Between censorship and a burgeoning music scene, Iranian rockers are trying to keep up the tempo

Between censorship and a burgeoning music scene, Iranian rockers are trying to keep up the tempo

From left to right, Shirin Vaezi, Amir Kharrazi and Amir Shahab, from the group AtriA, after a re-hearsal in their private studio, on 15 September 2018 in Tehran.

(Sara Saidi)
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“If they lived in Iran, none of the international groups of today would have had the strength to carry on working, because the conditions here are so difficult. In this country, those who persevere are really passionate about it.” Amir Kharrazi manages several bands in Iran and also organises concerts. This tall, 36-year-old bearded man was drawn into the world of rock and metal when he was a teenager. His father, a musician, played the santur, a traditional Iraqi instrument from the zither family – poles apart from Amir’s passion for rock, which he sees as an act of fate, given how little access there was to this kind of music in the Islamic Republic: “There was no internet at the time, and not even CDs. We would find cassettes and would come by a metal magazine from time to time. Sometimes we were able to get hold of video cassettes, for example, and that’s how we saw a clip of Iron Maiden for the first time,” he reminisces.

The arrival of the internet has changed the game, making it possible to develop a degree of musical culture in the Islamic Republic. At Café Blues, in central Tehran, not far from the old American embassy, there is music on all the time. The songs of the best American rock, folk and blues bands are played over and over again. The music is only stopped if someone wants to play the guitar or sing. It is also the place where budding young musicians can showcase their talents.

Amir Shahab Khorrami, founder of the death metal band AtriA, and Shirin Vaezi, the band’s drummer, sometimes meet at the café. With 15 years of music under his belt, Amir Shahab, aged 31, is an old hand.

He remarks that there is not much faith in Iranian groups in his country: “If you tell me that a certain Swedish rock or metal band has released a new album, I’ll run to check it out, whereas if it’s an Iranian band, I’ll go half-heartedly.”

Shirin confirms his view: “When I was asked to join AtriA, I refused several times. It was only at the insistence of a mutual friend that I deigned to listen to their music and I was surprised at the quality of their work.”

This phenomenon, as well as very limited knowledge about this kind of music, can be attributed to the restrictions that followed the 1979 Revolution. Back then, playing rock was like selling drugs, it was hidden, often played in cellars or garages. Even now, many groups in Iran are still part of the underground scene, which means that they have not been validated by the Ministry of Culture and Guidance and the concerts they organise are illegal. This clandestine scene is the subject of Bahman Ghobadi’s film, No One Knows About Persian Cats, released in 2009.

In the Islamic Republic, anyone wanting to form a group, regardless of the musical genre, has to go to the Ministry and fill in the relevant forms. Each group member has to be approved, as does their music, their lyrics and their attire. Once this hurdle is overcome, organising concerts is a whole other matter. Authorisation has to be obtained from a whole host of authorities in addition to the Ministry, some of which are indirectly linked to the Guardians of the Revolution.

Devil-worshipping rock

Kharrazi has experienced no shortage of difficulties during his career, and he is not the only one. Groups that manage to have a concert authorised throw all their money into it, only to see it cancelled at the last minute for no good reason. Rock or metal musicians are still, moreover, considered by some authorities to be devil worshippers. “Headbanging is banned, even though it’s the DNA of heavy metal,” laments Kharrazzi. The weathered manager also tells the story of an AtriA poster that had to be altered to appease the authorities: “The poster featured a guitar with a few flames coming out of it. They told us that the flames might call to mind the devil and would have to be removed,” he recounts.

For him, it is the anti-establishment ideology behind rock that the authorities fear: “Unlike those who go to pop concerts, rock fans are more intellectual, there is a line of thought, and that scares them.”

Khorrami, meanwhile, explains that he has been teaching electric guitar for 10 years, and that 95 per cent of rock and metal musicians in Iran earn their living by teaching. If they are known, they will have plenty of students, otherwise they will simply try to make ends meet: “It’s frustrating because instead of practising and developing our music, when we teach, we are constantly repeating the basics and, in the long run, we risk losing our skills. In any other country, we would probably be making a living from our concerts.”

A few months ago, the young man nevertheless obtained an authorisation from the Labour Ministry allowing him to issue a technical and professional diploma. It is a step forward, as Vaezi explains, because “you can’t choose the electric guitar or drums as your main instrument when you study music at university”.

