The Underground Rises
by MORAD MANSOURI in Tehran
01 Oct 2010 00:51
[ music ] For those engaged in the musical crafts in Iran, the very term "underground music" sparks controversy, for they realize that its provenance -- coined to express the rebellion of Western musicians against the commodification and banality of music in their own societies -- ill suits it to the Iranian context.
In Iran, "underground music" denotes something vastly different: not a protest against market norms imposed by a constrictive and domineering music industry, but rather a samizdat art form in a country whose rulers abhor music altogether and have consigned most expressions of it to the realm of the forbidden.
In a place where music diverging from the state's tight bounds of propriety is forced underground to survive, and where that scene has far more adherents than the state-endorsed music it challenges, it is inapt to classify the underground music that has emerged over the past decade as a Western-style, self-defined purist movement eschewing mainstream success in favor of artistic integrity or creative independence. Instead, I propose to examine how this music reflects the symbiotic bond between Iran's underground subculture and shifts in mainstream social consciousness.
Starting roughly eight years ago, the authorities in Iran were faced with something radically novel. The music blaring out of taxis, spewing from apartment windows, or pumping out of their own children's jukeboxes was unlike anything they had heard before.
Until then, musical trendsetting had been the exclusive preserve of an aging clique of Los Angeles-based Iranian pop singers exiled by the Revolution. In the cultural ferment of the pre-revolutionary '70s, many of these singers, then young, audacious, and innovative, had helped pioneer a musical revolution of their own, deftly fusing traditional Iranian styles and melodies with modern Western rhythms and instruments, with results at once avant-garde and authentically Iranian. This flush of syncretic creativity, and the promising genres of music flowing from it, were stamped out by the Revolution and nearly forgotten over two decades of theocratic stasis.
Once in exile, shorn of the atmosphere and community that had fostered their skill, the singers did not regain their poise. Their talents stagnated and their music gradually devolved into vulgar, lowbrow kitsch.
In revolutionary Iran's stifling social milieu, where neighbors and family often took perverse pleasure in enforcing the state's grim code of conduct, Iranians would dance furtively in private gatherings to this imported potboiler music -- a guilt-ridden, awkward release inhibited by fear of being discovered, chastised, ostracized. The merit of the music itself was of scant interest to hounded revelers.
The homegrown music that began to crash the scene was as impoverished and vulgar as the Los Angeles music it was displacing, but it did introduce novelties in sound and lyric that guaranteed a rapturous audience. A strong beat, lilting tempo, and heavy electronic synthesis, married to the popular 6/8 compound meter, animated listeners into a dance much freer of inhibition and reserve. Incoherent, disjointed, raunchy lyrics mimicked Western hip-hop, breaking taboos by delving hotly into sexual topics. Most were composed with painful shoddiness using a single desktop PC, a keyboard, and a solitary mike.
The authorities were staggered: where was this seditious music coming from and, more pointedly, why was it so immensely popular?
Short answer to that pointed query: state oppression, and social reaction to it. My longer explanation follows.
This underground music was not as spontaneous and rootless as our blinkered authorities imagined it to be. It followed in the wake of, and in tandem with, broader currents that preceded it into the mirthless still of postwar Iranian society. In the years of gradual liberalization following the end of the Iran-Iraq War, many youngsters had eagerly sought tutoring in music. Conservatories were established -- with much trepidation at first, but they gradually found their bearings and started to proliferate. Computers and CDs eased access to all variety of Western music, from trailblazing giants like John Lennon and Roger Waters to bad-boy maestros such as Johnny Rotten and Metallica, on to Eminem and Snoop Dog. Talented pop artists who won rare official permits added a handful of good local songs to the brew.
Many teenagers would take to the Elburz mountains north of Tehran on weekends, trekking up high, well past the morality police and Basij enforcers stalking the foothills, to play the guitar and sing for friends and lovers in the seclusion of nature. Back in the urban jungle, scores embraced heavy metal, punk and grunge, together with the affectations of dress and hair that went with those renegade musical styles. A few studied and practiced the masterpieces of Pink Floyd and the Beatles. Legions more spent time, in class, on the school bus, and at home, composing new verse for rap.
