Bei mir bist du Hossein

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A couple of days ago, I wrote about Hamrah Sho Aziz (“Join us, my dear”), a song perfomed by Mohsen Namjoo on his 2008 album Adad. This song was used as the sound track for a YouTube clip posted in June of 2008; it was used in a Mousavi campaign video; and during the past few days, it’s been used in several videos about the current wave of post-election demonstrations.

I found these clips by searching on YouTube for Mohsen Namjoo, whose music I’ve admired in the past. And as a result of posting them, I learned quite a bit about this particular song. Farzaneh Sarafraz, in a comment, identifies the original as having been composed by Parviz Meshkatian during the 1979 revolution in Iran. This translation, provided in another comment by Troy S., suggests why the lyrics work as a background to the current protests:

Come along with us, my dear.
Suffer not alone,
For our shared suffering
Can never be healed in separation.

The troubles of life
Will never get easier for us
Without a shared resolve.

And in a third insightful comment, Bernhard observed that the opening phrase, at least, is the same as the famous Yiddish show tune Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen. He’s right:

Hamrah sho aziz
Mohsen Namjoo
Bei mir bist du schoen
Benny Goodman & Martha Tilton
Bei mir bist du schoen
Budapest Klezmer Orchestra

What’s up with that?  Well, it might be purely a coincidence. On the other hand, the 1937 Andrews Sisters version became a jazz standard, and it’s likely that Meshkatian (if he’s the composer of Hamrah sho aziz) heard it at some point.

Then again, there might have be some Persian roots music coming through in both songs.

Jewish culture in classical times developed in a context that was heavily influenced by Persia. It’s not an accident that Cyrus the Great is mentioned so frequently in the bible, e.g. in Isaiah 45:1-3

1 Thus saith the LORD to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I have holden, to subdue nations before him; and I will loose the loins of kings, to open before him the two-leaved gates; and the gates shall not be shut;
2 I will go before thee, and make the crooked places straight: I will break in pieces the gates of brass, and cut in sunder the bars of iron:
3 and I will give thee the treasures of darkness, and hidden riches of secret places, that thou mayest know that I, the LORD, which call thee by thy name, am the God of Israel.

There’s a famous poem by Horace (Carmina I XXXVIII) indicating the cachet of Persian culture even in classical Rome:

Persicos odi, puer, apparatus;
displicent nexae philyra coronae;
mitte sectari rosa quo locorum
sera moretur.

Simplici myrto nihil allabores
sedulus curo: neque te ministrum
dedecet myrtus neque me sub arta
vite bibentem.

A fairly literal translation by Owen Lee:

My lad, I hate Persian pomp,
Garlands woven on linden bark offend me.
Stop searching through all the places where
The late rose may linger.

My special care is that you add nothing,
In your labor, to simple myrtle. Myrtle disgraces
Neither you as you serve, nor me as I
Drink beneath the trellised vine.

W.M. Thakeray rendered it this way in Punch, making the obvious analogy between the classical Roman view of Persia and the 19th-century British view of France:

Dear Lucy, you know what my wish is,–
I hate all your Frenchified fuss:
Your silly entrées and made dishes
Were never intended for us.
No footman in lace and in ruffles
Need dangle behind my arm-chair;
And never mind seeking for truffles,
Although they be ever so rare.

But a plain leg of mutton, my Lucy,
I pr’ythee get ready at three:
Have it smoking, and tender, and juicy,
And what better meat can there be?
And when it has feasted the master,
‘Twill amply suffice for the maid;
Meanwhile I will smoke my canaster,
And tipple my ale in the shade.

And in 1897, Edward George Harman (“Poems from Horace, Catullus and Sappho“, p. 23) took the analogy in another direction, as

Sir John to his Valet:

I do not like your Jewish tastes,
I hate your furs and astrachan,
Melton and velvet’s good enough,
Or was, to coat a gentleman.

You need not trouble to inquire
What is the latest sort of hat,
Chapman & Moore have got my size,
And yours, and can attend to that.

