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Music was one of the first casualties of the Iranian Revolution. It was banned in 1979, but it quickly crept back into Iranian culture and politics. The state made use of music for its propaganda during the Iran–Iraq war. Over time music provided an important political space where artists and audiences could engage in social and political debate. Now, more than thirty-five years on, both the children of the revolution and their music have come of age. Soundtrack of the Revolution offers a striking account of Iranian culture, politics, and social change to provide an alternative history of the Islamic Republic.

Drawing on over five years of research in Iran, including during the 2009 protests, Nahid Siamdoust introduces a full cast of characters, from musicians and audience members to state officials, and takes readers into concert halls and underground performances, as well as the state licensing and censorship offices. She closely follows the work of four musicians―a giant of Persian classical music, a government-supported pop star, a rebel rock-and-roller, and an underground rapper―each with markedly different political views and relations with the Iranian government. Taken together, these examinations of musicians and their music shed light on issues at the heart of debates in Iran―about its future and identity, changing notions of religious belief, and the quest for political freedom.

Siamdoust shows that even as state authorities resolve, for now, to allow greater freedoms to Iran's majority young population, they retain control and can punish those who stray too far. But music will continue to offer an opening for debate and defiance. As the 2009 Green Uprising and the 1979 Revolution before it have proven, the invocation of a potent melody or musical verse can unite strangers into a powerful public.

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2017
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Stanford University Press
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ISBN 13:
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Stanford Studies in Middle Eastern and Islamic Societies and Cultures
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Soundtrack of the Revolution: The Politics of Music in Iran
Nahid Siamdoust
29 September 2019 (10:29) 

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SOUNDTRACK OF THE REVOLUTION

Stanford Studies in Middle Eastern and Islamic Societies and Cultures

SO UN DT R A C K
OF THE
RE V O LUT ION
TH E POLIT ICS OF MU S I C I N I R AN
NAHID SIAMD O U ST

STAN F O R D U N IVE R SIT Y P R E S S
STAN F O R D , C AL IF O RN I A

Stanford University Press
Stanford, California
©2017 by Nahid Siamdoust. All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any
means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying and recording, or in any
information storage or retrieval system without the prior written permission of
Stanford University Press.
Printed in the United States of America on acid-free, archival-quality paper
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Names: Siamdoust, Nahid, author.
Title: Soundtrack of the revolution : the politics of music in Iran / Nahid Siamdoust.
Other titles: Stanford studies in Middle Eastern and Islamic societies and
cultures.
Description: Stanford, California : Stanford University Press, 2017. |
Series: Stanford studies in Middle Eastern and Islamic societies and
cultures | Includes bibliographical references and index.
Identifiers: LCCN 2016020201 (print) | LCCN 2016020972 (ebook) |
ISBN 9780804792899 (cloth : alk. paper) | ISBN 9781503600324 (pbk. : alk.
paper) | ISBN 9781503600966 (ebook)
Subjects: LCSH: Music—Political aspects—Iran—History. | Iran—Politics and
government—1979–1997. | Iran—Politics and government—1997–
Classification: LCC ML3917.I7 S49 2017 (print) | LCC ML3917.I7 (ebook) |
DDC 780.955/09048—dc23
LC record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2016020201
Typeset by Bruce Lundquist in 10/14 Minion Pro

In memory of my father, Mir Ali Akbar Seyed Siamdoust

Dedicated to my mother, Hamideh Seraj Ansari
And my beautiful daughters, Delara & Leili

Join our path, dear one
Join our path, dear one
Don’t remain alone with this pain
Because this shared pain
Never will be
Separately cured
—Mohammad Reza Shajarian’s new encore “Razm-e moshtarak”
(Common Battle), on his con; cert tour following the 2009 election unrest, a song that he first sang at the time of the revolution in 1979

