Rock Rolls Once More in Iran
As Hard-Liners Back Pop Revival
By Daneil Pearl
The Wall Street Journal
June 2, 2000
TEHRAN, Iran -- In a basement studio here, Iranian pop singer Alireza
Assar and his crew are mixing their latest rock ballad. Mr. Assar's strong
solo voice rings out in Farsi, singing, "We should find love in the
rain." As the music swells, an electric guitar begins to wail, and
women's voices take up the song.
If Iran's political hard-liners ever heard this, there'd be hell to
Wrong. In fact, the conservatives sponsor Mr. Assar. They own this digital
recording studio, they promote his $5-a-ticket concerts, and they approve
each of his songs before its release.
Pop music, prohibited for most of the Islamic Republic of Iran's two
decades of existence, has made a comeback in the past two years. And its
revival owes more to the nation's conservatives than to its reformists.
Iranian TV, a hard-liner stronghold, gave most of the new popular-music
stars their start. A related record label is the nation's biggest producer
of pop. Iran's most original recording, critics say, is Mr. Assar's 1999
debut album, which was conceived by an arts center aligned with the hard-liners.
On the surface, this nation's hardliners are doing all they can to prevent
cultural change, but the reality is more complex. These days, the real
political struggles here are over the pace of change -- and who gets the
spoils. That shows in the hard-liner's strategy of championing the new
home-grown pop, which they hope will pre-empt the unruly Western variety.
Pop music is a good window into Iran's all-consuming politics. Most
developments in the industry trace back to one faction or the other: a
guitar is shown on TV (conservatives), a book of translated Pink Floyd
lyrics appears in a city-run bookstore in Tehran (reformists), a young
crowd gathers to hear a local rock band play the Dire Straits hit "Sultans
of Swing" (conservatives), and Googoosh, a reclusive prerevolution
star, hints she will soon return to the stage (reformists).
"Music has always been in the service" of the state, says
Fouad Hejazi, Mr. Assar's 29-year-old composer. Mr. Hejazi doesn't mind.
He gets what he wants: seven days in the studio to polish each song and
free rein in arranging the music.
What the government wants is a bulwark against the "cultural invasion
of the West." For their part, the hard-liners used the judiciary recently
to shut down 15 newspapers, some of which they decried as "bases of
the enemy." And they tried without success to derail Sunday's installation
of a new Parliament that favors greater freedoms for Iran's youth.
Conservatives fret about the Madonna and Michael Jackson songs blaring
illegally from car stereos in Tehran, but they worry even more about the
Iranian artists in exile who record in Farsi in Los Angeles, evoking prerevolutionary
nostalgia and new social freedoms. That music seeps into Iran via smuggled
cassettes, hidden satellite dishes and the Internet. A hardline judge recently
decriminalized the private use of such music, but selling it is still against
"With your sexy moves, you provoke me," goes a typical L.A.
song. Young Iranians laugh with embarrassment at the suggestive lyrics
but find the fast six-count rhythm perfect for co-ed dancing.
Co-Opting Pop Iran's Islamic government doesn't condone dancing or
dating, however. So, led by the conservatives, it came up with a plan to
co-opt the forbidden pop. It put Tehran pop on the airwaves, with singers
who could match the voices and melodies of the popular L.A. acts, but with
slower rhythms and ambiguous lyrics. One example: "I wish it were
possible, for the spring of my dreams, with you, to come true."
Is this poem about God or a girl? It's hard to tell, and that's why
it lends itself so well to the new Iranian pop scene. Now, the Shandaz
Nights restaurant can present live cover bands, under the watchful eye
of government inspectors. If diners request a song by Iranian exile Dariush,
they often get one from Khashayar
Etemadi, who has the same rasp in his voice. Mr. Etemadi's career was
launched by the conservatives, but the singer, who typically sports a goatee
and suspenders, recently formed his own record company and wrote a song
for Iran's reformist president, Mohammed Khatami -- "In the age of
coin and gunpowder, come and believe in humanity."
In the Permitted Music store in a downtown alley here, shoppers asking
for an under-the-counter tape of L.A.-based singer Ebi may end up with
Tehran teen idol Shadmehr
Aghili, with his silky voice, slick hair and showy violin solos. His
songs have jazz, funk and Latin influences. "You know that life is
hard without you, but how easily your eyes take death from my heart,"
Mr. Aghili sings in a track titled "Skylike."
The strategy works, according to those who deal in contraband tunes.
One such merchant, who goes by the name Akbar, has operated downtown for
the past eight years, approaching passersby with the whispered offer of
"new tapes." Akbar says his business is off 50% since the Iranian
pop cassettes became available.
As the novelty wears off, however, sales of sanctioned pop are slipping,
too. "You feel that they want to talk about earthly love, but they
have to talk about love for God. They should say whatever they want to
say, frankly," says Morteza, 24, as his clandestine date nods. Shabnam
Assadi, a 20-year-old management student, says the seven or eight Iranian
pop tapes she owns aren't suitable for dancing, but "for listening
to them once, they're not bad."
Iran's music industry is trying to break new ground. Mr. Etemadi's coming
album features a samba tune called "Wow." People who have heard
the bootleg versions of Mr. Aghili's next release say it has words that
are clearly about girls. Mr. Assar's next effort features "lambada
and rap" rhythms, says his composer. Saxophones, Spanish guitar, techno-electronic
beats and lush string arrangements are all being squeezed behind Iranian
pop's typically oriental melodies. Still, most of the music has the same
1970s-film-soundtrack style that Iran's pop musicians used before the 1979
For centuries here, music was restricted to Islamic mystics who played
only for themselves, or motrebi singers, who provided the royal court with
cheap entertainment. The once-disdained motrebis moved into downtown cabarets
in the 1970s, and some became superstars, with the aid of the shah's government,
which subsidized record producers.
