Jazz musician with local ties takes band to Iran

Bob Belden plays alto flute with bass player Jerome Parker Wells behind him. They are part of the band Animation, which performed in Iran last month.

Bob Belden, a Goose Creek native, isn’t only a Grammy Award-winning jazz musician and arranger. He’s a cultural diplomat who just returned from a nine-day visit to Iran.

Yes, Iran.

It was the first time any American artist performed there in 35 years, since the 1979 Iranian Revolution. And Belden and his band, Animation, did not hold back. They played in the Tehran Opera House before an audience that included government officials, cultural and civic leaders and music lovers, and they played their version of hard-core electronic jazz.

“They didn’t know anything different, and we didn’t know anything better,” Belden said.

The visit was arranged by the nonprofit Search for Common Ground, which works to ease tensions between the U.S. and Iran, and sponsored by Iran’s Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. The band’s road manager was Farzin Piroozpay, a former army general and security official.

Animation took part in the 30th annual Fajr International Music Festival. Band members, joined by local musicians, also performed the Iranian national anthem at the United World Wrestling Greco-Roman World Cup, which was held in Tehran, and at a music school in the city of Isfahan.

The students, age 6-14, were studying classical Iranian music and playing traditional instruments, Belden said.

“Their teachers performed, and then we jammed with them. We set them up to learn how to play the blues. We told them, ‘You’re all jazz musicians now, a life of poverty and shame awaits you.’ ”

It was great fun, Belden said.

“Here we are in a strange country that supposedly hates us, and we’re having the time of our lives with their kids and their parents,” he said. “It looked like a bunch of James Island parents watching their kids play in front of a bunch of dignitaries from out of town.”

The visit was a kind of experiment to see whether visiting American musicians would be respectful of Iranian culture and customs and whether they would draw interest from Iranians, Belden said. “Essentially, our trip was an audition.” And it was successful on both counts, he said.

It was instigated by a long-distance request via social media.

In August 2013, Belden received a message from Mohammad Reza Azadehfar, a musician and ethnomusicologist who was looking for a U.S. institution at which he could house his academic papers. Belden asked about coming to Iran to perform, and Azadehfar said, “It’s not as remote as you think.”

So Belden promised he would bring his band. He connected with Ramin Sadighi at Hermes Records in Tehran, and then with Search for Common Ground and others. It took a while, but eventually all the visas were secured and arrangements made.

“At this historic moment in U.S.-Iran relations, cultural outreach activities like these break down stereotypes and build the basis of trusting relationships between individuals,” the nonprofit’s spokeswoman Jessica Murrey said in a statement. “These types of personal connections lay the foundation for a durable and sustainable relationship based on mutual respect and common interests.”

Cultural diplomacy long has been a priority of the U.S. State Department, which has a division devoted to it called the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.

In 2012 and 2013, it sponsored the OneBeat program, which brought young musicians from around the world to the U.S. for collaborative engagement and a tour of the East Coast that included stops in Charleston.

The State Department had nothing to do with Belden’s visit to Iran and couldn’t comment on its diplomatic impact, but Belden said that impact was obvious and significant. He and his band mates — drummer Matt Young, bass player Jerome Parker Wells, trumpeter Pete Clagett and keyboard player Roberto Veraspegui — were treated like special guests, feted and embraced.

Their room, board and transportation were provided, and their chaperones were government officials and important cultural figures, such as Mehdi Faridzadeh, president of the International Society for Iranian Culture.

Belden said the Iranians he encountered were warm and eager to meet their American visitors.

“There was no tension whatsoever,” he said. “That’s all mythology.”

In a truck stop, he noticed the movie “Taken” playing on a big screen and a buffet with a sign that read “Fast Food.” In a coffee shop, a record by Nat King Cole was playing. The magazine Tehran Today had a cover featuring the late American rock musician Kurt Cobain.

He noticed many quotations for the Quran posted in public, but nothing radical — phrases such as “Do not be boastful,” “Do not cause others to feel inferior,” “Do not gaze at a woman with lust in your heart.”

“(Iranians) are as conservative as conservatives in South Carolina,” Belden said. “They would feel at home at Bob Jones University. It’s just that they channel (their political and social sentiments) through Islam rather than Christianity. They have no qualm with Christianity. ... It’s easy to talk about this. They have no hatred for America. The mythology is so tremendous it really distorts the humanity.”

Belden, who grew up in the Lowcountry, eagerly talked with his Iranian hosts, even teaching them Gullah (which he speaks remarkably well, with a finely tuned accent).

“I sold Charleston to them,” Belden said. “They asked me how I was so open, I said because I grew up in the Charleston area.”

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