Iran is a country where women are banned from watching football matches. Nor can they sing in public. All forms of secular expression including the arts are tightly monitored. But Iran has a thriving underground pop music scene which walks a musical tightrope between freedom of expression and draconian laws defining the limits.
Singers, musicians and producers can receive stiff jail terms, fines and lashes for overstepping the boundaries.
Shops are authorised to display and sell only selected varieties of music. Nevertheless, fans find banned or disapproved CDs and DVDs via a personal network of connections, and taxi drivers often defy convention by playing their favourite music, while driving passengers between destinations.
To take a taxi ride around Tehran, it has been suggested, is to take a comprehensive tour of world music as well as risqué varities of Iranian pop, though the morality police keep a keen eye on taxi drivers.
Defying bans is common place, though getting arrested for doing so is no joke. In January 2015, five Tehran musicians were jailed for collaborating with Musicians from Los Angeles and foreign satellite channels. The arrests were prompted by the recording and distribution of a song which the Tehran regime found politically objectionable.
Iman Hojat, one of those arrested, was fined and released. The others are awaiting trial, facing fines of up to $15,000 and possible bans on producing and even writing music.
Officially, only Iranian folk music, Iran’s classical or “traditional” music and home-grown pop are acceptable. Iranian pop is said to resemble melodramatic Italian music of the 70s, though similar music produced by Iranians in exile are banned. On the approved list, love songs are in the majority, or songs about parents, children and religious figures. Genres such rock, jazz, electronic music and rap are banned. But Iranians listen to banned music in their homes, and while travelling. Private vehicles and taxis are virtually music stations, their occupants listening to everything from heavy metal to risqué Western pop and American R & B. Or they can listen to hiphop and homegrown R& B in Persian. Yaas, Touhi, Shahin Najafi, 2AFM and Reza Ya are rap artists who work the underground music scene in Iran, popular with youngsters in Tehran. Some of them look upon Western rap as English lessons.
While women are banned from singing in public, they do so in secret, transformed as rap and rock singers. Many underground musicians and groups, such as the heavy metal band The Masters of Persia, live in exile. The Masters of Persia and their female singer Anahid live in Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia. Anahid was arrested by Iran’s secret police after she sang in public. They accused her of being a Satanist. Abandoned by her family, she found self-expression with a group of friends, forming Masters of Persia. Anahid mixes ancient Persian with English and blood-curdling screeches. Now 48, she left Iran in 1983 and has never returned.
But, as Meraj, Annahid’s co-vocalist points out, “metal isn’t just long hair and drugs.” He explains that ‘Eastern metal’ combines the pre-1979 revolution, Zorastrian history and hysterically angry rock.
Watching Annahid perform on You Tube (she sings through a distortion filter), one can sense a connection with the music, rites and rituals of ancient Persia and Mesopotamia, the world of Asur and Gilgamesh. No wonder their music makes Iranian authorities panicky. Such musicians make huge sacrifices for their art. Behzad Bolour, a presenter for Persian TV and an exile himself, managed to track down some of these elusive music rebels for ‘The Persian Underground,’ a programme which was part of the BBC World Service’s Freedom 2014 season.
He found them in ramshackle sheds in Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, low-rent dwellings in Stockholm, and even in Dubai. “Underground music comes from a layer of society we (in Iran) didn’t hear about before. They talk about drinks and drugs and sex, just like any other generation,’ says Bolour. He found Orang and Mehr, two Iranian rockers and exiles in Sweden who spent eleven months walking from all the way there from Iran. In Stockholm, they make electric guitars using Persian craftsmanship. But it’s a precarious living and they often go hungry. But they can play what they want without risking abuse, social ostracisation and jail. Their music is aggressive. As Orang puts it: “Our life was so brutal and the music was a reflection of the life we had.”
Bolour calls them the voices of resistance, adding that this generation has shed the hypocrisy about sexuality and politics, and are secular in their beliefs.
In Dubai, Bolour tracked down a pop duo, male and female, singing about love and emotion. They got into trouble making a music video inside an Iranian holy city; the cameraman was imprisoned for 40 days.
Rap too, has a wide following within the underground music movement. Both rappers and rock musicians, male and female, experiment with classic Western styles and the homegrown. Unable to obtain licenses for concerts and recordings, they perform in basements and the countryside. They are often raided and fined, their equipment confiscated. Immensely resourceful, they somehow start all over again
To be continued >>>