The music of the Islamic world, from Spain to India, was based to a considerable extent on Persian models, and the Jewish musical culture of Eastern Europe in the 19th century, to the extent that it was not directly derived from the same Mediterranean and Central Asian sources, certainly would have been influenced by the Turkish strain of the same musical stream — and perhaps also by the music of the Romani, who started from Persian-influenced regions of North India, and then traveled to Europe through the historical footprint of the Persian empires.

So if Parviz Meshkatian borrowed those ten notes from Sholom Secunda, you could see it as collecting on a debt.


  1. What Persia was to Rome, France is to England. Etc. « Readable Watchable Edible Potable said,

    June 19, 2009 @ 4:08 am

    […] Language Log has been analyzing the influence of Persia on the Hebrews, the Romans, jazz, Romani. A neat piece, from which the following extract works quite […]

  2. Vance Maverick said,

    June 19, 2009 @ 9:22 am

    See also Bella Ciao, in any of its thousand versions. Wikipedia says the similarity to klezmer has been noted.

  3. Tlönista said,

    June 19, 2009 @ 10:01 am

    Fascinating post!

    Those interested in more early Yiddish swing may want to check out the Yiddish Radio Project. Unfortunately all their audio is in the accursed Real format, but you can preview snippets on Amazon.

  4. The swing vote in Iran « Panther Red said,

    June 19, 2009 @ 1:05 pm

    […] in Iran Posted by acilius under Iran | Tags: Horace, Language Log | Leave a Comment  At Language Log, Mark Liberman notes that a protest song young Iranians are singing these days has the same […]

  5. Bill Walderman said,

    June 19, 2009 @ 1:19 pm

    “Cachet” doesn’t seem like quite the right word to describe the Romans’ and, in particular, Horace’s attitudes towards the Persians. In the poem “Persicos” is a deprecatory term suggesting effete, “oriental,” luxury, contrasting with the Romans’ (in Horace’s day, more or less bogus) self-image as people of “manly” austerity and simple virtues. (No offense to anyone is intended–those are the connotations of “Persian” in Roman literature.) The Persians or Parthians were regarded as nasty foreigners. They were constantly at war with the Romans on the eastern borders of the Roman empire and from time to time they inflicted humiliating defeats on Roman legions.

    [(myl) Right, but Horace’s poem doesn’t make sense unless the deprecated aspects of Persian culture were fashionable among wealthy Romans, just as aspects of French culture were fashionable in England despite considerable nationalistic distaste and on-and-off wars. ]

    And aren’t the Persians viewed favorably in the bible because they overthrew the Babylonian empire and released the Jews from Babylonian captivity?

    [(myl) Yes, certainly, though of course not all the interactions were entirely positive ones. But independent of the ups and downs, most of the world that the Jewish diaspora lived in was saturated with Persian culture, including (I suppose) music. ]

  6. Bill Walderman said,

    June 19, 2009 @ 1:42 pm

    “Horace’s poem doesn’t make sense unless the deprecated aspects of Persian culture were fashionable among wealthy Romans”

    The French are nearly contiguous to the British, but the Persians were at an enormous distance from Horace’s Rome, and the Romans had virtually no knowledge of any specific features of Persian culture. But they were aware that many of the items of luxury that the wealthy enjoyed came from somewhere in the east, and they lumped together all the regions to the east of their empire that produced these luxuries under the terms “Persian,” or sometimes “Indian” or “Arabian.” (Roman poets throw around these geographic terms that are laden with connotations quite freely even when they aren’t at all accurate.) I don’t think “Persicos” referred to any specific aspect of Persian culture–it was more like the way the word “oriental” used to be used by Americans and Europeans.