Only words of steel remain
Public trust has been shattered
...
One day, though, the money you usurp
Shall choke you in your throat
I said it to the door
But the walls take note, word for word
—Alireza Assar’s “Khia
ˉba
ˉn-kha
ˉbha
ˉ” (Street-Sleepers),
released in 2001 but reused by Green Uprising supporters
over footage of government repression in 2009

You are the most beloved wife of God
So much so that he even divorced Mohammad for you
—Mohsen Namjoo’s “homage” to Supreme Leader
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, titled “Gela
ˉdiya
ˉtorha
ˉ” (Gladiators), 2009

After all this rain of blood
Finally, a rainbow will shine
The sky won’t appear cloudy from all the stones
The aqueducts won’t turn red like tulips
Muezzin, call to prayer
—Hichkas’s “Yeh ruz-e khub miya
ˉd” (A Good Day Will Come),
released online as he boarded the plane to leave
Iran indefinitely, following the 2009 unrest

CONTENTS

ONE

The Politics of Music

TWO

The Nightingale Rebels

37

The Musical Guide: Mohammad Reza Shajarian

63

Revolution and Ruptures

87

THREE
FOUR
FIVE

1

Opening the Floodgates to Pop Music: Alireza Assar

109

The Rebirth of Independent Music

157

Purposefully Faˉ lsh: Mohsen Namjoo

183

Going Underground

209

NINE

Rap-e Farsi: Hichkas

235

TEN

The Music of Politics

263

SIX
SEVEN
EIGHT

Acknowledgments283
Note on Transliterations and Translations

287

Notes289
Select Bibliography

327

Index339

SOUNDTRACK OF THE REVOLUTION

CHAP T ER ONE

THE POLITICS OF MUSIC

O N O N E O F M Y F I R S T E V E N I N G S back in Iran after a long absence, my parents treated me to a meal at the garden restaurant of Tehran’s Hyatt
Hotel—called Azadi (Freedom) following the 1979 revolution—where they had
occasionally taken me and my three siblings as children. It was 1996, and I had
been away from my home country for ten years, going to school in Germany.
When my siblings and I were growing up in the revolutionary and war-torn Iran
of the nineteen-­eighties, this was one of the biggest treats my parents would afford us during the city’s hot summers. I remember that at least once, at one of
those dinners, one of the adults pushed us kids into the large swimming pool
for fun. ­Although it was kept fairly clean, the pool had become off-limits to
all guests since the 1979 revolution, since the public exhibition of semi-clothed
bodies was forbidden under the new Islamic regime.
As a returning teenager, I instantly recognized the place. Everything looked
the same, just more faded and dilapidated: a retro hotel of former glory. Formally dressed but sloppy-looking waiters attended to customers in an uninterested manner. But then I noticed something that jarred with my memory of
those strict earlier years. There was a black grand piano next to the pool, and
a male pianist was playing Persian and Western classical music on it. Still, the
atmosphere was quite somber. After the pianist finished each piece, patrons remained unmoved. Clearly, they knew that they must not clap. Although in the
late nineteen-nineties President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani’s policies had led
to a loosening in the social sphere, the expression of joy by means of clapping

