Rock and Alternative Music in Iran

A Tightrope Walk between Adaptation and Protest

Despite all the harassment by religious moral watchdogs, Iran has been witness to the development of a vital music scene. Although strongly popular among the country's youth, many bands still live in the shadows even today. By Arian Fariborz

photo: &copy Tehranavenue.com
Sharbaf and Izadkhah of O-Hum

​​The public is treated to earsplitting riffs on the electric guitar, breakneck staccato drumbeats, the distorted sounds of the Iranian kamancheh or sas, and the constant, forceful refrain sung by Sharam Sharbaf, "Goftam gham-e to daram, gofta ghamat sarayad!", taken from a verse by the renowned classical Persian poet Hafez.

The mood has reached a flashpoint, the small hall vibrates, and the crowd is enthusiastic. Young men with long hair and bare chests climb on to the stage and engage in stage diving. Others, clad in stylish jeans and leather jackets stand in front of the stage, drinking bootleg liquor and swaying to the music along with their veilless girlfriends…

An unorthodox concert arena

So goes the account of the legendary concert by the Persian independent rock band O-Hum – at least if the story by the group's bassist Babak Riahipour is to be believed. "We only had a single show and it was held in Tehran's Russian-Orthodox Church," recalled the now 34-year-old musician and points to the endless snapshots of the performance. "That was in March 2001. Even back then we were really popular among young people!"

A rock concert in the very heart of the Islamic Republic? In a state, in which Western music is generally regarded as a religious affront and branded as the decadent work of the devil? This was doubtless a rare event, only having been possible with the help of representatives of the Russian-Orthodox religious community, which in the Islamic state enjoys "custodian rights" over cultural events held in their community halls.

At loggerheads with the moral watchdogs

The rock trio didn't want to just leave it at that with this one-off concert – hardly surprising in light of their growing popularity at home and abroad. The demand for the band's cassettes and CDs increased so dramatically that the group was forced to abandon its underground existence and release an album.

This was a bold step and, as it later turned out, an act of defiance that today symbolizes the failure facing many young rock and pop groups in Iran. As a rule, they have no chance to release their music if it doesn't conform to the strict conditions laid out by the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance (Ershad), explained O-Hum bassist Babak Riahipour.

"Before you can actually record an album, you have to present them with a demo tape. But we didn't do this. We said, 'So what! Let's record the album first and then give it to a producer, who can take care of the permission himself.' This wasn't a successful move. They were against simply everything – the music, the singing, and the poems by Hafez. They let us know that we were just a bunch of trouble-makers."

End of the line for O-Hum

The attempt to stage a concert at Tehran's Farabi Hall also failed in the face of resistance by the organizers and, in particular, the Ershad Ministry. This was despite the fact that O-Hum singer Shahram Sharbaf forced himself to venture into the hated ministry to sing in front of an assembled squad of Islamic watchdogs. After everything had failed to produce the desired results, he and band colleague Sharokh Izadkhah finally gave up, packed their bags, and chose temporary exile in Canada. The group O-Hum was officially banned.

The Iranian journalist Shadi Vatanparast described the dilemma and the humiliating regulations currently faced by young musicians who want to release their work to the public. The Ershad Ministry is officially responsible for overseeing domestic music production. The Ministry's Center for Music has to give its approval before any music can be distributed in record stores. There are three decision-making bodies. First, there is the music committee, which judges the musical quality of a work. It consists of one musician and two scholars.

Then, there is the text committee, made up of a number of well-known poets. The guidelines that this group follows are not known. Finally, up until recently, there was also a singing committee. A famous singer tested the vocal abilities of the candidates. The problem here was that only academic music was accepted and anything beyond conventional or classical music was viewed with suspicion.

Women musicians are particularly hard hit by these restrictions. Even today, women's voices are only officially allowed within choirs. Solo performances are taboo. The Iranian authorities continue to strictly uphold religious precepts. Works featuring a woman's solo voice are only sold under the table, if at all.