The Islamic Revolution initially banned all but traditional and classical
music and barred women from singing in public. Most of the top performers
fled to the West.
In 1990, Mr. Khatami, then minister of culture, tried to liberalize
the arts. Mr. Assar, for example, recalls playing in a three-month blues
show called "Victory of Chicago." But the establishment rebelled,
and Mr. Khatami lost his job. Mr. Assar resorted to giving piano lessons.
Many people cite Mr. Khatami's 1997 election as president as the beginning
of Iran's musical reform. Actually, it began a few years earlier with Iran's
supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. A champion of the hard-liners,
he is also a shrewd politician who knows a bit about music; he plays the
dotar, a traditional stringed instrument. His cultural advisers convinced
him that if Iran didn't produce its own pop, music from abroad would corrupt
Iran's youth and undermine Islamic values.
Ayatollah Khamenei quietly sought the approval of top Islamic scholars.
"He told them he would look for classical poems and military themes,"
says one adviser.
One tool he used was the Islamic Arts Center in Tehran, which was set
up at the beginning of the revolution to help spread Islamic culture. The
center put aside its traditional-music projects and learned to rock. It
installed a modern studio on its tree-lined campus, and in 1997 started
a one-year search for musicians.
Television was there to help. Iran's five TV channels are all run by
Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting, whose politics are clear from the
portraits hanging in the studio's lobby: Ayatollah Khamenei's, not President
Khatami's. IRIB's music director is a close friend of the ayatollah.
The conservatives introduced pop to Iran in gradual doses, to let religious
hard-liners get used to it. IRIB started Radio Payam, which aired instrumentals
by such acts as the Gipsy Kings. Some songs featuring drums and guitar
were played on TV. Soroush Distribution, an affiliate of IRIB, issued a
pop tape two years ago, a compilation of patriotic songs tied to the soccer
World Cup. "Iran, Iran, ey-mahd-e daliran. Iran, Iran, eftekhar-e
dowran," one singer intones over a disco-like beat. ("Iran, Iran,
the land of the brave. Iran, Iran, the honor of the era.") IRIB polled
young people about their preferences and auditioned singers.
Mr. Assar and Mr. Hejazi, his composer, seemed unlikely material. The
two musicians had grown up together listening to progressive rock. But
Mr. Hejazi had a friend at IRIB and went to Mr. Assar's apartment one day
to persuade him to audition. Their recording, with Mr. Assar singing a
classical text by the poet Hafez, aired on TV over a nature film.
An Islamic Arts Center producer heard Mr. Assar and signed him up. Arts
center officials interpreted classical poems with him. Looking for "thoughtful"
music, the center encouraged the singer to emphasize the words through
careful articulation, like Canadian superstar Celine Dion.
Mr. Assar says he isn't "into politics" and has warned his
backers he would withdraw if they used him to pursue a right-wing agenda.
He has, however, developed an interest in Islamic mysticism, and the image
that goes with it. The singer grew a beard, started wearing a black robe
and avoided parties where men and women mixed or alcohol was served. The
sleeve of Mr. Assar's first album, "Kooch," which means migration,
shows his profile in blue light, with liner notes citing his lineage to
the prophet Mohammed and asking God's help "not to fall out of the
honest path." The album, with its tense, syncopated tunes, sold an
estimated 300,000 copies, producing a windfall for the arts center.
Meanwhile, the reformists were establishing their own pop empire, centered
on the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, whose approval is needed
to release an album. The ministry is under Mr. Khatami's control, but that
doesn't mean it lets artists do what they want.
On a recent day, Farid Salmanian of the ministry's Music Council sits
in his office and listens to a demo tape, with a clipboard that holds marked-up
lyrics of a soft-rock song about traveling. The ministry's Lyrics Council
has changed the words: "It's the start of the hard road of the hot
weather of the West" becomes "It's the demands of the long road."
Mr. Salmanian says the tape will be rejected anyway because the singer
is out of tune.
A Shocking Decision
The Ministry of Culture gives some record labels financial aid and advice
on music and packaging, and labels close to the ministry have recruited
some of the TV-launched singers. In November, the ministry shocked the
music industry when a Khatami appointee overruled the Music Council by
approving a Shadmehr Aghili album that included songs with a fast, six-count
rhythm. The album has sold more than a million copies.
The musical battles between the two camps have escalated. Iranian TV
shows only singers who have stayed on its own record label. Several pop
singers appeared at a rally for a pro-reform political party before the
February parliamentary elections. Conservatives and reformists have vied
for control of civic centers where many concerts are held.
The reformists may hold the ultimate pop weapon: Googoosh, the sensuous
empress of 1970s Iranian pop. Iranian expatriates still adore her, and
sometimes portray her as a silenced prisoner of the Islamic regime. These
days, women are allowed to sing solos only before female audiences, and
they can perform for mixed audiences or on recordings only as part of a
Googoosh was in the first row recently at a women-only pop festival
sponsored by the Ministry of Culture. And she may well perform at the next
festival, in October, says the head of Revelations of Dawn, a record label
with connections to the singer. If Googoosh returned to the stage, the
regime would score a propaganda coup and, music-industry insiders say,
the reformists would get the credit.
Write to Daniel Pearl at firstname.lastname@example.org