    [(myl) Well, in Hor. Carm. I XXXVIII, persicus is used to describe a rather specific type of headgear. And many Roman aristocrats of Horace’s time would have served in campaigns in the East, just as many 19th-century Englishmen had; and they would likely have brought back with them fairly specific fashions and customs, as returning soldiers and traders always have done. For more on the ways in which “Persian luxury was proverbial”, see the citations here. You might be right that “persicus” was a sort of cover term for “Oriental”; but in those days, the East was culturally and politically dominated by Persia. ]

  7. acilius said,

    June 19, 2009 @ 1:46 pm

    @Bill Walderman: I think “cachet” is the right word in this context. Horace is complaining that many of his fellow Romans have gone in for Persian finery, when plain old Italian goods would do just as well. So he objects to fact that fancy stuff imported from Persian carries a cachet. Of course the ancient Romans were quite fond of complaints about luxury, especially when those complaints were framed in such a way as to draw a contrast between the rough-hewn simplicity of the Roman past and the decadent softness of the foreign-influenced present.

    Moreover, as a lyric poet, Horace was the heir of Greek lyricists who lived both in the shadow of the expansionist Persian Empire of the 6th and 5th centuries. Those poets responded to that political threat, and for that matter to the cultural influence that Lydia and other regions that in those days were incorporated into the Persian Empire had exercised in the Greek world ever since the “Orientalizing Revolution” of the early Archaic Age, with a mixture of anxiety and admiration that resembles in its complexity and its power the “West-struckness” or “Occidentosis” that such thinkers as Jalal Al-e Ahmad found in the postcolonial world. The “East-struckness” (if I may use such a term) of those old Greek poets would likely have fascinated someone like Horace, who as you point out lived in an empire that frequently clashed with the Persian empire’s successor.

  8. Bill Walderman said,

    June 19, 2009 @ 2:12 pm

    “Horace is complaining that many of his fellow Romans have gone in for Persian finery, when plain old Italian goods would do just as well.”

    This poem isn’t a complaint about the way others are behaving: it’s an expression of the poet’s own preferences, and, unlike the humorous Victorian era knock-offs, it’s not an expression of a specific preference, i.e., for Italian goods over Persian ones, but rather for simplicity over luxury–the Epicurean ideal of moderate enjoyment of life’s pleasures. The word “Persicos” simply conveys an image of “oriental” luxuries, not anything specifically Persian. The irony is that, while praising simplicity, the poem itself is a masterpiece of artfully compressed complexity.

    [(myl) I think we can agree that the Romans took “Persian” to have associations of decadent luxury, long before Horace — Cornelius Nepos, a generation or two earlier, wrote in his Excellentium Imperatorum Vitae that the Spartan general Pausanias  “had his table served, after the Persian manner, more luxuriously than those who were with him could endure” (epulabatur more Persarum luxuriosius, quam, qui aderant, perpeti possent). But by Horace’s time, and certainly for several centuries afterwards, many Romans would have had personal experience in areas of Persian cultural influence.

    The point in original post was just that aspects of Persian culture spread even to Rome (just as aspects of European culture affected the Persians); but this was just a sort of a fortiori decoration on the basic argument, namely that the culture of the Jewish diaspora mainly developed in areas of strong Persian cultural influence, including the Middle East as well as Islamic Spain and North Africa, Central Asia, and so on. ]

  9. Bill Walderman said,

    June 19, 2009 @ 2:26 pm

    “not all the interactions were entirely positive ones.”

    The Book of Esther is an early example of the novel.

    ‘For more on the ways in which “Persian luxury was proverbial”, see the citations here.’

    Thanks for the link to Hubbard and Nisbet. But which bit is her bit and which bit is his bit?

  10. Aleksei Nazarov said,

    June 19, 2009 @ 2:35 pm

    I’m afraid the first musical phrases of “Bei mir bistu sheyn” and “Hamrah sho aziz” are not the same; they have the same melodic contour, but start on different steps of the scale. It’s up to a professional musicologist to decide whether it’s a coincidence that the beginning of the two songs is as similar (I don’t think it’s as trivial as it seems).
    If you denounce bad amateur linguistics, it’s not so smart to do amateur musicology at the same time.

