Page last updated at 08:04 GMT, Thursday, 25 March 2010

Iran's underground rock scene thrives despite censors

By Rodrigo Davies
BBC entertainment reporter


Watch a clip of Radio Tehran. Video: Nima Shayeghi and Elhum Shakerifar

The fans who are crowded into a basement bar in Shepherd's Bush, west London, on a chilly Tuesday evening already know the lyrics to the songs, even though none of them have been officially released.

This is not the hottest new British or American band who are hoping to break out of from the underground.

This is Radio Tehran and they are playing a launch gig for their debut album, 88, in London because to do so at home in Iran would almost certainly get them arrested.

The songs were recorded and produced in the Iranian capital, but the band know all too well that it would be impossible to replicate this concert at home.

Ali Azimi
Ali Azimi quit his job as an engineer to become a full-time musician

"For bands like us who play rock music it's not easy to have a gig in Iran, it's just something that you wouldn't even try," says singer Ali Azimi.

"There are some bands who actually release albums in Iran and the lyrics can't offend anyone - you could say there are safe lyrics. We weren't willing to do that so we couldn't release it in Iran."

Music in Iran must be approved by the Ministry of Culture, which vets both lyrics and instrumental sections. Under the system, classical Persian music and some forms of pop music have flourished, but genres like rock and hip-hop have remained almost exclusively underground.

Indeed, The Clash famously wrote Rock The Casbah to protest at the banning of rock 'n' roll in Iran after the 1979 revolution. But these days, more and more musicians are trying to find ways to express themselves.

The Clash
Rock The Casbah appeared on The Clash's 1982 album Combat Rock

A documentary-style drama about the scene, Nobody Knows About Persian Cats, is being released in UK cinemas.

The film, so named because pet cats are also banned in Iran, won one of the jury prizes at last year's Cannes film festival and was smuggled out of the country by Kurdish-Iranian director Bahman Ghobadi, now based in Los Angeles.

"We hope that people will learn about musicians in Iran and Iranian society, which is harmless, like a Persian cat," explains Ash Koshanejad, one of the lead actors.

The film tells the story of one band's attempt to stage a gig in Tehran, days before fleeing the country for the West, paralleling the real lives of Koshanejad and his co-star Negar Shaghaghi.

The London-based pair, who perform as Take It Easy Hospital, left Iran shortly after making the film in 2008 to appear at Manchester's In The City festival.

'Pressure and repression'

Since then they've been booked to play gigs in France - where the film was released earlier this year - and have supported critically acclaimed UK band Foals. Leaving Iran was not the young musicians' ultimate goal though.

"We never wanted to be in a position to run away from Iran, but they put you under this pressure and repression," Koshanejad says. "You decide to leave to keep yourself alive and to do something for other people."

Bands like Radio Tehran and Take It Easy Hospital do not see their music as a way of arguing for political change in Iran. Ali Azimi's songs deal with topics like love, isolation and even boredom.

"You don't necessarily have to be against someone or political, you just want to say what you want, and suddenly it comes to a point where you don't want to bother asking for permission anymore," says Shaghaghi.

The band 127 by Mehraneh Atashi
127 formed in Tehran in 2001

Moreover, some musicians insist their desire is to return to Iran. 127 were the first Iranian underground band to tour the United States and even played at South By Southwest festival, probably the highest profile showcase for new so-called indie rock in the world.

"I feel when you leave you're not underground anymore," says 127 frontman Sohrab Mohebbi, who is currently studying in New York. "I'd really rather not play shows here. I feel like we're evacuating the scene. I need to look back to the older generation and the new generation needs to look back at me, it passes on like that."

The development of digital recording and online platforms like MySpace and Facebook has meant that both making music and finding an audience has become easier for Iran's budding musicians.

In spite of official filtering of the internet, most acts are able to distribute their work through informal channels and on the black market.

"Iran has a very young population, and it's not like the old days when you had to record in analogue," says Arash Sobani, singer in Kiosk, one of Iran's most high profile bands. "So you can record music and distribute it online. It's not going to be Pink Floyd, but you can do it."

Risky pursuit

Kiosk were the first Iranian underground act to have their music sold on Apple's iTunes store, but Sobani argues the biggest problem is still young Iranian musicians' inability to make a living from their work at home.

Nima Shayeghi founded the Sakou record label, and its first release is Radio Tehran's 88. He says that right now the link between Iranian bands and their audience could not be stronger - but the support of an industry is lacking.

"The audience hear it, if they feel it relates to them they'll go to it, they just can't spend money buying it," he says. "We are trying to find a way to channel this energy into a platform that can actually stand on its own feet and find its way within the world music scene."

Making underground music in Iran remains a risky pursuit, but Alizi Azimi's hope is that by reaching out to audiences around the world, they can support the scene at home.

"We're musicians first. Our nationality shouldn't hold us back or make us special. We live in the situation we live in, and we can only find a way to make this movement more thriving. But we are musicians first."

A related feature on Iran's music scene was broadcast on the BBC World Service programme The Strand.

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