In the quiet Western Tehran suburb of Shahrak-e-gharb an Iranian man waters his flowers, shuffling from pot to pot as life in the quiet suburban street goes by.
There’s a loud thump. The man pretends not to hear and clears his throat. He continues to water the plants. Then another thump.
It’s coming from the basement. Suddenly a humming noise can be heard, but it’s dull and muffled. The man frowns and glances around quickly to make sure none of the neighbours have heard anything. There’s a good reason for this charade. Crammed into the basement below him are over 200 young Iranians. And they’re dancing.
The room smells like sweat, cigarettes and marijuana, the hallmarks of any rock concert. The walls are covered in graffiti, and the room is lit up with bright strobe lights.
A small stage has been set up and four unshaven young Iranian punk rockers known as The Yellow Dogs are set to play. The lead singer, Obaash, looks down at the waiting fans. They’re huddled in two groups, one of mostly men and the other mostly women. Obash grins and yells down the mic at them: "This isn’t a f*cking wedding, it’s not men over there and women over there. Get it together!"
That was two years ago. Now the architects of one of Tehran’s first underground rock gigs sit around a table in their loft in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The streets of New York may be a long way from Tehran, but the Iranian underground is everywhere.
"When you play a gig even in front of five people you still feel the adrenaline and the stress — imagine playing in front of a hundred people in an illegal place that anytime cops could come in and arrest you" says Obaash. "Our music is dance punk, and dancing is illegal in Iran. You know when you go out of your mind dancing, they think it’s a Satantic thing." And Satanism has serious consequences in Iran. Shortly after the Islamic revolution in 1979 Ayatollah Khomeini banned rock music. During the 1990s and early 2000s music was more accessible and easier to play but after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became president he imposed rigid bans on access to western culture. In 2005 he banned all Western rock music in Iran and all Western films.
The punishments for playing gigs can be severe, and range from passport confiscation to jail time. Musicians who want to release an album or play a gig need to apply to the Ministry of Culture. It’s a process that usually ends in rejection. "It was obvious our music couldn’t get permission from that ministry," Obaash explains, "so we said OK, f*ck it we’re gonna record with our friends and we’re going to play our own concerts."
The four band members, Obaash, Looloosh, Ziina and Koory, began rehearsing on a tiny rooftop, and went from there. After playing several underground rock gigs they also featured in Bahman Ghobadi’s film about the Iranian underground No One Knows About Persian Cats. As their profile grew so too did the risk.
"We didn’t want to get caught so we decided to get out of Iran. We already had our fans in Tehran, and most of them are our friends. So that’s why we wanted a bigger audience," says Obaash. And a bigger audience they found in the thriving Brooklyn music scene. "We struggled a lot for this opportunity, we fought all kinds of laws and authorities and went through a lot of struggles just to come here and play music."
The underground music culture in Iran that the Yellow Dogs left behind surfaced in increments after years of repression and bureaucracy. And progressive metal guitarist Farzad Golpayegani knows better than most how difficult it was dealing with Iranian government.
"I wasn’t very interested in being an underground artist but I have been pushed to be an underground artist because there hasn’t been any other way for me to play music," Farzad says as we sit in his apartment in Istanbul. It’s a spartan room near Taksim Square, and Farzad’s musical equipment seems to take up most of the space. He was the first artist to successfully gain a licence from the Iranian government for a metal record. Farzad’s music is a fascinating blend of western metal and Iranian classical and folk music
He sighs in frustration as he recalls the difficulties of his musical career inside Iran: "In the performance the audience should be seated, they can’t stand. Musicians are allowed to stand but we couldn’t move a lot. We couldn’t have a head bang on the stage, which is very usual for a metal musician. Even when we get the licence we’re not 100 per cent sure we’re going on the stage, because maybe at the last minute an authority can stop our concert being performed."
And Farzad says after Ahmadinejad gained power it became almost impossible to work legally as a musician. And like a generation of Iranian artists and musicians it was the internet where he found an outlet of expression within Iran.