    [(myl) I suppose that you mean that the first melodic interval is different in the two songs, since mere transposition would be a musically meaningless difference (at least as far as identifying a melody is concerned). I admit to some uncertainty about the intervals that Mohsen Namjoo is actually using in the clip reproduced above, given his singing style. But the best analysis that I can do seems to make it consistent with the Bei mir tune.

    Here’s a pitch track of his second (and clearer) repetition of “hamrah”:

    The F0 values in the first syllable come out betweeen 106 and 111 Hz, and in the second syllable (after the “knee” of his portamento) between 155 and 173 Hz. Averages of what seem like the more stable portions come out to about 108.6 and 167.8, which have a ratio of about 1.545.

    This is more or less half way between a perfect fifth (3/2 = 1.5) and a perfect minor sixth (8/5 = 1.6); and likewise between a tempered minor sixth (1.587) and a tempered fifth (1.498). (With different choices of regions to average, we could get a range of estimates, some narrower than a minor sixth, and some wider.) Perhaps it’s an interval in some Persian tuning that I don’t know about, or perhaps it’s what I heard, which is a minor sixth that comes out slightly flat due to an incomplete portamento.

    The first interval in Bei mir bist du schoen is a minor sixth, both by the testimony of my (admittedly imperfect) ear, and the sheet music:

    What’s your analysis? ]

  11. Coby Lubliner said,

    June 19, 2009 @ 2:39 pm

    On a tangent: It’s always struck me as curious that the title of the Yiddish song “Bei mir bist du schoen” is spelled as though it were German, unlike the Americanized spelling of such German/Yiddish words as nasch (nosh) and Lachs (lox).

    [(myl) It isn’t always — you can find “Bei Mir Bistu Shein” (the title of the Wikipedia entry), “Bei Mir Bist Du Sheyn”, among others — and of course בייַ מיר ביסט דו שיין ]

  12. Bill Walderman said,

    June 19, 2009 @ 4:15 pm

    “Perhaps it’s an interval in some Persian tuning that I don’t know about, or perhaps it’s what I heard, which is a minor sixth that comes out slightly flat due to an incomplete portamento.” And aren’t flatter minor sixths, sung or played on an instrument that unlike the piano isn’t locked into a fixed tuning, more expressive anyway?

    [(myl) First, note that a perfect minor sixth (8/5 = 1.6) is sharper, not flatter, than a tempered minor sixth ((2^(1/12))^8 = 1.5874…) I’d expect skillful performers who can vary their intonation in real time — including vocalists — to come closer to true intervals rather than farther from them.

    Second, Christopher’s Persian Classical Music Intervals Page says that “the easiest way to get two Persian music theorists in an argument is to ask them what the actual intervals of Persian music are”.

    Third, that same page lists the following intervals in the relevant part of Barkechli’s17-tone Persian scale:

    10 3/2 Perfect fifth (1.5)
    11 128/81 Pythagorean minor sixth (1.5802…)
    12 6561/4096 Pythagorean augmented fifth (1.6018…)
    13 27/16 Pythagorean major fifth (1.6875)

    So no help there.

    But fourth, this discussion does list

    a possible tuning for the Daramad or
    opening theme of Dastgah Shur, the favorite modal family of
    contemporary Persian music:
    630 835
    Final (Gp) (Ap)
    G Ap Bb C Dp Eb F G Ab Bb C
    −498 −365 −204 0 135 294 498 702 792 992 1200

    which implies a minor-sixth-like interval of 792 cents, which at least is in the right direction from the 800 cents of a tempered minor sixth (792 is around 1.58, which is still a ways from the 1.55 or so that I measured, which would be more like 760 cents).

    Fifth, I guess that singing flat — relative to some intended tuning — might sound more expressive sometimes, but mostly I think it’s just flat. However, the pattern of relations between theoretical tunings and singing-voice measurements is a complex area — vibrato and portamento are just two of the issues — that I don’t know much about.

