A Musical Interlude

Northern Tehran underground music scene is legendary and very diverse, representing all genres, from alternative rock to rap and r&b to electronic dance music. The article below (from early 2009) gives a small glimpse of the type of music being produced and the beliefs of those who create it in spite of horrific restrictions.

Something inside so strong

Thirty years after a revolution that banned all music, has anything changed for musicians in Iran? Simon Broughton reports from Tehran’s overground, and underground, music scene

Simon Broughton
The Guardian, Friday 16 January 2009

A respectable high-rise housing complex in the west of Tehran with a porter in the lobby seems an unlikely location for “underground music”. Inside one of the flats, Maral, a 23-year-old singer and bass player, is rehearsing with her band, the Plastic Wave. There’s a thick blanket hanging over the door of the small rehearsal room to muffle the sound, and the space is lit only by a small lamp and a computer screen. She’s singing My Clothes On Other Bodies – a song about the frustration of other people getting the opportunities you’ve missed. Keyboard player Saeid wrote the music, and Maral wrote the words in English: “I prefer to sing in English,” she says. “I don’t think Farsi suits the sound of rock music so well.” She describes her music as “electronic psychedelic rock”, and it comes with grungy guitar. From thousands of applicants, the band have been selected to appear at the SXSW festival in Austin, Texas in March, so they are practicing hard. But they don’t want to risk performing in Iran before they leave.

There’s nothing political or oppositional in Maral’s songs, but in a country where women are obliged to cover their heads and are not allowed to sing lead vocals, the Iranian authorities condemn her music. She and her two band members spent time in prison after playing at an unauthorized festival in a Tehran park [This was a concert in a private garden in a suburb of Tehran, and it was called N! Festival.] . “For some people, music is a hobby,” she says, “but I have to find a way to do it. It’s my life.”…..[And you can see Maral’s funky indie-ish manteau style below!]


The outright ban didn’t last long, but western music and western-style Iranian music became particular targets. In Marjane Satrapi’s animated film about the period, Persepolis, the young Marjane listens to Metallica as an act of rebellion, hungry for what’s forbidden. But much has changed since those days. The restraints on Iranian pop fell away during Khatami’s more liberal presidency (1997-2005), though rock and rap remain banned today, as do solo female singers – unless they’re performing in front of a female audience. The black chadors the young Marjane and her friends were forced to wear have largely been replaced by stylish headscarves with a clearly individual flavour. [aka manteau style, you know what that’s all about…] And last month, Tehran hosted the week-long Fajr international music festival, now in its 24th year. In its early years, the Fajr festival, celebrating the victory of the revolution, was confined to religious and traditional music. By the mid-90s, they started inviting major international artists such as Pakistan’s Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and India’s Bismillah Khan. And in 2007, Iranian pop was included for the first time with a hugely popular concert by Arian, the country’s most successful pop band and recent collaborators with Chris de Burgh.[You can check out this collaboration here]

Babak Rezayi, the festival’s executive director, doesn’t see a paradox in holding a music festival to celebrate the revolution, despite the restrictions it placed on music: “The festival is an answer to that paradox,” he says. “Music has a great role in the victory of the revolution. The Chavosh songs reflected the people’s feelings about the revolution.”

Over seven days, the Fajr festival included around 70 concerts in eight venues in Tehran. In the Grand Hall, the silver-suited Ehsan Khajeh Amiri sings his bland Middle Eastern pop to an audience of 3,000, who must remain seated and can do no more than clap along to show their enthusiasm beneath the stern gaze of portraits of Ayatollah Khomeini and the current Supreme Leader, Khamenei. There are female musicians performing for a women-only audience. There are performances from the Tehran Symphony Orchestra (playing Tchaikovsky), the Iran National Orchestra, and groups from Estonia, Italy, France and the Netherlands, including baroque fiddle virtuoso Johannes Leertouwer – feeding into a nascent interest in “authentic performance” in Iran. Last year saw the creation of Iran’s first baroque string orchestra dedicated to authentic performance style, and Leertouwer’s masterclass was packed with students from the Music Conservatoire……..

It’s hard to separate music and politics in Iran. Concerts, even by approved musicians, have to be authorized by the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. Since Ahmadinejad became president in 2005, there has been a tightening up on the “underground” scene. Unofficial concerts have been broken up by revolutionary guards, musicians imprisoned, and earlier this year a television program equated underground musicians with drug users and satanists. “It was horrifying the way they depicted us,” says Maral, who is the daughter of an accomplished traditional singer. “But I prefer to be an ‘underground’ singer. Otherwise you have to do cheesy concerts, like Arian. But if I was in some other country, of course I’d love a contract with a good label.”

{You can listen to Maral’s music done with Plastic Wave here. It seems that Plastic Wave has disbanded and Maral now lives in the Netherlands, where she can dress as she wishes and play whatever music she likes – good for her!]

A number of other women singers find an alternative way to avoid the rigid restrictions, and have chosen to only work outside the country. “It’s better for women to be able to perform for all-female audiences than not at all,” says Mahsa Vahdat, who performs and records with her sister, Marjan. “But I prefer not to take part because it helps the government justify this discrimination of women. I don’t want to endorse that.” The music of Mahsa and Marjan is beautiful; their keening voices are perfectly matched, one starting where the other leaves off. “The restrictions we have are unnatural,” adds Mahsa. “It’s like saying you cannot laugh or cry in front of men”.

Ali, a journalist who has been following and documenting the underground scene, says it has become stronger over the past two years: “Most young people here are living a lie. You can’t say, ‘I have a boyfriend/girlfriend,’ you can’t say ‘I drink alcohol,’ or ‘I’ve been to a party, or I’ve been watching satellite television.’ But this underground music is a mirror of our society. Young people are being honest, and they are putting that honesty into their music.”

One striking example is the singer Sahra, who was 16 when she recorded The Level of My Hotness, which in the underground world of Tehran approaches Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin’s classic track in its eroticism. “Come and hug me. Why are you looking at me?” she sings with orgasmic gasps. “Come and f*ck me. I’m giving you permission.” [Can anyone imagine a 16-year-old here recording this kind of sexual honesty? For real? This is not Britney Spears! People have to grow up fast when living under an oppressive, sex-hating regime! The song is below- its title on Youtube is Darajeye Sex].

This is the 2009 equivalent of Marjane’s Metallica cassette. The Level of My Hotness was recorded on a computer, posted on the net, downloaded in vast numbers and copied on to CDs. It’s now a favorite at parties to put Tehran’s youth in the mood. [That song has an ill beat, for real, and having sex to it is probably good, though I wouldn’t know…LOL. Imagine English rapping over it- it could be huge!] Inevitably, what’s forbidden is even more desirable.
Here are more examples of North Tehran underground music in all its glory. Firstly, here is some alternative rock.

Take It Easy Hospital- My Sleepy Fall

Rana Farhan- Drunk With Love (Hafez poetry over a blues track)

Now for some electronic/techno music….

Nice Northern slideshow to underground Northern techno music

..and finally, one of the most prolific Northern genres due to its rebellious connotations, hip-hop/rap and r&b!

Zed Bazi-Tabestoon Kootahe (Summer is Short)- a classic

Zed Bazi-Guitare Koli- this song is beautiful with its Spanish guitar and haunting vocals. It gets stuck in your head very easily!

Zed Bazi-Zamin Safe- this song is about saying goodbye, according to an English translation of the lyrics I found on Youtube, and ever since I read that, this song gets stuck in my head whenever I am on a plane or traveling to another country/city.

Pionna- Goodbye – this is a remake of Mariah Carey’s We Belong Together with different lyrics

Shahin Najafi- Man Kharam- this song is absolutely astonishing. This is a protest song recorded during the 2009 green movement events. The amount of rage and passion in the delivery is unbelievable- this is a classic. By the way, Shahin Najafi lives in Germany now, as the regime stated they want to kill him (!!!) for this song as well as others- they could not handle his criticism very well.


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