Rappers and hip-hop DJs would gather in remote cloisters of public parks and in deserted car lots to practice and flaunt their talent, while punks and heavy metalists set up studios in the basements of their homes. The rappers eventually became more popular, as they practiced their craft in the native Farsi language, lived the gang lifestyle more convincingly, and had the wind of a worldwide musical trend at their backs. Rap finally came of age in 2004 with the widespread success of hip-hop artist Soroush Lashkari (aka, Hichkas) and his group, 021.
As underground studios proliferated, hard rock and heavy metal artists began to discover each other and form bands to produce serious music. In 2003, the website TehranAvenue, run by a group of avant-garde artists and progressive social critics, held its first Underground Music Contest (UMC) for Iranian rock and heavy metal artists, with around 20 bands prequalified to compete. The recording quality of submissions was pitiful, but as the event coincided with the explosion of blogging and Internet use in the country, its reception among Iranian youth was nothing less than spectacular.
Meanwhile, Tehran's rap scene was also in ferment. Individual rappers formed bands, took stage names, adopted gang insignia and distinctive clothing styles, faced off in rap duels with rival bands in Tehran's public parks, and collected hordes of fans and groupies. They even began recording diss tracks against each other.
Websites dedicated to Iranian rap popped up constantly, introducing a rash of new artists. Aping Western role models, their typical formula was to extol drugs, denigrate women, and cram as many obscenities as possible into the span of each song. Some artists stood out with better music and passable lyrics -- albeit without shedding the profanity.
TehranAvenue organized more contests in 2004 and 2005, attracting a much wider spectrum of styles. The standard hard rock and heavy metal fare was now supplemented with a repertoire of punk, pop, and rap.
Significantly, some entries in these contests offered serious, technically proficient attempts at fusing Iran's regional melodic formulae with Western electronic, jazz, and percussion styles. This, in turn, stimulated youthful interest in more mainstream musicians who had spent the previous decades drawing on the rich lode of Iranian traditional music and poetry to compose innovative and powerful pieces.
A sex scandal that rocked Iran in 2006 exposed deep moral fissures in society, helped widen them, and proved seminal in clearing a path for mainstream acceptance of underground music.
Shortly after the conclusion of the popular TV mini-series Narges, a home video emerged of popular cast member Zahra Amirebrahimi engaged in passionate sex with her lover. Within days it went viral, becoming the lead topic of gossip at parties and gatherings for months in this avowedly pious and prudish nation, where outings of far lesser indiscretions had led girls to suicide or forced them to flee their homes in permanent disgrace to live as social outcasts.
But now, parents and teachers were vying with their children and students to prove that they had watched the rousing "Zahra" video in all its lurid detail. A huge stigma had been shed, at great cost to the young star's prospects. The longevity of the scandal, and the bold discussions it kindled, helped unravel social inhibitions, causing a liberal shift in attitudes toward relations between the sexes.
While public sentiment was still a disquiet mix of voyeurism, empathy, and scorn, TehranAvenue's timely intervention helped cast Zahra's status as an iconic martyr for a society fed up with its own moral sanctimony. An editor, Hamed Safaee, posted a beautifully crafted video on the website, animating a time-lapse sequence of stills he had taken of a solitary Zahra walking down a rainy alley, staring pensively at the camera, smiling happily at the clearing sky, sipping coffee alone in a tiny, abject kitchen. The music he chose as background was Mohsen Namjoo's recent "Zolf Bar Baad" (Unbound Tresses), whose lyrics, originally penned in the 14th century by Iran's great classical poet Hafez, are the crazed admonishments of a man consumed by jealousy to the object of his cloying, possessive love:
Free not your tresses lest I come unmoored
Bestill your charm lest my foundation shatters
Drink not the cup with everyman lest I drown in envy
Bridle your thirst lest I cry unbridled to heavens
Lock not your tresses lest my heart be bound
Zahra's story, coupled with Namjoo's edgy musical delivery, gave added poignancy to the coy double entendres of Hafez's medieval Persian verse.
