Risking their lives for music

Florence Hazrat 24 March 2012

A special report on Iran’s underground music scene by Florence Hazrat

Festival pilgrimages, drinking, dancing and camping in the mud – summer as usual if you’re young. But not if you’re young in Iran- the 1979 Islamic Revolution banned music that was considered “western” and un-Islamic. Bahman Ghobadi’s 2009 film No One Knows About Persian Cats, then, is all the more surprising for its depiction of a vibrant cross-generic pantheon of styles in the Iranian underground music scene. It follows Negar and Ashkan, the duo from indie-rock band Take It Easy Hospital, on their odyssey through Tehran. Their goal: assembling a backing band and staging a concert in a country that officially brands their music as satanic, punishable by imprisonment and whipping.

Iranian censorship severely restricts legal release of music, imposing registration and approval by the Ministry of Culture. Its screening of artistic diversity outlaws alleged imitations of American “decadence and depravity”, thereby betraying its acknowledgement of music’s potential for socio-political activism. In the view of fermenting popular unrest, the regime issues more licenses, and idols under control feed music stores with cheesy pop songs that are expected to satisfy the Iranians’ appetite for modern life. Revolutions only happen when societies are at breaking point.

It’s not all bad of course: Iranians do have a capacity to be happy, even in conditions of oppression, massive unemployment and constant impending war. That is if one invests faith in the extremely successful pop band Arian, who made Persian music history in being the first officially sanctioned mixed-gender group within a legal framework that forbids public performances from women. But the freedom approved by the authorities only goes so far: after a 2008 recording with the band, Chris De Burgh probably won’t be the first Western singer to stage a concert in post-Revolution Iran any time soon.

Under Ahmadinejad, state harassment has increased, violently clamping down on musicians and listeners alike. But Iranians have learnt to be ingenious in order to claim their freedom. Facebook and YouTube are key to a dissemination of information, whose character, however, is too unprofessional and obstructs the establishment of a proper industry for the prohibited kinds of music. Secret concerts are held in cellars, band practices in roof-top sheds with make-shift sound insulation, yet it is these networks which give proof that pop and metal are there to stay even with, or precisely because of, the efforts of the regime to eliminate artistic freedom.

This climate of creative danger yields a unique sound that is recognizably “western” while interweaving elements from traditional Persian poetry and instrumental music. Intelligent lyrics in Farsi alternate with outspoken social criticism. It would be easy to impose a straightforward narrative of bad state versus good musicians rebelling against repression, but the multifarious reality of the underground scene is complicated, perhaps only held together by the wish just to play music without fear.

The Iranian diaspora has not halted before musicians, seeing a huge drain of artists in the search of opportunities to perform, record and earn a living; the satirically biting songs of Kiosk have led the blues-folk singers to disperse into America and Canada. Kiosk support the efforts of their peers in Iran through online competitions, professional contracts, and web magazines. Hopefully these labours of love will eventually bear the fruit of the not so passive resistance offered by music.

Faced with government hostilities after Ghobadi’s film, Negar and Ashkan preferred to stay in London and build an artistic existence outside the country which both enables and inhibits their musical identity.

With courageous musicians like these, it may just be possible that, as Hichkas raps, ‘ye rooz khoob miad’ – ‘a good day will come, no longer will we slay each other’.

Florence Hazrat