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Dispatch | An Instrument Called 'Melody': The Street Musicians of Tehran


14 Jun 2012 18:31Comments

"Street music beautifies the city space," says one performer, but not everyone agrees.

[ dispatch ] Prior to the 1979 Revolution that installed the Islamic Republic, Iranian cafés and cabarets accommodated countless concerts of music, ranging from pop to jazz, blues to rock. People also performed music in the streets and back alleys, in the parks and public squares.

However, with the victory of the Revolution and coming to power of the Islamic fundamentalists, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a fatwa declaring modern popular music haram -- religiously forbidden -- and corrupt, and permitting only traditional Iranian music. As a result, music left the streets and went underground, confined to people's homes. Thereafter, whenever you heard any vestiges of music on the streets, it was either the people's nostalgic songs of the past or the mainstream songs played by street performers whose only goal was to make a living. Government officials came to call the performers "street bums," an attitude that was gradually instilled in the society at large.

With the introduction of political reforms and an increase in social tolerance in the 1990s, a broader range of music was legally permitted, though the subsequent conservative tide has forced most of it back underground -- or, at least, off the airwaves and licensed stages. Changes, however, seem to have come to stay on the street music scene.

These days, when you take a walk down Vali Asr Street, you will see not only those old street performers who know only a few traditional songs, but also artists who play new and sometimes unorthodox music. There are many differences between the two groups, but most among them do have one thing beside music in common, which is the objective of earning money. After talking to some, however, it becomes clear that their primary motivation is having people hear their music, which they have no other way of publicizing. So some are desperate for food, others for the chance to perform in public -- and often it's both.

Then there are those children, some as young as three years old, who one sometimes sees playing songs on public transportation or in corners of the bazaars. They perform from dawn to dusk for "managers" who provide them with instruments, tutor them in songs, and collect all the money they make performing, apparently leaving the children with nothing.

There are certainly drawbacks to playing music on Tehran's streets even for adult performers. Many people, not just government officials, are convinced that street musicians are nothing more than beggars. People accept street actors, and even organize festivals for them, but street musicians are not afforded similar opportunities. They must endure condescending looks and degrading words from the many people who perceive them as beggars. And they must be constantly wary as well: at any given moment the police may swoop in and stop them from playing or even arrest them as part of the latest plan to "remove beggars."

At the same time, not far to the west, in the Turkish metropolis of Istanbul, there are artists from all over the world -- including Iran -- who freely perform music on streets. It seems on almost every street there one encounters musicians, who are greeted enthusiastically by the people.

Should Tehran not have a place like Esteghlal Street in Istanbul for musicians to exhibit their talents?

Travel around Tehran via the subway system, and it won't be long before you encounter a band of musicians dressed in bright-colored clothing performing inside the trains. They categorize their music as "alternative"; prefer to remain anonymous, they won't even give the name of their band.

"We have been performing in the metro for three consecutive days. The people returning from work who are tired and not necessarily familiar with our rhythms have reacted positively to our presence, and no one has complained," said one member. However, they experience difficulties with the authorities. "If metro officials spot us, they will prevent us from performing, but we just move to a different train." The band members explain that they only want to perform music, and have no desire to secure an income through their performances.

Elsewhere, atop a bridge over the Chamran Highway that runs from central Tehran to the north, a clean-cut young man covers his face with a mask. His name is Amir. He is employed at a company, he says, and is visiting the bridge on his vacation to play the santur. He says that he has a degree in political science and has been married for three years. He expects to study for a doctoral degree and says that when he is not working, he studies sociology and the works of Immanuel Kant. He performs for the money, generally in north Tehran where he can make more.

Prior to his current profession, Amir sold dolls on streets. Some time ago, he met a man who recited the poems of Hafez, whom he realized made twice as much as he did. Amir says that within a few weeks, "I learned how to play the santur, and began performing." At the beginning, his income was about 20,000 tomans a night, but that swiftly improved to 60,000 tomans. He began partnering on the street with his wife. "I performed santur, and my wife sold dolls. One day, we were suddenly arrested and accused of being beggars. We spent a night in jail. Since then, we no longer work together."

A few streets over, an adolescent plays the violin. He has shaved his beard and has a well-mannered appearance. He introduces himself as the "embodiment of street music" and his instrument as "melody." He regularly plays pieces by Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven. He has been doing this work for almost five years and claims that he started playing when he was six or seven. As a teenager, he moved to Tehran and began working in real estate. One day, a neighbor heard him perform and encouraged him to play in the streets.

"Street music beautifies the city space, and its absence can be felt," he says. He believes people appreciate classical genres and many passersby stop to admire his performances, though certainly not all. "Some do not react very well, and see us as bothersome," he says.

What sorts of problems does he face?

"A few times I was arrested for begging, but this is not very important," he says. "Sometimes hustlers can be found that will guard us all day [from the police] and at the end of the night they will take our money. One time they bothered me excessively, and took my instrument from me. Although the opposite of that happens as well: one time an old lady brought an old violin and gave it to me as a gift."

He says he makes 50,000 to 70,000 tomans a day, and that he spends most of his time performing on Vali Asr Avenue and in Vanak Square. He says he has performed in concert halls and once won a music award at the Fajr Film Festival, held each February, but that he prefers to represent the street. He is optimistic that street music will find its prideful place in Iran and that the number of his colleagues will expand.

If you visit Tehran's Contemporary Art Museum, take a few steps past the main entrance and you will see two youngsters, a jazz duo. The one with long hair who plays the guitar goes by the name Kayvon. The other, Hamed, plays the clarinet. They explain that they play on the street because they are weary of performing alone. Since they began performing on the street they have been able to practice more and support themselves financially.

In a city whose air pollution blinds your eyes and chokes your lungs, on whose sidewalks you can hear little above the engines and beeping horns of cars and motorcycles, whose streets are filled with people who seem consumed by worries and anxiety, is there not room for some uplifting music to alleviate the gloom?

Abi Mehregan is a pen name. A labor activist, the author is on the staff of Iran Labor Report.

by the same author | Seyyed Hassan, Who Lives under the Stars | The Endless Day: A Look at the Lives of Iran's Women Day Laborers | The Weight of a Brick

related reading | Down on Vali Asr: Encounters with Tehran's Street Children | Iran's Cities a Sea of Poverty | Best Music Writing 2011: The Underground Rises

Copyright © 2012 Tehran Bureau

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