    But all this is way too deep in the weeds for the main point, which is that the two melodies are close enough for cross-cultural equivalence. ]

  13. Bill Walderman said,

    June 19, 2009 @ 11:13 pm

    myl: I think you might find this interesting (and I’m genuinely trying to be helpful, not contentious):

    This discusses mostly thirds and leading tones, but I think similar considerations apply to major and minor sixths for string players. Jazz singers sometimes sound deliberately flat to me–exquisitely so.

    Although Mohsen Namjoo comes from a different music culture, his singing seems to be related to the tradition of French chansonniers like Charles Aznavour or Russian singers like Bulat Okudzhava. But the flat minor sixth may be expressive and at the same time possibly related to classical Persian music. Or maybe he just didn’t quite hit the target at the end of the portamento. I guess it’s difficult for us to tell since we don’t share his background.

  14. Bill Walderman said,

    June 20, 2009 @ 9:01 am

    A century or so after Horace, an element of Iranian culture did indeed spread throughout the Roman empire–to Rome itself and even to as distant and remote a place as northern Britain–namely, the cult of the Indo-Iranian deity Mithra. And, just as myl suggested, it may have been spread by soldiers who came into contact with Iranian civilization on the eastern borders of the Roman Empire.

    The Wikipedia article, which seems to be well-researched despite the call for expert attention, notes considerable uncertainty as to the exact origins of the Roman cult.

  15. Ray Girvan said,

    June 20, 2009 @ 10:01 am

    myl: Here’s a pitch track of his second (and clearer) repetition of “hamra”

    Which one? In the comparative clip above, or the louder one at 0:46 in the June 2008 YouTube? Just by ear (without knowledge of Persian music) I’d call it a perfect fifth, as opposed to the minor sixth of “Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen”.

    [(myl) It’s the second one in the comparative clip above.

    When I measure the louder ones in the next repetition, I get ratios of 1.52 to 1.57, depending on where I measure, with 1.55 seeming to me to be the most stable and representative value; which is again between a fifth and a minor sixth. But I agree that those sound more like he meant to sing a fifth. ]

  16. Ray Girvan said,

    June 20, 2009 @ 1:32 pm

    I get much the same. Looking at other occurrences of the same notes in the song, I get around 221Hz for the lower note, and a portamento for the higher between around 327Hz and 343Hz. Personally I find it sounds near-as-dammit an ordinary A-to-E fifth.

    (Audacity to record, WaveSurfer to analyse, in case anyone else wants to try).

  17. Persian Music said,

    June 22, 2009 @ 2:38 pm

    Mohsen Namjoo is a great Persian singer.
    I saw him once personally during a short film festival in Zaferaniye, Tehran and he’s a very sweet person as well.

    He has released many songs and albums during the past 5 years.

    You can listen to more songs from him here:

  18. Aleksei Nazarov said,

    November 21, 2009 @ 8:56 pm

    I’m sorry – I hadn’t noticed the discussion that had been going on here. I though it would be fair to respond, even though this had been posted a while ago.
    What I meant is that “Hamra sho aziz” has the sequence of intervals
    “fifth up – maj second down – maj second down – maj third up”, while “Bey mir bistu sheyn” has
    “min sixth up – min second down – maj second down – min third up”. That’s quite a difference. And although the rhythm is the same, and, of course, if transposed accordingly, one melody could be used as a “second voice” to the other one, I think it could be sheer coincidence that these two melodies “sound alike”. After all, both seem to be built on motifs found in common North-American/European entertainment music from the first half of the 20th century.
    My judgments of intervals are made on the ear, using the harmonies from the accompaniment for disambiguation. Unfortunately, pitch traces don’t seem to as effective in determining the pitch of a sung tone – I even know one singer who sometimes sings about a quarter to half a tone lower than her intended pitch for dramatic effect. And there are singers who are just alwaysa bit flat (which is not necessarily bad).

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