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Q&A: Notes From Iran’s Underground Music Scene

Omid Memarian interviews ARASH SOBHANI, lead singer of the rock band Kiosk

BERKELEY, California, Jun 4 2009 (IPS) - As Iran’s conservative president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad fights for his political future against two reformist challengers in the June elections, Arash Sobhani, a lead figure in the country’s underground music scene, says it’s a very tough time to be an artist in Iran.

Arash Sobhani Credit: Shoja Lak/IPS

Arash Sobhani Credit: Shoja Lak/IPS

“At the beginning of his [Ahmadinejad’s] first term [in 2005] there were still a few notable musicians who thought they should stay and try to work inside Iran and try to make things better little by little, like they had done for the past 26 years, but Ahmadinejad proved them wrong,” Sobhani told IPS.

Sobhani is the lead singer and songwriter of Kiosk, a band that is widely popular among Iranians inside and outside of the country. With its Mark Knopfler musical style and politically sharp and ironic lyrics, Kiosk is considered one of the most influential underground rock bands to emerge since the 1979 Iranian Revolution.

“We grew up listening to [Bob] Dylan, [Leonard] Cohen, Dire Straits and Pink Floyd, and you can see how our music is influenced by these guys,” explained Sobhani. “Our roots are blues and rock but there has been a growing influence on our music from the gypsy tradition.”

Kiosk is one of the few Iranian underground bands to tour North America, Europe and Australia. Most of its members left Iran within three months after Ahmadinejad’s 2005 election.

“We were tired of trying to work with authorities who would cancel our concerts or refuse to give us permits to produce an album, and on the eve of the election, when Ahmadinejad came to power I knew that things were changing for worse,” Sobhani said.

In an interview with IPS, Arash Sobhani talked about Iran’s underground music scene, how it’s been received in the western media, and the obstacles and challenges for young musicians in Iran.

Excerpts from the interview follow.

IPS: Why your music is considered underground? AS: I think what we call today “Iranian underground music”, like many other aspects of Iranian life, was forced to go “underground” in the early eighties. As the radicals started taking control over the country and imposing their values on the society, music and a lot of other cultural activities were regarded as “in contrast with Islamic morals”.

In those days, even carrying a guitar in the streets required a lot of courage. Obviously it was very difficult for the musicians to be able to get together and jam and create new music.

The Islamic Republic would reward its opposition with such brutality that thinking of a protest song, in those days, was even impossible so most of the underground bands then either did instrumental music or cover songs from favorites like Pink Floyd and the Eagles. No one dared to create music with new, original lyrics.

IPS: What are the major challenges of Iranian underground music? AS: First is the fact that most of this music is made using western instruments, and is therefore in “form” very western and that creates a problem when the musicians try to integrate Farsi lyrics. Farsi, as a language, has its own music that may not quite fit on a 12 bar blues. So, essentially, like everything else that has come from the west, Iranian bands are still working on “Iranianising” this form of music.

The second challenge is the problem of getting exposure; there are no independent TV or radio stations to promote these bands. Therefore their music is produced, recorded and distributed underground, with no revenues and nowhere to perform and therefore most of these bands disappear after one or two albums. A few lucky ones have made their way outside Iran and of those few only two or three bands have been able to continue their work.

IPS: How many people are drawn to this music or support it? What are the major genres? AS: There seems to be around 2,000 bands inside Iran, which is a great number for a country where the government thinks of these bands as Satanists! These bands come from variety of genres. Heavy metal, grunge, funk etc. But hip-hop is becoming more and more popular I think due to the fact that it’s cheaper to make music not using real musicians and just programming all the instruments.

IPS: Is there any research or documentaries about this music? AS: There are a few documentaries, unfortunately none of them look at the underground music of Iran from the historical/analytical perspective, and none talk about the content or the lyrics. Like all the other cultural activities in Iran covered by the western media they have the attitude of the surprised westerner who is shocked to find out that there are people in the Middle East that play the guitar! Or make movies or publish newspapers.

On the other hand, the documentaries that have been made by the Iranians follow the same pattern, they try to capture what they think is amusing for Westerners and has a good “market”.

IPS: Recently, Bahman Ghobadi, the prominent Iranian director, released a film on Iran’s underground music titled “Nobody Knows About the Persian Cats” at the Cannes Film Festival. To what extent does this movie represent the diversity, message and depth of this music? AS: I think “underground music” of Iran has become an interesting phenomenon for both the western media and the government of Iran.

The government is creating its own version of “underground music” like it did with the opposition parties or the cinema. Whenever they see there is an interest in something from the public they try to create a “controlled” version of it, they even pay the opposition media or create fake ones to have control over any movement, now they are doing the same thing with the music.

Having said that I think we will witness even more films that will cover this issue in the future. Will they really show the nature of the underground music in Iran? I really doubt it.

IPS: Why doesn’t the Iranian government tolerate hip-hop, rock and hard rock musicians and singers? Is it a matter of form or content? AS: The Iranian government’s attitude towards social demands follows a pattern. They will eventually give in and I am sure we will see rock concerts in Iran. But they will make the process as slow as possible and with watered-down, harmless lyrics. Unlike what a lot of people think, they are not very persistent on their cultural agenda, they can tolerate anything, as long as they don’t lose their political power, but because of their rigid nature they make the process as painful and as slow as possible.

IPS: Has anybody gotten in trouble for following this path? As a musician or a fan? AS: A lot of musicians have been ordered to stop playing music. A lot of bands were taken in and had to sign a piece of paper indicating that they will never play again. And in the past, a lot of people have had problems for listening to western music.

Kiosk was formed in Iran as a side project to my other band. Then, because of the restrictions imposed by the government on the lyrics, we decided not to even bother asking for permits and approvals needed for releasing an album. We recorded the entire album without any hope of ever publishing it.

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