The Song Does Not Remain the Same

by Ramin Sadighi , Sohrab Mahdavi | published March 12, 2009

Starting in the late 1990s, and especially following two stories by CNN's chief international correspondent, the British-Iranian Christiane Amanpour, Westerners were treated to a slew of articles and broadcast reports aiming to “lift the veil” on Iran. Amanpour’s second story revolved around “youth and the party scene.” She visited the house of another hyphenated Iranian to show a group reveling in youthful abandon, toasting each other with alcoholic drinks to the tune of playful music, and so consuming two illegal items of consequence in the Islamic Republic. With youth, it seemed, came merriment and rebelliousness.

Iran -- at the time, one of the youngest nations in the world -- soon became a top destination for the Western press corps, eager to peek inside a country that had long been closed to outsiders or at least been seen that way. This was a time when Iranians had just elected a new president with genuine ambitions of reform.

But it was not only President Mohammad Khatami who was heralding a new era of “dialogue of civilizations.” The Internet, too, had changed the face of journalism. No longer was it necessary for a journalist to trot across the globe to get the full story. She could do the legwork at home, online, and then hop in and out of Iran to show she had been there. Such efficiency was essential to the Rupert Murdochs of the world who yearned for the sensational, the immediate and the risqué.

The interest in a glimpse at what was underneath the “veil” in Iran was thus deliciously (in)appropriate for the emerging global mass media. Meanwhile, Khatami announced that, during his tenure, culture would take priority over economics. Artists and writers made up a crucial constituency sweeping him into office -- two others being youth and women -- and starting in 1997 the atmosphere of the country underwent a radical change.

Within the music scene, TehranAvenue.com organized an online Underground Music Competition (2002), where 21 bands mostly interested in rock, jazz and blues submitted their works. At the same time, Hermes Records released the rock album Barad (2003) as part of its roster, which was otherwise alternative-classical. Young musicians interested in rock organized small concerts, especially at the University of Art in Tehran, and a few more rock albums came out. [1] The Underground Music Competition became an overnight sensation. With a half-million successful downloads, the competition startled many into believing something was afoot under the stern gaze of hardline clerics who had deemed music suspicious and possibly corrupting. Barad sold well at record stores and small-venue concerts left no room to stand.

As director of Hermes Records and founder of TehranAvenue.com, we were buffeted from all sides by the stream of Western press reports that celebrated the phenomenon for its political as well as its aesthetic meaning. [2] Time and again we saw Westerners’ nostalgia for the 1960s projected onto Iran. In the West, after all, rock music was synonymous with the liberating counter-culture of youth, the desire for freedom from stuffy formalities and an electric connection to the zeitgeist. The headline writers of the Washington Post, to cite one example, exultantly evoked Chuck Barry: “Roll Over, Khomeini!” The Western reporters were careful to note that, though censorship has loosened over the years, there were still severe restrictions on the work of would-be concert and recording artists in Iran. To this day, artists must submit their work to the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, where it is vetted for adherence to “Islamic standards” and “public sensibilities.”

In fact, there has been a radical transformation of the Iranian music scene since the fall of the Shah -- but the salient changes are not rooted in foreign forms like rock and rap. Rather, the changes flow from a revitalization of the classical Persian tradition that began around the same time as the revolutionary ferment itself. Musical groups collectively known as the Chavosh (Herald) movement altered the way that players of classical Persian music viewed the world and related to their audiences. Like Western rockers, these performers were “modern” -- in the sense that they chose as lyrics the lines of contemporary poets and they played in a style projecting impatience and idealism. And these were also “underground” bands -- in the sense that their music stayed clear of the mainstream, defied the demands of the market, sought momentum in the energy of listeners and stayed true to the spirit of the times.

Revolution and War

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Iran’s musical scene was dominated by Western and local pop. Western pop had come to Iran mainly through the oil industry, in the clubs and cabarets that studded the cities of Khorramshahr and Abadan in the oil-rich Khuzestan province and catered to foreign oil workers. The National Iranian Oil Company regularly invited Western musicians to tour the region, notably Duke Ellington, who played to large crowds in Abadan and Isfahan in 1963. Armenian Iranians who were in touch with relatives or friends in the Armenian Republic further facilitated the entrance of pop into the mainstream of Iranian music. The propagation of Western music naturally affected Iranian musicians, some of whom, like Vigen, Martik, Farhad and Fereydoun Foruqi, tried to assimilate to what they considered to be the latest rage, while others strove to thwart what they found to be a cultural infraction. The latter group, what later became the Center for the Preservation and Propagation of Iranian Music, found an important niche of their own.

