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Just a concert
Still, it was an incredibly surreal experience in Iran

Written and photographed by Naghmeh Sohrabi
January 4, 2002
The Iranian

The following is a report on a concert in Tehran by a local band, Raaz-e Shab. For more information on the band and the concert, and also to listen to some of their music online, please visit next week.

You can't let gas out of your stomach after eating a good dizi of aabgoosht these days without some reporter taking it as a sign of "Iran's new cultural opening". The recent spate of articles written about lingerie stores, Coca Cola, alcohol, and rock bands have taken these things as indicators of *OHMYGOD* Iran's "new" and "open" cultural space, laying out the political landscape as if the people of Iran (and the reporters' readers) are tiny infants: Now look here, here're the bad guys. They are the conservatives or hardliners. And here are the good guys; they are Iranian youth, reformists or women. And look here, the good guys buy lingerie and the bad guys don't like it. Look at the big bad mean guys.

Well okay, yes, I am rather irked but that's not the point of this piece. Point is, I would hate to add to this unthinking chorus of "cultural opening" but I did something I never thought I would do in Iran: I went to a pop concert on Tuesday -- January 1, 2002 -- and it was an incredibly surreal experience.

The concert was by a band called Raaz-e Shab or Secret of the Night. The band consisted of four male musicians and two female ones singing backup. This was the band's second concert in the 1 1/2 years of their existence and was held in Milad Hall in the International Exhibition grounds. It was an oddly large hall (2,000 maximum capacity), too spacious for a pop concert. 1,800 of its seats were filled for this concert whose tickets ranged from 3,000 to 4,000 Tomans (about $5). A picture of Khomeini and an oddly shaped Christmas tree decorated the instrument-filled stage.

The concert posters had a festive "Happy New Year" on them and once the band members took their places, the band's leader and arranger wished everyone, especially "our Christian compatriots" a happy new year. Then they launched into songs from their album Daar-e Qaali, a series of similarly sounding tunes whose lyrics I couldn't catch: I was too busy reminding myself of where I was...

There were several clear indicators of where I was: The audience was oddly subdued for a pop concert. I looked around for bobbing heads and swaying torsos but saw only a few. After each song, the audience would politely clap and sometimes even whistle and shout but still, not enough to create the sense of abandon so integral to the atmosphere of a concert. Click on image

Then there were the two women on the stage. Once you got over the shock of seeing two young, rather good looking women standing on the stage and accompanying the lead singer, you noticed the unnatural stiffness of their bodies. As the concert progressed, the male musicians began letting it loose: The flamboyant lead singer, Houman Javid, began gesticulating towards the audience, towards the guitarist, towards the ceiling of the concert hall, at one point even inviting the audience to repeat a series of sounds ("hoo, haa, haay) after him (it was hard to tell whether the audience appreciated this gesture or was just being polite).

The bassist also got so much into his music, he hopped on to the raised platform that seated the drummer and moved up and down a bit, then jumped down, lips protruding, and launched into a short solo to the cheers and clapping of the audience. Each of the men began rocking, grooving, swaying, as the concert neared its end and the more they did that, the more jarring and infuriating became the stiffness of the female members and their expressionless faces. While grateful to even have the women there, you couldn't help but be angry at the way they had to stand: One hand clasping the other hand's wrist, keeping time by a discreet tapping of the feet or counting the beat with fingers, as if these body parts were completely detached from the rest of their emotionless bodies. The price paid to have them on the stage. Click on image

After the last song, something exciting happened: Some people began leaving the hall and the walkie-talkie holding security men lost their concentration for a minute. Some of the audience stood up in their seats and began clapping for the band and weakly calling for an encore. "What song do you want?" the band leader asked. "Rooz va Shab" (Day and Night) a couple of people shouted. So the band without much ceremony went back to their instruments as people were streaming out, and loudly began an incredibly catchy and loud tune. We all went wild! People began standing up, hands clapping towards the stage, singing with the band and moving their bodies. Security people tried to make two screaming girls in the front row sit. But it was no longer orderly as the hall was big, people were coming in, going out, and the band was really rocking.

I did a little jig in the isle.

A couple of days later, this and several other issues were revisited at a party I went to. The people in the party not only knew the band members but also considered themselves to be part of the same generation. A friend in his early 30s who spoke so passionately he'd constantly slip off his chair and end up standing or crouching for part of the conversation spoke most eloquently about the generation issue: We are, this band is, the generation that spent its adolescence in the 80s in Iran with the war, the rations, and the strict moral codes. "I remember when we wanted to take our bass guitar to my friend's house two blocks down," he said getting up. "We hugged it, hiding the guitar in cloth like this" his hands were now hugging himself, his shoulders hunched, his knees bent "running down the street, scared that we'd be caught.

"People came out of the concert saying how bad it was. And yes, it had problems. The lights were horrible, the sound system irritating. But what people don't remember is that for years, there was no public venue for people to play music, we don't know how to give a concert because we've never had a chance to. These band members, each and everyone spent their teenage years playing by themselves, in their rooms: The drummer for the most part just practicing like this" and he drummed a bit on the table causing everyone to think there was a knock on the door, "and when we were growing up in the 80s do you know how cheap a bass guitar was? I mean who needed a bass guitar? Where were you going to use it? And now we have this young man, strumming and strutting on the stage. People don't remember these things," he said, sinking into his chair, exhausted.

Media reports tend to report almost everything simply as a sign of "cultural opening", "restless youth", or whatever the catch journalist word is these days. But this group I drank with that night, "my generation" of Iranians, felt comfortable taking a multitude of positions on this concert for example, praising it, being blasé about it, and critiquing it, sometimes all in one breath. To these guys and to many others, events and incidents in Iran are not merely "signs", or "symbols of some larger concept/process/picture. It is also and often just what it is: That night, much was said about the problems with the group's music (too much poetry, someone said. "How can you remember and sing along with poetry?"), the fact that rather than think about the music, some are only after their own interests, and that out of the almost seven million Tomans (less than $10,000) made, the bassist got only 60,000 Tomans, the lead singer 200,000 Tomans (all in all, the six-member band pocketed only one million and something of the profit), the rest of which (after paying the concert hall fees and other stuff) was taken by the promoter.

A concert while being a surreal experience for some, a sign that things have changed for others, a symbol of the reforms' success (or even their failures), is also at the end of the day just a concert, put together and attended by kids who grew up drumming on coffee tables and singing Elvis tunes to their own image in the mirror.

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By Naghmeh Sohrabi

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