You say you want a revolution? Iran bands rock on
TEHRAN, IRAN — 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.
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."
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.
They have been known to stop events mid-concert - even if officially approved - if they felt they were too demonstrative or un- Islamic.
"Hizbollahi have come to my concerts, but they listened, because of the poems I chose to sing about," says Assar between practice sets for the upcoming concert. "Music is not a kind of war, where we [musicians] are fighting [the Islamic Guidance Ministry] and Hizbollahi."
He notes that Iran has "Islamic rules," and that performers "must understand their people. Maybe [Iranians] like heavy metal - I love it - but it is not our culture. To play that, you must know who is listening to you ... and this kind of music has side effects."
The result in Iran is a mixture of musical styles, and degrees of legality, as Iranians explore ways of expression. "People are looking for a new reality," says one amateur musician who first picked up a guitar during high school in the 1960s. "I couldn't find anyone interested in playing with me then, but now it is like a fever."
That fever is spreading. A website called "Tehran Avenue" (www.tehranavenue.com) launched a competition between underground groups last year. The competition turned into a big deal for local bands. Now on the site is a link to "Setting up a performance: A survival guide," that notes potential pitfalls.
Music can have an impact in the political realm as well. A couple of concerts were approved for a popular rock band last June, music fans here say, at a time of antigovernment demonstrations in the streets. The aim, some believe, was to siphon off some of the support for the demonstrations, and distract young people from their grievances in the run-up to the anniversary of the 1999 student demonstrations.
But little of that matters in the practice room for this band, where the walls are lined with decibel-dampening painted Styrofoam and floors carpeted with a tangle of cables. A portrait of Johann Sebastian Bach - an inspiration to guitarist Misikian, who has drawn on some of Bach's classic melodies in his own compositions - hangs from one wall; not far away is a printout of the word "GOD" in capital letters.
Even the window - opened wide between sets, to let in fresh air - has a chunk of Styrofoam glued over it, though Misikian says the neighbors in this Christian Armenian neighborhood of east Tehran don't complain.
Music has come a long way since the first decade of the Islamic revolution of the 1980s and after, when live performances of anything but the most tepid traditional music were forbidden - no singing, whatsoever. Back then, visitors entering Iran were patted down for bootleg CDs; now anything can be downloaded from the Internet.
Surprisingly, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, founder of the 1979 Islamic revolution, played a key role in easing restrictions. While most traditional ayatollahs considered only music used for traditional prayer services acceptable, Mr. Khomeini ruled that not all other music was bad, opening the door to traditional and classical music, and now more.
Still, rock is having to push the limits to make inroads. And bassist Riahipour - who also plays bass in Assar's ensemble - says that changing perceptions and prejudices is part of the job.
He was on tour for six months in the US a couple years ago, with Googoosh, Iran's most most famous singer since the 1960s. (The Persian equivalent of Elvis, she specializes in prerevolutionary love songs and melancholy ballads. She was branded an infidel by Khomeini, and now lives in exile.) The concert was a hit, but many Iranians in America were amazed.
"Some of them couldn't believe we came from Iran," says Riahipour. "They thought all Iranians were bearded [militants] with Kalashnikovs."