So it was actually the classically trained Iranian musician who sowed the seeds of resistance to Western-inspired pop that sprouted in the days of revolution. Composer-instrumentalist Hossein Alizadeh dubbed his music razmi (militant) in contradistinction to the bazmi (banquet) style heard at the fêtes of the elite. The same was true of the well-known Mohammad Reza Lotfi and Mohammad Reza Shajarian. They never challenged the political system directly, participating in state-organized events like the landmark Shiraz Art Festival in 1977, but they practiced a brand of music of which orthodox musicians disapproved. They argued that classical Iranian music was less a means of entertainment than a vehicle by which the musician could speak the truth about the issues of the day. At the Shiraz Art Festival, Shajarian sang the constitutional revolution tasnif (art song), “All night sleep doesn’t come to my eyes / Oh, you who are asleep / In the desert those who are thirsty die / While water is being carried to ostentatious palaces.” Music, by the lights of the classically trained, was to be political in orientation and iconoclastic in structure.

The new revolutionary order that came to power in 1979 was out to purge the cultural atmosphere of “corrupting” elements, and ironically some of the musicians who had previously been part of the Center for the Preservation and Propagation of Iranian Music set policies for what was permissible in music. The post-revolutionary regime, in turn, citing religious injunctions against men hearing the voice of a solo female singer, forbade public appearances or records by solo women singers and further tightened the noose on alternative, socially oriented works.

By far the most important factor in shaping the musical environment was the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988), an all-consuming, genuinely national effort. Even those who opposed the new revolutionary order were determined to defend the country from the outside threat, and hence it is not surprising that the dominant musical form was the military march, designed to encourage Iranians to stand tall and resist occupation by the Iraqi army. Still, giants of Iranian music, like Hossein Alizadeh and the Chavosh singer Mohammad Reza Lotfi, went to the front to perform their own music for the troops. As the war ground on, many young talents died, among them technicians, poets and musicians who might have continued the Chavosh movement or changed the direction of musical production. Instead, the normal development of this movement was arrested. Together with the international isolation of Islamic Republic (answered in kind by the regime), revolution and war put Iranian music into a state of hibernation.

Reconstruction

In 1989, shortly after war’s end, Khomeini was asked for his opinion as a jurist on music. He who had spoken of music being a “drug” at the outset of the revolution now saw “no objections to the purchase and sale of instruments serving a licit purpose,” in an interview published in Keyhan. Music was permissible as long as it did not manipulate the emotions or carry a hint of sensuality, meaning that women were to remain excluded from the musical sphere. [3]

But the icon of the Islamic Revolution had given the green light to a group of religious musicians, including Qur’an reciters and dirge performers whose music is built on classical Persian foundations, to migrate to pop. State-run radio and TV was their springboard. One such singer is Mohammad Esfahani, a Qur’an reciter with staunch religious beliefs. After Khomeini issued his opinion, Esfahani produced an album in which he sang the stanzas of classical poets like Hafez and Sa‘di. On a later album, he covered songs of Delkash, a renowned alto whose deep voice and contemporary poetic lyrics appealed to all social strata. Esfahani’s tribute to a woman was an event in itself. Well connected in the clerical establishment, he is among the few musicians in Iran today who can afford to appear on stage with a big band. Women wearing the full chador can be seen at an Esfahani concert, demonstrating that pop music has penetrated the more pious circles. The extent of this penetration has so alarmed the regime that Khomeini’s successor as Supreme Leader of the Revolution, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, felt he had to intervene. In a 2007 meeting with dirge singers, he criticized the unrestrained use of pop melodies, notably one by Mahasti, an exiled female pop singer.

In the post-war reconstruction period, government cultural programs focused on the young. President Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani’s administration sought to polish Iran’s image abroad, always important to Iranian youth, by revitalizing cinema. At home, the state thought that relaxing the strictures on music would keep the young content and give them an incentive to help with reconstruction. But to avoid backlash from the pious masses, officials of the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance had to present the music they wanted to promote -- with radio broadcasts or permission to release records or hold privately funded concerts -- as morally sanctioned. Sometimes they even changed the meaning of words, for example, assigning the name “anthem” to a run-of-the-mill pop tune simply because it was suggestive of the marches played during the war. The ministry tried to limit musical expression to religious, mystical or mainstream political themes. In this endeavor, they faced criticism from hardline clerical elements, but this opposition was never able to stop their undertaking, as the political needs of the country called for such a change in direction. Among high-ranking clerics, too, there were those, like Ayatollah Yusuf Sanei, who looked approvingly upon music.

