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“This political animosity only pushes people away from each other … When there is music, nobody thinks of fighting.” — Erfan “Elf” Rezayatbakhsh
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What does your average Iranian know about country music? Probably not very much, especially due to the repressive regime that rules the country, and rarely lets Western music be heard, let alone performed. But that hasn’t stopped one ambitious, country-loving Iranian from trying his hand at the distinctly American art form, and spreading it to his home country.
His name is Erfan Rezayatbakhsh or “Elf” for short. He’s a singer and songwriter from Tehran, and along with guitar player Ahmad Motevassel, they are the Dream Rovers.
This is not some weird-sounding Iranian techno music with a banjo slid in there to certify it as “country.” The first album of the Dream Rovers was a covers record that included old country music classics like Tennessee Ernie Ford’s “Sixteen Tons,” and Merle Haggard’s “Hungry Eyes.” The band first formed as the Persian Rovers in January of 2007, and shorty after were forced to go on a hiatus after Elf was conscripted into the Iranian military service. After a few personnel changes, the band re-formed as the Dream Rovers—Iran’s first country music band.
It was a CD that Erfan “Elf” received for his sixteenth birthday that inspired his love for country music. “It was 101 country music songs. Mostly classics by Merle Haggard, Charley Pride, Sons of the Pioneers, old stuff. And that was it,” he says. Elf was hooked, and American country music became a life pursuit.
Between 2011 and 2012, the Dream Rovers recorded and released an album of original material called Off The Road. Along with the five original songs from Elf, it also includes three compositions that incorporate lyrics from country music songwriter Shel Silverstein into the songs. Interesting to note that Shel Silverstein is of Jewish decent—not exactly someone you may expect an Iranian songwriter to emulate, but not much about Elf and the Dream Rovers meets expectations.
The “single” off the Dream Rovers album was called “Dear Superstar” (see below)—a sort of critical open letter to Taylor Swift, who at the time was public enemy #1 to many of country music’s traditional fans. Elf was inspired to write the song after watching Taylor Swift’s video for “Love Story.” He wanted to articulate just how hard the lives are for many of Taylor Swift’s fans throughout the world who live outside of the comforts of Western affluence, challenging her to sing to the struggles of many young women of less fortunate means.
Though most of Western music in Iran can only exist in forbidden, underground channels, Elf and the Dream Rovers were able to present their music publicly at the Sharif University of Technology (SUT) in Tehran on multiple occasions, and for audiences of more than 500 people.
“I was born and raised in a country that has absolutely zero background in country music,” Elf tells Saving Country Music. “Yet I am very passionate about preserving the true country music, which is the most important and authentic part of the American heritage and culture and introduce it to the people of Iran through workshops, concerts, and the release of albums and singles.”
The success for the Dream Rovers project inspired Elf to try and bring his country music to the United States, and while researching country music festivals, he found information about a program that would allow him to study music through East Tennessee State University’s bluegrass, old time, and country music program in Johnson City. He was awarded a Public Performance and Pulmer’s scholarship, and attended the school between December 2012 and December of 2014, graduating Summa Cum Laude. He was the first ever Iranian to graduate from the program.
And yes, Erfan, who currently is pursuing a career as a singer songwriter, could face restrictions coming back to the country music homeland due to the temporary ban on Iranian nationals entering the United States.
“I studied country music for two years at East Tennessee State University, and most of the musicians I know live down there. Of course one of the first effects of this Executive Order is cutting the potential cooperation between me and American country artists,” Elf explains. “Besides that, there are a lot of emotional consequences.”
To Erfan Rezayatbakhsh, his passion for sharing country music goes far beyond the simple joy of music itself.
“Iran and the United States have had terrible relationship since 1979, and the governments on both sides have been addressing each other with the worst words such as ‘axis of evil’ and ‘the great Satan’ and so on. This political animosity only pushes people away from each other and creates a vile image of the other nation, both of which are awfully wrong. As a musician I do believe I can help present a clear image of reality, at least for my audience.”
Elf currently resides in Mississauga, Canada, near Toronto.
“I came to the United States with a student visa, and when I graduated I found it so difficult to change my status to a work visa or green card, and I would never even think of staying in the country illegally. On the other hand Canada accepted my request for permanent residency.”
“Music will always be an important part of my life,” Elf continues. “The first year I came to Canada I didn’t do any music. However, in late 2015 I started to get back in the saddle. Ahmad Motavassel, the band’s main member besides me, joined me to start Dream Rovers again. Since then we released one single “I’ve Been Everywhere,” and we are working on our new album. We are releasing an album only in Iran in early April and hopefully soon after that we will release another album on the Internet worldwide.”
Erfan “Elf” Rezayatbakhsh and the Dream Rovers may not be your next favorite honky tonk band, but you may also be surprised by their knowledge of country music and proficiency. Like many country music artists and bands from non English-speaking countries, some of the subtleties of the art form can get lost in the translation. But that says nothing about the heart and dedication Elf has brought to the music, recording country songs in both English and his native tongue, and illustrating how even country music, which seems so characteristic of a specific place, can defy borders, and perforate insular environments and the inherent differences between the American and Iranian mindset.
“When there is music, nobody thinks of fighting,” says Elf. “That’s why I came to the United States—not only to study country music in its homeland, but also to travel to the country which had been introduced to me by the media in Iran as ‘the enemy’ and ‘the great Satan’ and see the people, talk to them, and learn about their culture through them.”