2

T H E P O L I TI CS OF M US I C

in public was still not acceptable. I commented to my parents that it seemed as
though sadness had enveloped Iran, and happiness was a sin.
Fifteen years later, in March 2011, on the last night of my penultimate research trip to Iran, I attended a pop concert that would have been utterly unimaginable in 1996, just as the restaurant piano would have been unimaginable
a decade before that. The teen-idol crooner Benyamin, looking suave in his
black outfit and trendy glasses, was moving about on a stage drenched in red
light and smoke and singing “I’ve fallen in love” (‘āsheq shodam) to fast rhythms
and a pounding beat. His fans, revealed by flickering stage lights that panned
over the audience, were moving along rhythmically and could barely stay attached to their seats; they sang along with every single word. Throughout,
guards were running around frantically to admonish audience members to
lower their arms or stop dancing with their upper bodies.
There had been a sea change in Iran’s musical scene from 1996—when just
about enough time had passed since the end of the war in 1988 to allow for a
slightly more relaxed atmosphere—to 2011, when the government no longer
stood in the way of dance-pop concerts. Of course, the waning of the revolutionary government’s zeal, as well as the chronological distance from the revolution itself and from the war years, had led to a general easing up of the public
atmosphere. But while Benyamin was allowed to croon about adolescent love
to hordes of Iran’s majority-youth population, many other artists who attempted to sing about socially or politically sensitive subjects were stopped in
their tracks.
After initially banning all music, following the 1979 revolution, the Islamic
Republic’s leaders bowed to the need to allow some music. Nevertheless, they
have stifled music that does not serve their political and ideological interests,
banned music that they perceive as threatening those interests, and facilitated
a popular but shallow musical culture while an officially impotent but lively
subculture thrives mostly outside of the official public realm. Since 1979, both
state-approved and banned musicians have to varying degrees contested and
critiqued the state’s official rhetoric. Throughout these years, music has served
as an important alternative political, societal, and ideational space, and I­ ranians,
music producers and consumers alike, have imbued it with great significance.
The soundtrack of revolutionary Iran tells the story not just of the matters that
have lain at the center of the people’s and policy makers’ negotiations about
politics, religion, and national identity, but also the story of the evolution of the
Islamic Republic itself.

THE P OLIT ICS OF MUSIC

3

Music was one of the first official casualties in 1979. When the revolutionaries overthrew the shah’s regime and established the Islamic Republic, their new,
“pure” society was not going to allow for music. In their view, music had been
complicit in the moral corruption of youth. But only months after the revolution, music was “revived.” When Ayatollah Morteza Motahhari, one of the
dearest protégés of the revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, was
assassinated in May 1979, musicians who were loyal to the regime wrote a song
to commemorate him. They presented the song to the Imam himself, and (as I
describe in greater detail in chapter 4) Khomeini was so moved that he vowed
to support this “beautiful music committed to the revolution.”
After that, music of a certain kind was green-lighted for broadcast on the
radically conservative state media. Indeed, the state made heavy use of music for
its revolutionary propaganda and during the long Iran-Iraq war, which broke out
soon after the revolution and raged from 1980–1988. But it repressed other kinds
of music, often punishing people who made, traded in, and consumed them.
Even makers of Persian classical music, which the revolutionaries viewed as unadulterated by Western influences and as “authentically” Persian, were at first
severely restricted in their art. Eventually, however, Khomeini’s views and a later
postwar edict, in 1988, opened the floodgates to music, and in the years since,
every major genre of music has been practiced to varying degrees of official or
underground reception. Throughout these changing circumstances, female musicians have suffered the most. Women’s voices were deemed un-Islamic soon
after the revolution, and so some of Iran’s most famous musicians of all time
were forced into what seemed to be permanent silence.1 This silence, this nearly
total absence of the female voice in postrevolutionary Iranian music production,
is glaring, all the more so because it stands in stark contrast to the soundscape
of Pahlavi-era Iran. The solo female voice remains officially banned to this day.
Music has played an important role in Iran’s political upheavals since the
Constitutional Revolution of 1905–1911, when Iranians rose up against
the ­Qajar-dynasty ruler Mozaffar al-Din Shah to demand a constitution, which
led to the establishment of Iran’s first majles, or parliament. This period produced some of Iran’s most enduring freedom-seeking songs, a repertoire that
was kept alive throughout the 1979 revolution and revived yet again at the height
of the Green Uprising in 2009. In the social realm, music has been important
for at least that long as a way to relay critiques and to broach taboo subjects,
often using playful, innocent-sounding folk songs that belie their sharp edges.
And in the years since the Pahlavi monarchy was toppled in 1979, the children

4

T H E P O L I TI CS OF M US I C

of the revolution have come of age and expressed their critiques of political and
social conditions on a wide musical scale, continuing a tradition that links the
many Iranian generations who have sought political freedom for over a century.
T HE ISL AM IZ AT IO N O F IR AN IAN PO L I T I C S