The state set aside a budget for the promotion and dissemination of approved music. The annual Fajr Music Festival, convened every year concurrent with the celebrations of the victory of Islamic Revolution, brought musicians from abroad, like Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Bismillah Khan. But the unstable economy was not conducive to long-term investment by those in the music business. As such, producers sought out projects that could bring short-term returns. The easiest sell was music exploiting nostalgia for pre-revolutionary pop, and so the voices of many singers who broke into the scene during the early 1990s closely resembled those of exiled or departed counterparts. This commercial trend continued until 1998, when a cadre of pop musicians, notably Shadmehr Aghili, whose album Dahati smashed sales records, came out with albums that did not try to imitate pre-revolutionary singers or adhere to the officially sanctioned themes of religious devotion, God’s love and epic history. This type of music was similar to the Iranian pop produced in exile, but had its own identity.

The cautious opening of musical production in the reconstruction era reduced state pressure on musicians and listeners alike. The revolutionary militia that patrolled the streets and set up roadblocks during the war could no longer stop someone for carrying a musical instrument or for playing music on the car radio. It was during this time, also, that the maverick mayor of Tehran, Gholamhossein Karbaschi, established cultural centers (fahangsara) around the city. In these centers, residents could sign up for painting, music and photography classes, in addition to the customary Qur’an and sewing classes, usually for free. One such center, the Bahman Cultural Center, was built upon the site of a slaughterhouse in southernmost Tehran, in an impoverished neighborhood known as Koshtargah. Overnight, municipal authorities, in conjunction with law enforcement, took control of the abattoir, evacuated a large swath of land surrounding it and bulldozed the area. Scant weeks later, prefabricated structures appeared and Bahman opened its doors, not only offering diverse cultural activities but also bridging socio-economic divides in the city. Before Bahman, there were only a few major venues that offered music to Tehran residents. The 800-seat Vahdat Hall and the Niavaran Cultural Center in the tony northern part of the capital hosted classical Western and Persian concerts. People had to wait in line far in advance. Bahman was so successful that it supplanted these venues, attracting well-to-do Tehranis to the south of the city, an area they would otherwise avoid. The new center also showcased the joys of music for the children of the poor, who are more likely than affluent classes to be religiously conservative and hence consider music sacrilegious in deference to the original fatwas of Ayatollah Khomeini. Reza Sadeghi, a war veteran (and Qur’an reciter) whose outward appearance is reminiscent of the militiamen who formerly stopped cars suspected of playing pop music, is one pop singer who hails from south Tehran and retains a large following to this day. Authorities initially declined his first album a permit for release, but when bootleg copies seeped out, they reluctantly gave it the green light.

The Screws Loosen…

The Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, as well as orthodox practitioners, had long considered the sound of classical Persian music to be sacrosanct. New musical genres began to appear as part of a further cultural opening during the presidency of Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005), particularly the first term. Groups like Avizheh, Rumi and Raz-e Shab invented a genre called talfiqi or fusion, employing Western rock instruments like electric and bass guitar, keyboard and drums next to the traditional dulcimer called the santur and the violin-like kamancheh. Together, these fusion bands were able to introduce the sonorities of rock to the official music scene of Iran, though Rumi did continued to rely on the lyrics of classical Persian music, as its name suggests. Fusion sold well in the late 1990s.

Around the same time, a straightforward rock band called O-Hum burst onto the underground scene, setting the classic poems of Rumi and Hafez to rollicking guitar riffs reminiscent of the 1970s band Kansas. O-Hum overestimated the extent of the delicate freedoms attained bit by bit during the years of war and reconstruction, and the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance denied the band permission to distribute their debut album. Thinking that they were playing the music the world was listening to, O-Hum stood their ground. They failed to gain access to the legal market, but as a result they kick-started a trend in music production and distribution -- indeed, in the relationship between musicians and audiences -- whereby officially disapproved music is posted online. Their website (www.o-hum.com) was launched in January 2001, featuring all the songs on their first album, Nahal-e Heyrat (Saplings of Wonder, a Hafez phrase), and word buzzed around the Internet. O-Hum became disillusioned with the breadth of their reach, nonetheless, and the band members went abroad to record their second album.

