr International Music festival in Tehran, have my own Jazz/Experimental week every February in which I host musicians from other countries in Tehran for concerts. Till now musicians such as Renaud Garcia-Fons, Tarkovsky Quartet, Stephan Micus, Anouar Brahem, Anja Lechner, Ronin, Colin Vallon Trio, Wolfert Brederode Quartet, Ralph van Raat were among the musicians I have invited to play live. And as you may recognize a good number of them are ECM artists. Fortunately I have a good relation with ECM, Manfred Eicher and his artists so able to invite them to Iran.

What’s in the musical future?

I strongly believe that music will re-marry with its original essence which is being performed live and turning again into a social event. Production, releasing albums… in the 70s to 90s fashion will be over soon (if not yet!). A good portion of artists will only survive if they still could be able to perform live. I think the whole digital and downloading and piracy crisis accelerated in the past decade had severe consequences but in overall it helped music to find its roots. Music is a phenomenon which should be experienced in a community and not just at home and with loudspeakers. Music is a phenomenon which artists and audience should be able to get connected closely (such as small venues, clubs…) instead of giant venues only (where there is big distance between them). Musicians will more and more getting involved in the details of their profession (sound, marketing, promotion, PR, …). Consumers feel more satisfied by buying the albums directly from the artists instead of record shops or other middlemen. Building the more humane sympathy between musicians and audience is the key of success. Crowd-Financing can take over traditional productions… at the very end I guess music will become again a troubadour culture. As a producer I shall be scared or worried about this prediction but honestly am not. Even if many go down because of this, I won’t regret it at all. Because whatever we intended to do was keeping music alive and sometimes you should be the victim for a better sake.

At any rate, I am certain that guitar fans would enjoy much of the product on the Hermes Label, and I encourage them to visit the label’s website and order a few CDs that might seem to be to their own personal tastes.
Go for it! You won’t be sorry. How often do you get mail from Iran, anyway?

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While there are only a few recordings that feature acoustic and electric guitars on the Hermes label (outstanding among these might be: BARAD, RAI, DIALOGUE, RIRA, EGOSYSTEM, PERSIAN SUITE, and DIMINISHED), there are many recordings that feature Persian string instruments, such as the Setar and the Tar. It seems like the Persian players have amazingly elaborate and expressive way of ornamenting phrases with their fretting hands, which are a great source of getting new ideas for guitar. Since much of the music is based on Persian musical concepts that are quite different from the Western way of looking at melody, harmony, and rhythm, most of the music on the label is truly great for expanding ones musical consciousness. The recordings by the amazing Hossein Alizadeh are especially suggested for this purpose.

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If you wanted to go after some of my favorite recording on the label, there are lots of audio samples there to hear… then check these ones out; listed in no particular order: