Beyond Centrifuges and Ayatollahs: Dive in to the Iranian Music Scene

Diverse influences and a potpourri of sounds make up the music scene in the Islamic republic and throughout the Persian diaspora.

Any attempt to survey the cultural scene of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and particularly the music recorded there, can only look at the tip of the iceberg. Iran's music scene is as complex as the country's multi-layered society. It contains a blend of classical and modern, innocence alongside outspoken political and religious protest, demonstrative nationalism along with prohibited underground music. So, dive in, and get to know some of the prominent representatives of contemporary Iranian music, whether recorded in Iran or by expatriates in the United States, Europe and even in Israel.

Kiosk: A love of speed

The most popular Iranian rock band in the Iranian diaspora is called Kiosk. Its soloist and leader, Arash Sobhani, is an architect who started composing protest songs while still in Iran. When the regime prohibited performers from singing his lyrics he established Kiosk and started singing them himself. After his songs were banned he continued performing in cellars, until he and other performers realized that the next step would be their arrest unless they migrate to the United States. They now live in the U.S. and Canada and perform across the globe, and have released six successful albums. Nearly all their songs are critical of the Islamic republic in one way or another. Sobhani currently presents a satirical radio program called OnTen on the Voice of America.

A YouTube clip recorded in Tehran in 2005 presents a song dealing with the paradoxes of contemporary Iranian society. The refrain is “An orthodox democracy, pizza ghormeh sabzi.” Ghormeh sabzi is a traditional Persian dish while pizza symbolizes the West. The combination dish has actually won prizes at international culinary competitions. The song also contains a line saying “We have nothing to eat, so let’s eat yellowcake,” referring not to a dish served in army barracks but to a uranium product.

O-hum: Minbar

The veteran O-hum rock band still performs in the basements of Tehran. It sings the lyrics of classical poets, especially those of the national poet Hafez from the 14th century. The music is their own, a blend of rock with classical Iranian influence. Minbar means the pulpit of a mosque. The group went through several phases before ending up in its present duo format, consisting of Shahram Sharbaf and Shahrokh Izadkhah.

The group was about to release its first album in 1999. They already had a deal with a recording company but the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance that has to approve any artistic production did not approve the album. The reason given was that the music was “too Western, too trashy and conflicted with Islamic values.” That album, as well as others that followed it, were not produced in Iran but were disseminated online. Since then, the band appears around the world as well as in Tehran, including in semi-official venues.

O-Hum is still permitted to perform in Iran despite their Western style, since their lyrics come from classical sources and do not criticize the regime.

Shahin Najafi: A clean island

Shahin Najafi lives in Germany, in hiding since a fatwa calling for his death was issued on the charge of apostasy, following publication of his song “a clean island.” In the clip accompanying the song a photo appears at first to be of a mosque, but a second look shows it to be a breast, with a pride flag planted on its nipple. The lyrics are outspoken, attacking almost everything, including swearing “by the boobs of Golshifteh” (referring to Iranian movie star Golshifteh Farahani).

Abjeez: Democracy

Melody and Safoura Safavi are sisters who perform outside Iran. They migrated to Sweden at a young age, but still sing in Farsi. Melody, the older sister, writes the lyrics while Safoura composes the music. Abjeez is Farsi slang for “sisters.” In addition to the sisters, the group includes five “brothers,” only one of whom is a biological brother. The others are Swedes of various origins. Their music is a blend of styles, with their “Democracy” being pop-reggae.

Soheil Nafisi: Fairies

Soheil Nafisi is a musician, a self-educated man who makes his living as a carpenter and lives in Iran. For many years he lived in the Bandar Abbas region in the south and was influenced by the music there. He composes and sings mainly modern Iranian music and like most other singers who perform in Iran, his topics are apolitical, at least on the surface.

Mohsen Namjoo: Toranj

Mohsen Namjoo, one of the most respected and important contemporary Iranian musicians, is sometimes referred to as the Iranian Bob Dylan. He grew up in northern Iran and received an extensive musical education. His style, a blend of classical and modern poetry as well as his own lyrics, is difficult to pin down. His first album was released in Iran, but he was sentenced in absentia to five year’s imprisonment for allegedly ridiculing the ash-Shams, a sura (chapter) of the Koran in his song “Shams.” His apologies did not help, and he now lives in the U.S.

Shajarian: Morghe-Sahar

The clip shows a concert of classical Persian music, as well as the song Morghe-Sahar (Bird of Dawn), performed by Ustad Mohammad-Reza Shajarian and his son Humayun. The elder Shajarian is considered to be the most important musician performing classical music in Iran today. His status is so elevated that he can allow himself to express protest and anti-establishment sentiments.

Israel also has some composers and performers of Iranian music, both traditional and modern. We’ll skip over the more famous ones — the Banai family and Rita — and end our tour with an ethnic-modern composer and a classical performing group. Hanna Jahanforooz, who came to Israel at the age of 12, has fans in Iran as well. She blends different styles from around the world and also writes in Farsi.

The last song in the clip is in Hebrew, but is performed in classical Persian style by Ensemble Golha. This group performs in Israel, singing and reciting classical Persian poetry, as well as composing their own songs also using traditional Jewish sources. The ensemble’s musical director is Menashe Sasson, known for his part in the “Brera Tiv’it” (“The Natural Gathering”) ensemble.

Tamar Eilam Gindin is a linguist who studies Iranian culture at the University of Haifa’s Ezri Center for Iran and Persian Gulf Studies. This article was published in collaboration with the alternative radio station "Kol Hacampus."

And a few more songs to add to your playlist...

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