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You say you want a revolution? Iran bands rock on

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 1, 2003


As if performing before an arena packed with tens of thousands of rock fans, guitarist Nurick Misikian lets his lightning-fast fingers energize the chords of his green-blue Fender guitar, building the sound of one of Iran's "underground" heavy-metal bands into a full-throated roar.

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Driven by the pounding rhythm of Babak Riahipour's bass guitar, Mr. Misikian plays some chords overhand, and even with his teeth - turning this 12-foot square rooftop studio into a sweating paragon of ear-splitting rock music that would make Jimi Hendrix proud.

In East and West, the language of rock 'n' roll is one of rebellion and pushing the limits. And in the Islamic Republic of Iran, these musicians are creating a parallel reality that could not be further removed from Friday prayers and routine calls for revolutionary sacrifice and waging war against the West.

Could there be life without their music? "No way," says Misikian, a veteran of more than two decades at the guitar, shaking his head. "We'd be dead," concurs Mr. Riahipour matter-of-factly.

Many Iranian youths today are disillusioned with politics and the stalled reform movement of President Mohammad Khatami, despite two land- slide election victories that promised more social freedoms and the rule of law. And while young people increasingly turn to drugs (hits of heroin are cheaper than a box of cigarettes) and mysticism for escape, mainstream Iranian pop bands - and fringe rock groups like this one - are finding some restrictions easing.

The new band - which may be called "Shanti," the Sanskrit word for "peace" - hopes to play publicly for the first time Thursday night at a conference hall at a local hospital. That's progress: Another popular band that Riahipour helped launch four years ago, the first of its kind, never got a stamp of approval.

"We couldn't play publicly, and never got permission," says Riahipour, who since has played with dozens of Iranian bands, in public and at "private concerts" at parties. "Well, we did have one concert: inside the Russian Orthodox Church. They needed the money [as a fundraiser] - you know the Russians."

The seated headbang

Back then, the bass player says, band members were required to play sitting down. Even today, though the band can stand, the audience must sit. Forget about Elvis Presley, and any kind of suggestive gyrations, which are standard musical fare elsewhere.

"They are headbanging while sitting," Riahipour says of the audience. "Many people know us now. Heavy metal is very popular in Iran. There have been more and more concerts in Tehran recently."

Among those concerts is a big-ticket performance of Assar, a popular Iranian band lead by singer and keyboard player Seyyed Alireza Assar, that includes a choir and a string section, playing deeply Persian and religious themes and rhythms.

Each of Mr. Assar's three albums has sold one million copies. In early October, Assar will play a series of 20 concerts for a total of 40,000 people. It's quite a change for a Beethoven devotee and pianist who once dreamed of studying classical music at UCLA, before he joined Iran's budding pop scene several years ago.

"Everybody told me I was always crossing the limit in my poems, but I love my people, and love everything about my country, Iran," says Assar, who wears a black beard and ponytail. "As an Iranian, a Persian, I try to tell the truth."

A portion of his songs draw their lyrics from Koranic tales about Imam Ali, the revered founder of the Shiite branch of Islam. Such devotion has helped Assar steer away from trouble with the authorities, especially from Hizbollahi, the self-styled enforcers of strict social rules that govern women's headscarves and public behavior.