Still in the throes of its own revolutionary genesis, the newly formed government
of the Islamic Republic set out in 1979 to create a vast series of laws and institutions to Islamize the country’s politics as well as its polity.2 This affected everything from the regulation of the public sphere and the creation of media content
to the formulation of school curricula, as well as more personal matters like dress
and alcohol consumption.3 When the constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran
came into being in December 1979, it stipulated in its Article 4 that:
All civil, penal, financial, economic, administrative, cultural, military, political, and other laws and regulations must be based on Islamic criteria. This
principle applies absolutely and generally to all articles of the Constitution
as well as to all other laws and regulations, and the fuqahā of the Guardian
Council are judges in this matter.4

In his first New Year’s address as Iran’s leader in March 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini emphasized above all that a “fundamental cultural revolution all over”
Iran was necessary. In subsequent speeches and decrees, Khomeini reiterated
the goals of this policy:
Exiting the ill-formed western culture, and replacing it with the Islamicnational educational culture and the cultural revolution in all fields across
society, demands such an effort that we should strive for long years to materialize it and fight [against] the deeply-rooted penetration of the West.5

In order to determine the outlines of this revolution, Khomeini decreed
that a Cultural Revolution Headquarters be created, and it was established and
in force by early 1981. It was also legally stipulated that the state be established
on Islamic foundations, but due to the position of moral and religious supremacy the new regime had adopted, it set out on a somewhat ambiguous objective
not merely to regulate the public aspects of its citizens’ lives, but also to enforce
correct Islamic behavior in the private sphere. In the first decade after the 1979
revolution, the state—through its mobilized masses of volunteers, the basij—
undertook aggressive incursions into people’s private lives.6

THE P OLIT ICS OF MUSIC

5

The importance of universities and student activism in Iran’s 1979 revolution was amply clear, and so the first task of the Cultural Revolution Headquarters was to Islamize universities, which were shut down for three years during
these operations. The universities were purged of about twenty thousand professors who either espoused other political convictions, such as Marxism or
liberalism, or were not believed to be sufficiently revolutionary. Within this
new political context, being revolutionary meant believing in and practicing
Islam and fully supporting the state’s new ideology and political system, which
were based on the “guardianship of the jurist,” the Supreme Leader. Other tasks
involved training new professors, purging universities of nonrevolutionary students, and revising textbooks.7
In December 1984, the new Supreme Council for Cultural Revolution replaced the old Cultural Revolution Headquarters, and its tasks became more
formalized and all-encompassing. This new body was now in charge of Islamizing all aspects of society, not just the universities. Khomeini soon decreed that
“the declarations and directives issued by the esteemed Supreme Council of the
Revolution must be enforced.”8 The body was declared the highest instance for
the determination of the country’s policies in all spheres of culture and education, and while it is not a legislative body, its decrees carry legal power.
With the success of the revolution, Iranians were for the first time witnessing a state that claimed to be the official protector and promoter of Islam, although for centuries Iranian kings had claimed legitimacy on a two-pronged
basis: national and Islamic. In fact, it had been the clergy’s very lack of involvement in, or even oppositional stance towards, former governments that had
caused many Iranians to trust the clergy. And now, after the victorious revolution, many believed that Khomeini would retreat to the religious seminary
town of Qom. Many (mostly middle-class) Iranians who regarded themselves
as believing Muslims, but whose religious beliefs and practices were not as
strict as the version that was officially propagated, felt alienated and disenfranchised by the government’s discourse. Not surprisingly, the vast reach of stateimposed Islam has rendered the interpretation of what exactly Islam means
and where its place is in Iranian society one of the most contested matters for
recent cultural production, including music.
The mainstays of Islamic Republic ideology, as projected in regime speeches,
policies, and material culture, have remained fairly consistent over more than
three decades. They include immense devotion to Islam, the Prophet Mohammad, and the twelve Shia imams. It is not enough to be inwardly committed

