Page last updated at 10:49 GMT, Friday, 27 February 2009

Iran's underground pop gypsies

By Nikki Jecks
BBC World Service


Iranian band Kiosk might be exiles from their country of origin, but that has not stopped them from becoming symbols for a new generation of Persian music fans.

The band started out in a basement in Iran nearly 18 years ago.

It is a story that is familiar to many contemporary musicians in Iran.

Many bands decide to go literally underground, wary of the government's strict censorship laws, and limited tolerance of criticism, setting up makeshift studios in underground basements of friends and families.

The band's lead singer and songwriter Arash Sobhani says that these makeshift studios are called "kiosks" - which is where the band's name comes from.

Speaking to the BBC World Service, he says there are thousands of them all around the Iranian capital, Tehran.

"Fifteen years ago there was no music stores and even carrying a electric guitar was not something you'd want to do on the streets," he explains.

This type of cultural restriction sent many young musicians and bands into hiding.

Fraught with danger

Even releasing albums is fraught with danger, particularly if the lyrics are seen to be critical of the government or the clergy, making it very difficult for musicians playing modern or western to make a living in Iran.

"That's why we have the underground music movement in Iran... people are really connecting to these kinds of lyrics and music," Sobhani says.

We feel that there is a lot more potential in music for talking about social and cultural problems
Babak Khiavchi

These days he says the situation has improved a little, but there is still a long way to go.

"Its got better because the population started to get younger and the government had to allow for some of these things, but still, compared to the number of bands and musicians we have inside Iran the situation is not good," he says.

For Kiosk, the strict laws and censorship eventually forced them to move overseas.

The band has been based in the US since 2006, they have just released their third studio album Global Zoo and these days their studio and their fan base is very much above ground.

Last year they were awarded the Best Blues Band of 2008 by the World Academy of Arts, Literature, and Media.

Their music is a distinct blend, mixing the traditions of blues, country and Persian music.

Their sound might be a long way from underground, and its folksy style belies its serious, political content.

Global zoo

The band's guitarist and manager Babak Khiavchi says the band does not want to be tied to any particular genre, they prefer to simply play the music they like and is fun for them.

Kiosk's stinging political satire is hidden within its blues and folksy sound

"We are trying to go our own alternative direction which is different from the mainstream Persian pop music scene which is mostly cheesy lyrics and recycled ideas and dance music," he says.

But he also is quick to point out that despite the fun they are having, their lyrics are a social commentary on the issues that affect the daily lives of Iranians all over the world.

"We feel that there is a lot more potential in music for talking about social and cultural problems," he says.

"It doesn't matter which country we are living in right now, we do feel like we are modern day gypsies, but we still have the same problems that we used to have as a culture whether in Iran or outside Iran."

The band says the album's title Global Zoo is a reflection of not just Iran but the world.

"When you look at the world it's more really a zoo, it's not even a jungle - you're captured you're in a cage and monkeys are running the world and so it's more like a zoo than a village," explains Sobhani.

With the benefit of distance, does the band ever feel like they would like to return to Iran?

The whole world is really confused about Iran. Do we have a bomb or we don't have a bomb? We don't know either!
Babak Khiavchi

There are after all presidential elections scheduled for June, and Iran's former president, and pro-reformist, Mohammad Khatami has said that he is planning to run in them.

BBC correspondents say he has a good chance of unseating the current President, conservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

"Its very unpredictable, there's no really easy way of doing long term planning when it comes to Iran and its regulations," Sobhani says.

And to make matters worse, Iran still remains in the eyes of many in the West, a global pariah, part of former US President George W Bush's axis of evil.

"[The Iranian government] keep changing their statements every day. Its more like mind games than talking about facts and statics," says an exasperated Sobhani.

"The whole world is really confused about Iran. Do we have a bomb or we don't have a bomb? We don't know either!"

Print Sponsor

Timeline: Iran
13 Feb 09 |  Country profiles
Country profile: Iran
13 Feb 09 |  Country profiles


The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific