In 2007, an Iranian won third prize at the annual pizza making world championship in Italy with his "Ghorme Sabzi" pizza. The topping, a traditional Persian goulash dish, turned the creation into a bizarre combination of east and west.
And it is this very pizza that is immortalized in the refrain of the song "Eshgh-e Soraat" by the Iranian rock band "Kiosk." It is meant to symbolize Iranian society, which is split between politically enforced religious traditionalism and the desire for modernity. The band highlights social and political injustices in their songs – young people with no future, the need to keep love a secret, the curse of oil, the growing drug problem, election fraud, and much more.
Rock music in the basement
In 2005, Arash Sobhani, the singer and founder of "Kiosk," left for the USA. The 35-year-old began his musical career in 1987. At the time, he wrote songs on his guitar in English – for him, the language of rock and roll. His musical idols, just as for most Iranian rock bands, were Pink Floyd, Dire Straits, and Bob Dylan.
Sobhani first played guitar for "Raz-e Shab," then left the band in order to write more critical lyrics. After the election of the reform oriented President Khatami, the alternative music scene quickly grew in Iran. Together with musician friends, Sobhani took part in secret basement jam sessions in Tehran and Isfahan, where they would play blues, rock, and jazz.
Out of these basement sessions, the band "Kiosk" was formed in 2002. Arash Sobhani regards the group as a collaborative project in which a number of musicians participate at various times. Permanent members include himself and the producer and guitarist Babak Khiavchi, who in 2005 founded the "Bamahang" recording label in Canada. The label aims to provide a platform for Iranian rock music not only within the country, but also abroad.
The opportunities of the Internet boom, especially during the Khatami era, proved to be a boon not only to Iranian bloggers, but, most of all, for the music scene. In 2005, "Kiosk" recorded its debut disc in Tehran. The first album, "Adameh Mamooli," could only be sold illegally within the country, but it was available on iTunes thanks to the Iranian underground music scene. The new distribution network also resulted in increased popularity of Iranian bands among exiled Iranians in Europe and North America.
In the sights of the Ershad Ministry
Within Iran, however, many musicians are forced to fight with the Ershad Ministry over every line of text. Permission to publish or to perform is only given to those bands that withstand strict censorship or maintain good contacts with the ministry. Yet, not only state repression has hindered the development of the Iranian music scene. Modern music is not taught at schools nor is it a socially acceptable hobby.
There now exist links with musician outside of Iran. In 2007, "Kiosk" toured North America together with the Iranian-Swedish band "Abjeez," which was founded by the sisters Safoura and Melody Safavi, who grew up in Sweden. Both bands sing in Farsi, resulting in an audience mainly consisting of Iranians living abroad.
Arash Sobhani now lives outside of the Islamic Republic in San Francisco. There he can compose his lyrics freely. Ten years ago, the first songs in Farsi were difficult to write, because he felt bound by the literary tradition of the language. Over time, Sobhani has managed to free himself from the standards of Persian poetry and find his own personal style.
Besides cynical commentaries on the political situation in Iran and unmistakeable social criticism on the second "Kiosk" album, "Eshgh-e Soraat," listeners can also hear love songs about desire and separation. "Kiosk" doesn't necessarily see itself as a political band. However, due to the growing political and social crisis in the country, band members regard it as important to describe from their point of view the changes that have taken place in Iran in the almost 30 years since the Islamic Revolution.
Protest as an answer to the crisis
"I am no longer who I used to be" can be heard in the band's latest song, "Pragmatism-e Eshghi" – a statement that not only fits the band, but also the lives of some of its members living abroad. After many listeners responded that the second album seemed to follow the trends of music in Tehran, Arash Sobhani consciously wanted to develop a new sound and therefore sought to collaborate with American musicians.
The portrait of an ape on the cover of the new album, "Bagh-e Vahsh-e Jahani," bears a startling resemblance to Ahmadinejad. New on this album is a gypsy jazz sound underscored with accordion and double bass. In terms of lyrical content, Sobhani has expanded his critical gaze to focus on exiled Iranian and on his own exile existence.
Despite his departure from Iran, Sobhani has not ceased to write about the precarious situation in his home country. While the songs have not essentially changed in content, innovation has taken place at the musical level. The gypsy elements also serve to stress the nomadic lives of the "Kiosk" band members, who now live in Canada and California. Sobhani provides a voice for the many uprooted Iranians living abroad, whose thoughts are constantly bound to their homeland.
© Qantara.de 2008
Translated from the German by John Bergeron