6

T H E P O L I TI CS OF M US I C

to Islam; one’s piety is to translate into ideological allegiance and must be outwardly v­ isible. (This is why during the strictest postrevolutionary years, cleanshaven men or men sporting Western neckties were punished. A man could
be an observant Muslim, as indeed many clean-shaven, necktie-sporting men
were, but if he did not grow an “Islamic” beard or if he appeared to support
Westernization through his attire, he was suspected of not supporting the revolution.) Another hallmark of this ideology is indebtedness to a long series of
martyrs who sacrificed their blood for the potential or actual Islamic Republic,
from martyrs of prerevolutionary eras, who agitated for a strict Islam and were
later lionized by the Islamic Republic, through martyrs of the revolution and
the Iran-Iraq war and beyond.9 Other elements of this ideology include an aversion to vanity and earthly joys, strong anti-Western sentiments, and pride in
independence. As the revolutionary leader Khomeini had avowed, the motto
of the new Iran was to be “na sharqi, na gharbi,” neither Eastern nor Western.
An important component of Shi’ism and hence a pronounced part of the new
ideology is also fervor for the twelfth imam, Mahdi, the hidden messiah. And
finally, full commitment to the political system of the velāyat-e faqih (the rule
of the jurist) and subservience to the “Guide of the Revolution” (the Supreme
Leader) are indispensable elements of this ideology. In his theoretical treatise
on the velāyat-e faqih, Khomeini concludes that religious jurists have “the same
authority as the Prophet and the imams, . . . in other words, disobedience to the
religious judges [is] disobedience to God.”10
Guided by their benevolent leader, Iranians were promised a truly Islamic
society that would be the exact opposite of the corrupt, Western Pahlavi puppet
regime. This new Iran “would be free of want, hunger, unemployment, slums,
inequality, illiteracy, crime, alcoholism, prostitution, drugs, nepotism, corruption, exploitation, foreign domination, and yes, even bureaucratic red tape. It
would be a society based on equality, fraternity, and social justice.”11 The discrepancy between these lofty promises and the inevitable unfolding of reality
has not ceased to offer substance for critique in cultural productions.
MUSIC AN D ISL AM IN T H E R E VO L U T I O N A RY R E P U B L I C

In July 1979, the all-powerful new leader Ayatollah Khomeini shared his views
on music in a speech to state radio employees:
One of the things that intoxicate the brains of our youth is music. Music
causes the human brain, after one listens to it for some time, to become in-

THE P OLIT ICS OF MUSIC

7

active and superficial and one loses seriousness. . . . Of course music is a
matter that everyone naturally likes, but it takes the human being out of
the realm of seriousness and draws him toward uselessness and futility. . . .
A youth that spends most of his time on music becomes negligent of life
issues and serious matters, and becomes addicted—just like someone who
becomes addicted to drugs, and a drug addict can no longer be a serious
human being who can think about political issues. . . . Now you must take
these issues seriously, and turn away from jokes and light matters. . . . There
is no difference between music and opium. Opium brings a sort of apathy
and numbness and so does music. If you want your country to be independent, from now on you must transform radio and television into educational
instruments—eliminate music.12