Strategies against bans

Many pop bands, however, have become quite inventive in dealing with the restrictions. Take the rock group Raz-e Shab, for example. Its pianist, Rahmin Behna, explained, "We have always tried to feature solo women voices in our music. Unfortunately, we don't always know exactly where the limits of toleration lie."

photo: Raz-e Shab website
CD cover of Raz-e Shab

​​For the band's recordings, Behna employs two women voices, which harmonize together so well that they sound like a single voice. "I used a higher level in mixing one of the women's voices in Raz-e Shab, so that her voice could be heard alone. This was during a live concert, where you can get away with doing something like this. Many fans at the time were surprised and asked if we had a solo woman singer. But a live concert is one thing – on a CD recording you would be asking for trouble."

The Internet as an alternative music platform

Increasingly, many Iranian bands have come to rely on the Internet to be heard. Rock and pop groups, such as O-Hum, Meera, 127, and Sarakhs, all have professionally designed websites, where bands offer download samples of their songs to their growing community of fans, which can constantly stay in touch via E-mail. This has proved to be the start of a true music boom in Iran.

The online culture journal TehranAvenue repeated its underground music contest last December. The "TehranAvenue Music Open" (TAMO) competition currently features a total of 42 bands. Iranian Internet users can listen to their favorite songs on the site and vote for the best band. The musical offerings are surprisingly diverse, ranging from Persian punk, heavy metal, and rock, to reggae, funk, electronic fusion, and jazz.

Eyes to the West

The young people of post-revolutionary Iran no longer exclusively listen to the officially permitted classical Persian music. Former idols from the time of the Shah, such as Kourosh Yaghmaie, Viguen, and Gougoush have also faded. Iranian youth have long since found their own way. And their eyes are firmly turned to the West.

Their models are often Western art rock bands of the 1970s, such as Pink Floyd or Jethro Tull. Yet, even the melancholy severity of Metallica is enjoying a great degree of popularity in the rock community of the Mullah state.

photo: Meera website
Meera live in concert

​​Their music is much more interesting and lively than the insipid commercial offerings from Los Angeles, locally known as "Tehrangeles", since many of Iran's pop musicians fled there after the revolution. For a long period, "LA pop" flooded the Iranian music market, slipping by the country's moral watchdogs. At a time when pop music from the West was completely forbidden, the secret import from America reigned supreme.

Between adaptation and protest

It is truly remarkably that a culturally ambitious and, in many respects, nonconformist pop scene could emerge under these conditions and in a country where such music is fundamentally regarded as the work of the devil.

Rahmin Behna from Raz-e Shab recalls the beginnings of this movement. "Unofficially, it had already begun over 10 years ago. Music was forbidden, so people played and rehearsed privately at home – in secret and underground. Many new ideas also emerged at the time – some very good ideas. Yet, I think we will only see their success in a few years."

Many bands are still faced with the problem as to how to market their music abroad. There is also a lack of professional music producers, suitable rehearsal rooms, and equipment. Although things have improved somewhat since the beginning of the Khatami era and certain bands, such as Arian, have even received support and marketing assistance from the Ershad Ministry, the situation remains difficult for many nonconformist activists of the rock and pop scene.

Reforms tend to be limited to an easing of the restrictions that effect everyday life. When it comes to music in the media or in public in general, however, the control apparatus of the Erschad Ministry is omnipresent.

Despite the joy that many may feel at seeing the existence of a headstrong and creative rock and pop scene within a dictatorship, observers should regard the situation soberly. The occasional cooperation that has been observed between young musicians and the authorities has arisen involuntarily, and is rather a pragmatic strategy for survival.

For most young bands, such as O-Hum and Raz-e Shab, practicing their profession in Iran remains a tightrope walk between adaptation and protest – a voyage towards an uncertain future.

Arian Fariborz

© Qantara.de 2004

Translated from the German by John Bergeron

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