Gingerly, Iran begins to rock out

In 2008, Iran banned all pop music. But a recent female solo performance signals growing freedom in a country where heavy metal musicians have been told to stay seated on stage.

Courtesy of Ehsan Neghabat
Iranian musicians break new ground with women singing on stage and a playlist of Western pop songs sung in English during performances of 'The Last Days of March' in Tehran, Iran. Musicians and actors say that Iran's culture space has opened up noticeably under the centrist President Hassan Rouhani, who was elected last year.

By the bleak standard set by 35 years of Islamic revolution, Iranian musicians have never had it so good. 

Lady Gaga is not about to play Tehran. But Iranian musicians say the growing openness of the past two years has now blossomed under centrist President Hassan Rouhani, enabling live performances today that would have been impossible not long ago. 

Exhibit A is a groundbreaking show that just finished a 20-gig run in Tehran’s renowned Vahdat Hall. Redefining what is acceptable on stage, women sang solos; Western songs filled the playlist, from John Lennon to Frank Sinatra; and most lyrics were in English.

Audiences who crammed into the plush multi-story theater gasped at the spectacle, some singing quietly along as the lead female vocalist – wearing a maroon head scarf that fell to her waist – belted out Amy Winehouse’s “Back to Black.”

Called “The Last Days of March,” the hybrid theater-band act set out to test the limits of a cultural battle with conservatives who fear “Westoxicating” influences on the Islamic Republic.

“From the third night, ticket sales shot up. People were very surprised…we could have doubled the run,” says Behrooz Saffarian, the musical director.

At 36, he is just one year older than Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution, and has witnessed the incremental improvements and setbacks that led up to this new era of openness. 

“Up to now, it is very hopeful and very positive. But how it continues is very important,” says Mr. Saffarian, who has produced hit albums and pop music. “After ‘Last Days of March,’ I don’t think there are serious limitations that still need to be crossed.”

Headbanging in their seats

That conclusion may be premature, but today's music scene is hardly recognizable from from a generation ago, when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the father of the revolution, first told the directors of Radio Iran to battle music “with all your might."

“Music corrupts the minds of our youth. There is no difference between music and opium," he said.

A decade ago underground heavy metal bands rehearsed in tiny rooftop rooms padded with decibel-dampening Styrofoam and could rarely play in public. And in early 2008, during the first term of arch conservative President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, pop music was banned altogether. 

Traditional Persian music has long been a partial exception, though even those musicians once needed permits to carry their instruments. Fifteen years ago a male vocalist at a keyboard in the resort island of Kish was still a novelty, and musicians playing weddings scoped out hiding places for their instruments in case of raids by morality police.

“They have tried to keep us on a leash for so many years,” says Babak Riahipour. He is one of Iran’s best-known bass players – but is not officially recognized as a musician because the labor ministry doesn't consider it an occupation. 

Years ago, when heavy metal bands Mr. Riahipour played in got permits, the band members had to perform while sitting, and the audience had to headbang in their seats.

Eight years under Ahmadinejad was “like a prison” for musicians, Riahipour says. Things began to loosen up in the final years of his presidency, as Ahmadinejad wrestled with rival conservatives. "They give some entertainment so people think they have some freedom," he says.

His fiancée Negin Akbarpour is a singer and songwriter with a lyrical, high-pitched voice. But her studio work is still not openly available in Iran because of prohibitions against female singing. The two are working on demo tracks, but doing so is illegal, as is selling any resulting albums, they say.

Drawing a crowd

Concert permits are more readily available these days, though venues can be prohibitively expensive to rent. Potentially controversial performers like rock bands are now comfortable announcing their performances a month in advance, while previously they would give only a few hours notice to lessen the risk of the event being shut down by hard-line vigilantes. The late notice kept crowds small. 

“Before if we said we wanted a concert for 200 people, they would laugh at us,” says guitarist Amir Tehrani, who has played in heavy metal and rock bands for years, both underground and in public. “These days we really have shows; now there is a lot of entertainment on the stage, and lots of recording studios.”

Government officials in Iran must approve all cultural output, from live performances and commercial recordings, to book, magazine and newspaper publishing. Though the musical thaw began during Ahmadinejad's time, musical director Saffarian attributes the current "rebirth" of pop music in Iran to new, more enlightened officials, many of whom come from the music business. 

When the independent House of Music, which has 13,000 members and acts on behalf of musicians, complained last October about restrictions on the music industry, conservatives reacted with a slew of rulings from high-ranking religious scholars defending the strict rules. But days later Rouhani's Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance Ali Jannati pushed back, citing religious scholars who said female singing was permissible if it did “not cause any immorality.”

“It is 34 years that the music scene is experiencing a cold winter. They still believe music is [forbidden],” says House of Music spokesman Dariush Pirniakan of authorities. “It is not right to ignore the crowd of people who are music listeners.”

Learning curve

Some of the damage to the music industry may have been self-inflicted. During the Ahmadinejad era, when Iranian heavy metal and rap were pushed underground, there were no filters for quality, says Saffarian, who produced Iran's first rap album a decade ago.

Iranian rappers, for example, copied American artists, singing about jail, carrying guns, and lewd behavior – as if musicians were real gangsters. Families who listened together to the music ended up with "poisoned" opinions, he says.   

“We didn’t have any standards [or know how] to bring music to society," he explains. "In every part of the world, not to say there is censorship, but there are some filters – MTV uses standards,” Saffarian says, referring to rules on profanity, nudity, and violence.

“Here they didn’t know what to do so everything came up… and this wrecked appetite for music [that] in some quarters will take a long time to repair.”

Even with the new openness, “The Last Days of March” attracted its share of controversy. The hard-line Serat News website deemed the show un-Islamic and inaccurately claimed that well-known lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh – who was released from prison last September on charges of “acting against national security” – was invited on stage, that night’s performance dedicated to her. 

In the past such criticism from conservative quarters meant “the next night it would be shut down," says Saffarian. "This time, it had the full run.”

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