In the new Islamic Republic, then, music was to be neglected, if not eliminated
altogether. Most kinds of music were soon prohibited on radio and television,
music schools were shut down, and musicians, especially female singers, were
badly treated. Soon the new state prohibited the importing of foreign cassette
and video tapes and recorders. The state regularly deployed its forces, at the
time known as the komiteh or just basij (“committee” or “volunteers”), to confiscate such equipment from cars and homes, punishing the owners with lashes
or fines.13 In the first decade of the Islamic Republic, when thousands of young
men were falling in the Iran-Iraq war, the only tunes broadcast on state television were marches, patriotic hymns and songs, and religious lamentations
(noheh-khāni).14
The permissibility of music in Islam has always been a matter of interpretation, and views have ranged from a total ban to permission for all music and instruments, including dance.15 Since the ultimate authority in Islam, the Qur’an,
does not mention music explicitly, and the sunnah—traditions of the practices
and sayings of the Prophet Mohammad as recorded through hadiths—offer little clarity on the subject, Muslim scholars and authorities have interpreted various verses in the Qur’an according to their own points of view.16 Most of the
Islamic discussion has revolved around three Qur’anic verses where abstention
from “lahw al-hadith” (idle talk) is advised, which conservative Islamic scholars
have interpreted to mean music, espousing the view that music is “futile folly.”17
However, some of the most important and influential Islamic theoreticians on
music, including Al-Ghazali, Al-Farabi, and Avicenna—all of whom happened
to be of Persianate origin—viewed music favorably.18 Ghazali’s work on music,
which many other scholars followed as a model, concluded that both “statutory

8

T H E P O L I TI CS OF M US I C

and analogous evidence indicate the admissibility of music.”19 A major point in
his argumentation, which has since been replicated by authorities within the
Islamic Republic, is that the impression that music leaves on the heart “follows
the rule of what is in the heart,” meaning in effect that it is the intention of the
listener that determines his or her reception of a piece of music.20
Despite Khomeini’s harsh pronouncement on music at the beginning of his
reign, his views on music actually turned out to be closer to those expressed
in Ghazali’s writings.21 One of the main architects of the constitution of the
Islamic Republic and a close ally of Khomeini, Ayatollah Mohammad Beheshti,
had laid out this view clearly in speeches made at the Iranian mosque in Hamburg, Germany, almost a decade before the revolution. In response to questions about the legality of music, he had responded, “Not all singing is haram
[forbidden in Islam], not all instrument-playing is haram; those kinds of singing and instrumental music are haram that draw listeners or the audience in
a gathering toward sin. . . . That is considered lahw [idle entertainment/play],
which makes the human being heedless of God’s remembrance.”22
But how is it decided what type of effect a kind of music has? Here, Khomeini’s view again overlaps with Ghazali’s, namely, that “the nature of music’s
influence depends on the basic intentions of the listener and the purpose for
which it is used.”23 Khomeini’s position manifested itself best shortly after the
Iran-Iraq war, when the conservative mullah Ayatollah Mohammad Hassan
Qadiri criticized a television series called “Pāyiz-e sahar” (Dawn’s Autumn) for
showcasing a female actress whose neck was exposed, and also took exception to the music used in the series. Khomeini responded that if someone feels
excited by watching a certain image, he should prevent himself from watching that image, and that the same applied to music.24 In effect, it appears that
Khomeini placed responsibility for discerning the effect and hence permissibility of different kinds of music on the individual, at least within the already
regulated framework of the Islamic Republic. Furthermore, in response to numerous esteftā’ (religious questions) on music, most ulama (clerics)—including
the current Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei—have responded in line
with Ghazali and Beheshti. Often ulama have further explained that it is ‘orf—­
meaning custom or convention—that determines which music distances one
from God and which does not.
It is not practical, however, in an authoritarian political system, to act based
on statements that music’s effects can be judged by the listeners themselves, on
the basis of custom or convention, if we are to take the term ‘orf, or custom, at

THE P OLIT ICS OF MUSIC

9

face value. The state officially controls music and does not leave judgment on
that music up to each listener. Nor, in the absence of a free public sphere and
solely democratically elected bodies, can truly popular customs, conventions,
or laws be debated and established. For that matter, nor have the highest ulama
ever unanimously agreed on one custom or convention to apply to all. That
is not the job of the ulama, who study a life long in order to lend their own
interpretations to the original texts. As for the state and governmental bodies
that regulate the production and distribution of music, they too have to make
do with these ambiguous edicts, and so the field of music regulation remains a
Kafkaesque labyrinth that causes a great deal of frustration and consternation
for most artists. This interpretational ambivalence, as well as a lack of resolve or
action on the part of the country’s highest leaders, has created an atmosphere
of uncertainty regarding music in postrevolutionary Iran. Not surprisingly, the
most repeated plaintive expression in conversations about music is “taklif-e
musiqi roshan nist” (music is in limbo).
T HE STAT E , ID E O L O G Y, AN D PE R F O R MAT I V I T Y

