Iran: Rock artists struggle to breach cultural and bureaucratic barriers

29 August 2005

The Iranian culture ministry does not recognise rock music in its permitted music categories, and frequently rejects such work as culturally inappropriate, reported The Guardian’s Robert Tait from Teheran. But despite restrictions, rock bands in Iran still try to get a hearing.



Around 70 percent of Iran’s population is under the age of 35. So many of them are inclined towards rock music, and hundreds of Iranian rock acts are springing up despite official disapproval. But they never have a chance to play a live gig in even the smallest setting.

“We are swimming against the tide and we anticipate that it might be impossible,” says Misakian, 34, lead guitarist and songwriter of the Iranian Norik Misakian Band.

Even so, The Guardian’s Robert Tait reports that they have all but given up hope of earning a living from their music. In his interview with the four members of Norik Misakian Band he explains how they are trying to breach the cultural and bureaucratic barriers separating them from an audience by seeking permission to release their first album. They are doing so in the face of mistrust from Iran’s Islamic authorities, who see rock as a symbol of Western decadence and political protest.

The following is an excerpt from Robert Tait’s article for The Guardian:

Trying to persuade authorities

“There are so many problems in trying to gain permission to release music and very often bands give up. But we won’t give up. What’s important for us isn’t the financial issue but going beyond the boundaries and ensuring the album is available in music shops,” says Misakian.

The ministry of culture and Islamic guidance has rejected the 10-track instrumental album – carrying the English title Trails of the Soul – saying Western rock is the product of drug addicts.

The group has reapplied for permission in what will be an important test of the cultural climate under Iran’s ultra-conservative new President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. To do so, its producer is trying to persuade the authorities that its aims are purely musical, not political.

The album is the product of two years of writing and recording in a tiny basement studio in Tehran. If it gains official approval, the band intends to distribute the album as a DVD to Europe, the US and Gulf states, as well as outlets in Iran.

Without that approval, they will never be allowed to perform on stage. Only artists allowed to release CDs can seek permission to play live. “It’s impossible to make a living from rock music in Iran,” says Edvin Markarien, 30, the bass player. “You are playing for yourself. It is art for art’s sake.”

Distributing via the Internet

The band’s plight reflects that of dozens of rock acts across Iran, only a handful of which have released their music commercially.

The culture ministry vets all proposed releases for musical and lyrical content. To allay its suspicions, some groups, such as the Norik Misakian Band, write songs without lyrics. But the ministry, which does not recognise rock in its permitted music categories, frequently rejects such work as culturally inappropriate.

Some artists have responded by setting up websites to distribute their material. Denied permission to perform live, others organise secret concerts in makeshift venues such as private homes or underground car parks, risking punishment by lashing if caught.


          Legal: David Bowie and Led Zeppelin

          Illegal: Madonna and Abba




The restrictions do not appear to have deterred the artists. A contest organised by an unofficial cultural website, Tehran Avenue, to find the most promising new Iranian music acts has attracted 86 entrants, more than 80 per cent of which are rock bands.

The website’s founder, Sohrab Mahdavi, says: “Most of these bands are underground, with little chance of getting their work released, but their number is rising. It makes sense. The young generation is with us. Around 70 percent of Iran’s population is under the age of 35 and so many of them are inclined towards rock music.”

The trend is a remarkable transformation since the 1979 revolution, when all music, except revolutionary and religious songs, was banned. The embargo was partially lifted after a ruling from Iran’s late religious leader Ayatollah Khomeini that permitted traditional folk music.

Rock, which was popular before the revolution, began a comeback in the 1990s after a cultural thaw introduced by president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, and extended by his reformist successor, Mohammed Khatami.

As a result, a wide selection of previously forbidden music, from artists such as David Bowie and Led Zeppelin, is legally available. But acts such as Madonna and Abba are ruled out by the Islamic ban on the female singing voice.



The Guardian / ‘Almost impossible to play rock in this hard place’

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