On the fourth floor of a rather chic building in central Tehran, the Khosh Honar music academy welcomes music lovers of all kinds. The school is unique in that, a few months ago, it began issuing a diploma that is equal to a degree.

The courses are designed in line with international teaching methods and can be taken online, which means that musicians living in the provinces can also follow them.

Shahab therefore has pupils from Mashhad, in eastern Iran, from Ahvaz and Baluchistan in the south. “Unfortunately, there are not many options for the musicians in the provinces. Organising concerts is virtually impossible, because in addition to the authorisations from the ministry, they also need the approval of the Friday Imam, the religious authority. So this diploma may offer them some hope.”

The international scene, a faraway dream

For Iranian musicians, a great deal of staying power is needed to achieve their goal of performing on stage or making a name for themselves on the international scene: “We are at the bottom of the ocean. We give everything we have just to reach the surface, and then the real competition begins!” says Kharrazi. Shahab also feels it is a shame that young musicians are not able to experience performing on stage more often: “Music schools allow us to organise concerts under the cover of their authorisations, but they are often so-called experimental concerts, in a small lounge, which only family and close friends can attend, and the acoustic conditions do not really allow us to replicate the real thing.”

Right now, social media is the only showcase for Iranian rock: “As none of our musicians appear on TV, nobody knows we exist,” regrets Salman Kerdar, head of the Khosh Honar music academy. Today’s young people, who make up 70 per cent of the country’s population, are conscious of being the sacrificed generation, the ones whose entire lives are likely to be spent struggling for the next generation to have rights.

Shirin comes from a family of musicians. At age 11, she came across a Marilyn Manson CD, totally by chance: “I couldn’t listen to anything else after that!” she exclaims.

The young woman started taking drum lessons at the age of 20 and went on to become one of the few, if not the only, female drummers in Iran: “When I started working as a civil engineer, I didn’t have much time to rehearse and couldn’t play at home, so I used to drive to a friend’s place to practise there for half an hour. I did that for a few years until I decided to quit my job to pursue my true passion,” she recalls.

With AtriA, she had the opportunity to take part in a concert abroad. In September 2017, they shared a stage with Finnish metal group Kalmah, in Dubai. “It’s a profound source of sadness for me that neither my parents nor my country backed me, and that I have to go elsewhere to hear people cry out my name, to understand my true worth,” laments Shirin. The young woman adds that even when abroad, they always have to mind their behaviour: “They [the Iranian authorities] can always hold something against us on our return.”

Unity is strength? It’s an uphill battle!

Everyone, however, seems to agree that last year was one of the best years for Iranian rock, largely thanks to the holding of the ShabShanbeha Festival (literally, “Saturday evenings”), the kind of event that hasn’t been seen in Iran since the 1979 Revolution: “Every Saturday, except during religious festivals, at least four groups were able to play on stage, whereas under normal circumstances, they would have to bend over backwards to obtain the authorisations,” notes Shahab.

As with many other areas in Iran, music is linked to politics. According to Kharrazi, it follows a cyclical pattern: eight years of reformists and there’s an opening in the world of cinema, theatre and music, then eight years of conservatives and there is another clamp down. Moreover, as Kerdar points out, “rock uses a raw language” and any societal issue in the Islamic Republic touches on politics. Several of his songs have been rejected on this basis: “I once took a poem from the Mongol period and set it to music. The poet of the time called on the Mongol ruler to take care of his people, whose living conditions were deteriorating. My song failed to obtain the necessary authorisations, as it was, apparently, too close a reflection of the current situation,” he explains.

Another – by no means insignificant – problem affecting rock in Iran is the lack of solidarity between the bands. “Everyone seems bent on putting obstacles in the other’s way, when we could all be climbing the steps together! In Iran, we don’t really have a team spirit,” regrets Shahab.

Musicians therefore have to dedicate part of their courses to raising their students’ awareness about the importance of respecting each other’s work. In Iran, if one band exceeds the limits, all the others pay the price. “Every time a rock or metal gig has been cancelled for crossing the red lines, at least 20 other gigs have been cancelled or banned afterwards,” he notes. This was also the case with the ShabShanbeha festival, which hasn’t been held since.

Shirin explains that in spite of all the efforts aimed at reviving rock music in Iran, she cannot speak about her work with pride: “I think that most people do not know this genre and associate it with negative images, such as depravity, alcohol, devil worshipping and even prostitution. As a result, I’d rather say I play pop music, to be more respected,” says the young woman.

This story has been translated from French.