The impact was immediate and cathartic. The video went viral much faster than the notorious sex tape had earlier, and it was downloaded hundreds of thousands of times in a matter of weeks. Zahra was no longer social menace, object of pity, or public spectacle. She was a normal, brave, resilient human being, deserving of sympathy and regard -- everyone's daughter and sister. And young Mohsen Namjoo, already a rising star in Tehran's music scene and a UMC contestant in 2005, became a celebrated household name in the remotest corners of Iran.
Namjoo was a classical Persian vocalist and setar virtuoso who had developed a unique form of protest music by fusing Persian poetry and the traditional maghami music of northeastern Iran with the melodic templates and lyrical styles of Bob Dylan and Jim Morrison. In so doing, he had to forfeit some of the allure of Persian poetry and part of the richness of maghami, but the synthesis he achieved was mesmerizing and without precedent in Iranian music. He would add stanzas to the classic poems, satirize the original verse, or distort his vocal delivery in such a way as to load his songs with heavy political and sexual innuendo, intoxicating the listener with a playful mix of tragic sentimentality and cynical sarcasm.
In 2006, yet another scandal rocked the country. Hundreds of rappers, rockers, and fans had organized a huge night-time bacchanalia, a secret Woodstock of sorts, in a sprawling country estate on the outskirts of Karaj, immediately west of Tehran. The police raided the party and arrested scores.* State media gave wide coverage to the event and concocted all sorts of labels for the unfortunate detainees: libertines, cultists, drug addicts, debauchees, corruptors of youth, even Satanists.
Both media and state realized the pervasiveness of the underground music culture in Iran, but trapped in the solipsism of religious orthodoxy, they could not fathom the movement's origins, grasp the reasons for its widespread allure, or understand the messages of the social commentary it conveyed. Conferences were sponsored by the government to discuss this apparently unstoppable phenomenon, with Mohsen Namjoo and Hichkas invited to perform for the attendees. Comically, the audience did not pick up on the taunts in Hichkas's lyrics against the police or the barely concealed ridicule of religious dogma in Namjoo's songs.
The cognitive dissonance presaged the epochal drama of June 2009, where the most regressive government since the war was caught totally off guard by the cresting of public fury at the surreal vote tallies announced for the presidential election.
More than a year after the crushing of that popular revolt, many underground musicians have fled Iran, but not at a rate outstripping the creation of new talent inside the country.
Now rappers and rock artists, both male and female, exist in every Iranian city, large and small, studying and experimenting with classic Western styles and developing their own. With no hope of obtaining licenses for concerts and records, they perform in basements studios or in the countryside. They are resilient and resourceful. When studios are raided, musical instruments confiscated, and fines levied, they start again from scratch.
There are some who have surrendered to state orthodoxy. The government coddles and promotes musicians who adhere to the rules and concoct the most hackneyed and vacuous music imaginable. Yet even these untalented quislings crudely mimic the stylistic elements of the far more progressive and innovative underground music, if only to stay marginally relevant to society. For it is in the very act of protesting and transgressing norms that music becomes creative and exciting and worthwhile, especially when those norms are enforced by the repressive machinery of a killjoy state.
*Bahman Ghobadi's award-winning documentary film, No One Knows About Persian Cats (2009), was inspired by the raid on the Karaj bacchanalia. Focusing his narrative on a micro-trend and two musicians captured in the raid who now burned with the desire to emigrate, he seems to explain away the whole underground music phenomenon as an expression by repressed Iranian youth of their desire to escape the country en masse.
Morad Mansouri is a staff writer at Iran Labor Report and Iran Arte.
Photo by Bar-Ax via Flickr.
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