But the Internet music sharing initiated by O-Hum had pushed the envelope, and state censors felt compelled to loosen the screws still further. Slowly, lyrics and sounds that resonated with experiences of ordinary life -- lost since revolution and war smothered Chavosh in its crib -- began to reappear. In TehranAvenue.com’s inaugural competition, for example, the top vote getter was the band Fara, for their song “Pasheh” (Mosquito). The track is out of tune, yet listeners warmed to the amusing account of a musician speaking to a mosquito in his room, pleading that it stop biting him. Such lyrics were previously thought of as trite or lowly. Of late, bands like Kiosk, whose members moved from Iran to the US and Canada in the mid-2000s, mix sharp political commentary with an urban feel. The lyrics of Mohsen Namjoo took the politics in Iranian pop to a new level, “Look how they have fed Diazepam to the masses / See how they have made hypocrisy fashionable / Look how they break plexi instead of glass / Look how we are paying for oil, electricity / See how we see dollar signs everywhere,” he sang in “Gozar,” which was never published legally. Still, the majority of pop lyrics are selected from the centuries of classical Persian verse.

The resplendent reserve of Persian poetry is akin to a verdant pasture where musicians can graze. Perhaps this is why, while there is no shortage of contemporary poets in Iran, there are so few songwriters. Before the 1979, a small number of lyricists, associated with Chavosh, had begun to set their own words to music, and they continued to do so through the tumultuous early years of the revolution before state repression and self-censorship exacted their toll. The consequences run deep. Unlike Iranian cinema, for example, Iranian music has yet to deal with the effects of the calamitous war with Iraq -- the longest such conflict in the twentieth century -- on Iranian society.

…and Tighten

It is a cliché -- but one that concentrates the minds of those in power -- that a country’s young people are its future. [4] The 1979 Keyhan article decrying the narcotic power of music was titled “Radio and Television Must Strengthen the Young.” Obsession with youth explains the vagaries of the Islamic Republic’s cultural policies over 30 years, as well as the persistent interest of Western press in Tehran’s underground music scene. These articles belong to the larger journalistic genre touting the presumed emancipatory clout of the 25 percent of the Iranian population between the ages of 15 and 24. Under Khatami, when a younger generation of Iranians listened to promises of a transformation in social values, Western journalists poured in to record the tearing down of yet another wall. It seemed that, yet again, a scowling, repressive state might be overrun by democracy from below, even if the “below” in question consisted mainly of upper middle-class urbanites imitating the globalized Western youth culture. The pieces continue to appear in the era of Ahmadinejad. [5] The flower children are not taking over in Tehran tomorrow, concedes Mark LeVine, one writer on the music scene, but he nevertheless goes on to see heavy metal and hip-hop “as an important part of the soundtrack” to Iran’s political struggles, completely blind to the fact that these genres are mostly listened to by certain privileged social strata of the country. [6]

In seeing what they want to see in the Tehran music scene, Western observers have blown the influence of the underground out of proportion. Coupled with the space that Internet has opened, these reports sow dissatisfaction among young musicians with the constraints under which they live without making them fight for the rights to produce and play what they like. They choose, instead, to live in cyberspace, where they will remain, in the words of the Western press, a counterculture, without bothering to look for solutions elsewhere. The same illusion grips the censors in the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, who are suddenly confronted with a picture of Iranian music as subversive. The paranoia of the Ahmadinejad administration is exacerbated. The Chavosh movement engaged with the dominant culture of its day to effectuate an overhaul of Iranian classical music. The same is hard to imagine within the sphere of Western-inspired rock music in Iran. For music to bring sweeping change in Iran, as did rock music in the West, both the musical and the political registers have to be different. The song, in other words, does not remain the same.

Endnotes

[1] Notably Exir (2005) by a heavy metal band, Kahtmayan, released with Ava Khorshid Records.
[2] See, for instance, Washington Post, August 23, 2001; Christian Science Monitor, October 1, 2003; and New York Times, February 15, 2006.
[3] Ameneh Youssefzadeh, “The Situation of Music in Iran Since the Revolution: The Role of Official Organizations,” British Journal of Ethnomusicology 9/2 (2000), p. 39.
[4] See Ted Swedenburg, “Imagined Youths,” Middle East Report 245 (Winter 2007).
[5] See, for instance, Colin Meyn, “Rocking Lolita in Tehran,” In These Times, December 18, 2007 and Simon Broughton, “Something Inside So Strong,” Guardian, January 16, 2009.
[6] Mark LeVine, Heavy Metal Islam (New York: Random House, 2008), p. 207.

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