BY DAVID A. BRENSILVER
For decades, one of the percussion industry’s most respected and trusted craftspeople has worked behind the scenes at such pioneering brands as Gon Bops, Latin Percussion, and Valje, and for such iconic companies as Drum Workshop and Sabian, creating designs and products that have been used by some of the world’s most influential players on the biggest stages. That story would be compelling enough were it not for the fact that it’s a career that found him as much as he embraced it, having arrived on the scene by way of horrifying circumstances in a country that’s long been a study in tension.
Akbar Moghaddam first tried to leave Iran to come to America in 1977, when he was 19, to study. “I tried really hard to come to the United States,” Moghaddam says, “but in the end they didn’t give me a visa because my whole family was involved in politics. They thought that I was going to come here and join the opposition or something like that.” At the time, he had one brother who was in prison in Iran and another who was studying in Texas and politically active.
For three years, from age 17, Moghaddam had worked in a Tehran record store that was owned by the brother of a high school friend. Among the store owner’s family and friends were airline pilots who would bring albums into Iran from the United States. Moghaddam was into hard rock and interested in being a drummer, though his parents insisted on him playing classical guitar, if he was going to learn to play a musical instrument. But classical guitar wasn’t his thing. When he couldn’t secure a student visa, Moghaddam headed into military service, which was compulsory for those who didn’t go to college. After serving in the army, he figured, he’d be free to leave Iran, provided he got a visa from another country. “But while I was in the service,” he says, “the revolution happened.”
While he wasn’t politically inclined, members of Moghaddam’s family were, and he found that he was a man in uniform who didn’t want to confront those with whom he had no personal disagreement. “All the soldiers were like regular people,” he says. “I was one of them. They were expecting us to go out and fight other regular people.” He was among those who refused to fight the regime’s battle. “A lot of people would desert the army, and I was one of them,” he says. The revolution ended in 1979, but it came at a price. While Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was driven into exile, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini returned from his own exile, spent mostly in Iraq, to fill the power vacuum in Tehran, and establish an Islamic republic in Iran.
According to Moghaddam, the new Islamic government, “was against any kind of fun you can have,” and that included engaging with Western music — especially the kind of hard rock he liked. “They were against female singers, they were against dancing, they were against all kinds of things,” he says. And there was also the problem of his politically active family being looked upon unfavorably by the Iranian government before and after the revolution.
Referencing the adage about revolutions devouring their children, Moghaddam says the new government coming to power signaled that it was time for him to leave. “Because we were kind of involved with politics, they already knew the names and all kinds of stuff, and so when they started clamping down [on personal freedoms] they started putting people in prison and shutting them up, and they went through the list and we were on the list. So we all had to split and go into hiding and live in a no man’s land, whatever we could do just to survive. I took my chances and I left the country illegally.”
Not all his siblings got away. “I had four brothers and three sisters. Three of my brothers got killed, unfortunately, in the first seven, eight years of the new government being in power,” he says. “One of them was executed in prison and the other two died in clashes with government police.” The youngest of Moghaddam’s three sisters spent five years in prison before escaping around 1985 when she was let out for medical treatment, their parents having put up a significant amount of bond money to secure her temporary release. During his sister’s brief hospital stay, their father implored him by telephone to help her get out of the country. “I talked to a bunch of people and they helped her and she didn’t go back to prison,” Moghaddam says. That sister has since lived outside Iran, though her escape from prison briefly landed another sister in a prison cell while government officials questioned her about her missing sibling’s whereabouts. Moghaddam’s parents spent the balance of the 1980s grieving. His father was in and out of prison and his mother was interrogated several times.
Moghaddam had left Iran, illegally, in 1981, at age 24. “I went to Pakistan and I lived there for a while, and then I went to India and I lived in India for a while, and then I went to Canada and I lived in Canada for a while,” he says, explaining that “it’s very difficult being a stateless person,” one who has no job and nowhere specific to go. Speaking English helped, given that the language is spoken around the world, but he had no work. “I was a long-term tourist, I guess you can call it,” he says, one who passed the time running, playing basketball and soccer, and doing whatever he could do to keep himself busy, while he didn’t feel terribly welcome in his host countries. If a person has trouble in his own country, he says, another country’s going to give him trouble of its own. “Canada was supposedly more open, but still, they were giving me a really hard time. So I decided to leave, and I came to the United States, and that’s where the whole thing began,” he says, referring to a legendary drum-making career that began with a reunion of sorts.
At the end of 1983, Moghaddam left Montreal, where he’d lived since the middle of that year, and arrived in San Francisco. There, he says, “I went directly to Massoud,” referring to Massoud Badakhshan, who owned — and still owns — Haight Ashbury Music Center, an independent musical instrument retail shop in San Francisco’s most storied neighborhood. Moghaddam had known Badakhshan in Tehran, having grown up around one of his younger brothers. “He accepted me with open arms. When I got there, he told me that they bought a drum company in Los Angeles, a drum company called Valje.”