"After facing too many problems to get the licence to have releases inside Tehran I decided to release my record on my website as a free download. I received much more audience, especially outside my country and a good part of my music was instrumental and I can have audiences fans in different countries. It doesn’t matter in what language they are speaking."
But soon even that wasn’t enough. Farzad says he felt Iran could offer him no more by way of his music, and he now lives in Istanbul where he’s free to play music and tutor students how to play guitar. "For me the most important thing is to work as a musician and a composer and to enjoy the activity, and right now I’m enjoying what I’m doing."
Playing gigs in Iran may be dangerous but it’s also highly addictive. As the four members of indie band The Matchcuts, Shervin, Arya, Archie and Hamid, tell me, playing a show inside their home country was a big moment.
Before they left Tehran, the band played two sold out gigs at the Austrian embassy. Shervin says playing at the embassy wasn’t quite illegal, but wasn’t quite legal either — in a country where freedom is at such a high premium diplomatic immunity takes on a whole new meaning. Embassies are often places where parties and gigs can be held relatively free from the regime.
"It was just magical for us, and people were actually singing along with our songs, which you don’t expect in Iran because it’s only your friends that listen to your music usually," Shervin tells me, eyes gleaming as he remembers the excitement. Sadly shows at embassies have mostly stopped since Ahmadinejad took power.
It’s easy to think of the Iranian Underground as a haven for all things liberal. But the patriarchal roots in Iran run deep, as hip-hop artist Saye Sky tells me. "I wanted to write songs but I went to so many studios and they were saying, what the f*ck is that, we cannot make a song for this, it’s bullshit, it’s about woman, it’s about lesbian."
The fierce 20-year-old hip hop artist met me in a bar in Ankara where she told me about her experiences in Iran. She comes from a very religious family, and at a young age realized that she is a lesbian. But gay and lesbian people in Iran face continual persecution. In 2006 President Achmadinejad made headlines around the world after he declared in an address to Colombia University, "in Iran we don’t have homosexuals like you do in your country".
As she tells me about this Saye juts her jaw in defiance — what would she tell the president now if she could? "I would say to Ahmadinejad, Hello, we’re here, we exist." She say her experiences coming out and her passion for women’s rights drew her to hip hop music. "My lyrics come from the heart, what I saw and what I felt. In rap music from my view you can talk about everything, you don’t have any limitations and you can say what you want."
Saye produced several of her own tracks inside Iran. Her lyrics confront the struggles of women and homosexuals in Iran in detail. She wrote her song "Executing Rights" about the struggles faced by transsexuals in Iran. "The government give a card to transsexual people saying no one can bother them. But it’s bullshit I’ve seen a lot of times government and Basij people that were beating transsexuals in the street," she says, her face lit with anger.
Her activities in the underground soon drew the ire of the regime. She noticed after a while that she was having problems with her internet, and soon discovered she was being monitored by the regime.
"I found another person and he said what did you do, they are recording you for six months, they have everything from you, your emails, your addresses, every site you went to, what did you do?" She tried to flee, but the government had blacklisted her passport. She left Tehran and moved from city to city, sleeping occasionally under cars in the street, in her efforts to stay hidden.
Eventually she bribed an official with US$2000 to take her name off the blacklist long enough to let her get on a plane out of the country. Saye is now officially recognised as a refugee by UNHCR. A passionate advocate for women’s rights, Saye says that while the underground allows musicians to express themselves, the patriarchal culture that exists in Iran still reaches the basements.
"The situation is bad but sometimes they are making it worse. Sometimes the musicians will say, "we have cocaine too, we can sniff, after that we can talk about sex." They say ‘OK, if you don’t do that I won’t make a song with you.’" But for all the hardship Saye has endured in Iran, she still wants to return and continue fighting for LGBT and women’s rights. "My biggest wish is having a concert in Iran for LBT people one day. This is my biggest wish. It means that on that day that Iran is in peace."
Musicians from Iran now span the globe. Their music is as diverse as any in the world music scene, as are their politics and their attitude towards music. What unites them is their faith in Iran, and in the Iranian people, to break free from the shackles that bind them.
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