Valje, a Los Angeles-based company that made congas and bongos, had been in existence since the 1950s. Tom Flores, Valje’s founder and owner, had originally started making drums with Mariano Bobadilla, who founded Gon Bops around the time that Flores went into business for himself. When Flores was looking to sell Valje, he contacted Badakhshan, who’d purchased many congas from him, and suggested that he buy the company. Part of the deal was that Flores would pass on his drum-making knowledge — the tools and secrets of the craft. Having an appreciation for drums and drumming and in need of a job, with some wood- and metal-working experience under his belt, Moghaddam volunteered to train under Flores and became his apprentice in Los Angeles. He spent 12 hours a day with Flores, learning everything he could, and eventually, for a year, running the Los Angeles operation, before Badakhshan moved the Valje shop to an industrial park in San Francisco’s Hunters Point neighborhood. The situation was promising. The Bay Area drum-making shop was larger than the space in Los Angeles, and Moghaddam had access to updated tooling and a handful of staff to help him run the company. Valje had even produced its first catalog. And then, in April 1986, it was all reduced to ashes.
A massive fire that began with an explosion in an illegal fireworks operation within the industrial complex destroyed everything, killing nine people and injuring more than 20. Still, for Moghaddam and Badakhshan, it could have been worse. One of Moghaddam’s colleagues, Octavio Ruiz (now a noted drum-maker in his own right), had left the company a week earlier and two others had taken the day off, one to celebrate his birthday and the other, percussionist Harold Muniz, to do a gig. On the day of the fire, Moghaddam was in the shop alone, working in the sun just outside the entrance. When the explosion happened, his military training kicked in and he dove for cover, avoiding the roll-up door from an adjacent shop that had been sent flying in his direction by the blast. He called 911 and the Haight Ashbury Music Center, then went around the complex lending a hand to those who needed help.
Though the fire hadn’t yet reached the Valje shop, police on the scene kicked everyone out and refused to let anyone back into the complex. Moghaddam couldn’t even retrieve the personal items he had in the shop. “So I went outside and got a bunch of beer and sat out there and watched the fire,” he says. “Valje burned down in front of my eyes.” Badakhshan, who’d been making trips to the shop to bring finished instruments back to his store, had heard about the fire on the news. When he arrived back at Hunters Point, he joined Moghaddam as a disbelieving witness. “We sat there for hours and watched the fire,” Moghaddam says.
When he was finally able to go into what was left of the Valje shop, he found little more than charred evidence of all that had been built there — literally and figuratively. Fire-damaged hardware sat in piles of ash that used to be congas. “It was the most devastating sight you could ever imagine,” Moghaddam says. Still, he’d walked away unharmed and no one else from the shop had been around to potentially be injured or killed. “That day of the fire is kind of a little unreal to me. I’m not a religious person. I don’t believe in karma,” he says. But “something was with us” that day.
After the fire, Latin Percussion founder Martin Cohen bought the Valje name, and Moghaddam started repairing percussion instruments at the Haight Ashbury Music Center, while also doing odd jobs to get by, including working in construction and as a mechanic. “I never said no, even though I didn’t know how to fix a djembe,” he says, chuckling, adding, sincerely, “I gained a lot of knowledge by doing that.” As he learned about other instrument-makers’ designs and noted their flaws, Moghaddam began thinking about getting back into drum making. In 1992, he started his own company, Sol Percussion, and began building congas and bongos, along with various other percussion instruments.
In 2001, when Drum Workshop purchased the Gon Bops name (the outfit had gone out of business in 1998, after 44 years), the company also bought SolPercussion. It was founder Don Lombardi’s way of bringing Moghaddam into the fold. And while the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, put things on hold, temporarily, DW — with Moghaddam leading the way in terms of design, having relocated to southern California — soon brought Gon Bops back to life, though Sol Percussion was put on a shelf. Moghaddam and DW redeveloped the Gon Bops line until 2010, when Sabian bought the subsidiary and convinced Moghaddam to stay with the brand he’d been working so hard to grow. And he did. But when Sabian moved the operation to its headquarters in Meductic, New Brunswick, Canada, Moghaddam decided to stay put. He felt at home at DW and of like mind with the company’s people. He’d also created a home for himself in California.
At that point — perhaps a reflection of mutual respect — DW gave him back the rights to his brand. “I started a new chapter of Sol,” Moghaddam says. He reopened that business in 2013, pouring everything he’d learned to that point into new bongo designs and even a line of cajons. He was working with limited resources in a rented shop not far from the DW campus, calling on his vast drum making experience, when Lombardi came calling once again, this time having bought (in early 2015) a number of percussion brands from Fender Musical Instruments, including Latin Percussion, which still owned the Valje name.
Today, Moghaddam is back at DW, carefully evaluating the products in the LP line with an eye on implementing his and DW’s ideas, and working excitedly to reintroduce the Valje name to the market. After more than three decades in the business, he’s come full circle. “Now, in 2015, I’m going to make Valje again. It’s kind of a little crazy,” he says. “Whatever I learned during all these years I’m going to put it back into Valje.”
And while Sol Percussion has once again been put on a shelf, that’s really only the case in terms of the company’s name. Moghaddam’s fingerprints are on everything he builds. There’s a reason he’s been enlisted over the years to oversee the continued development of iconic percussion brands, from Valje to Gon Bops to LP. It’s because he’s widely recognized as a master craftsman who constantly looks to improve products, with musicians’ interests always in mind. He’s proud to design and make instruments that are built here, in the United States, and he’s grateful to those who helped him create the life that he has.