Despite the theological explication above, which is useful for an understanding
of the Islamic concerns at hand, it is of course important to remember that as
a governing body, the Islamic Republic, in setting its music policy, is not solely
concerned with Islamic permissibility. In this ideologically driven state, with its
initially expressed intent to reform its citizens from prerevolutionary heathens
into postrevolutionary believers, music as a site of state control is important
for the performativity of the state’s professed values and principles and the aesthetic and acoustic expressions thereof: in short, its identity.
Although I will be referring to “state ideology” throughout this text, I do
not intend this term to be understood in monolithic or static terms. While
the basics of the Islamic Republic’s projected ideology have remained surprisingly consistent over the past decades, the parameters of action within it have
changed with shifting social and historical contingencies and have, overall, expanded considerably. Furthermore, I hope to show a more nuanced picture of
the relationship between official stance and practical action, on the part of both
artists and the state. Nevertheless, it is analytically productive to discuss the
state as an entity and to locate artists’ positions and discourses with respect to
an official state ideology, because the state encroaches on all aspects of I­ ranians’
lives. However, inasmuch as Iranians, including Iranian artists, validate the

10

T H E P O L I TI CS OF MUS I C

state’s existence and authority by the very expression of their discontent with it,
they also lend the state variation and nuance through their multifarious representations of it in the substance and practice of their productions, artistic and
otherwise.
All this is not to say that Iranian artists are locked in a binary conflict with
the state. Michel Foucault has written that he finds the notion of ideology difficult to use, in part because it always posits an opposition to “something else
which is supposed to count as truth.”25 I do not, however, oppose ideology to
some implicit truth; instead, my notion of ideology here is based on Louis
­Althusser’s understanding of a socially constructed worldview that aims to govern our perceptions and actions and to reproduce the legitimacy of a dominant
power. Consequently, there can be competing worldviews, all of them socially
constructed, but in the Iranian case the official ideology carries tremendous
weight because the state attempts to enforce it both through its ideological apparatuses (including schools, the media, and the cultural field) and its disciplinary apparatuses (such as the judiciary, security forces, police, and prisons).26
Within the context of the Islamic Republic, the function of the state ideology is to rule or subjugate on the basis of “Islam” and to reproduce the legitimacy of the leadership of its clerical caste. This reproduction is enacted
performatively, through discourse and practice, as evidenced in the many political and religious speeches as well as rites and rituals of the Shi’ism that stands
at the center of this ideology. Considering the deep and widespread roots of
religious belief and practice in Iranian society, it is useful to remember Foucault’s refusal of the notion of repression, which he finds problematic because
“what makes power hold good, what makes it accepted, is simply the fact that
it does not only weigh on us as a force that says no, but that it traverses and
produces things, it induces pleasure, forms knowledge, produces discourse.”27
And indeed, the human body is a main site for the manifestation of the state,
whether it embodies the state by wearing prescribed attire (in the Iranian case,
the hijab), reciting national anthems in schools, bearing the flag in military
service and war, or simply abiding by the given laws; “one’s life and death are
continual performances of discursive practices that delimit one’s society, culture, and State.”28
The notion of performativity (in this case, the definition of identity by
speech acts and other communicative expressions) is key to understanding
the works of the musicians discussed here. “Performativity,” as Judith Butler
has argued, “is not a singular ‘act,’ for it is always a reiteration of a norm or

THE P OLIT ICS OF MUSIC

11

set of norms,” or it would have no traction or power within the environment
in which it functions.29 This kind of performativity then relies on citationality, referencing fragments of traditions, cultures, discourses, and communal
memories. To perform alternative subjectivities or discourses, Iranians draw
on various traditions and repertoires of contention.30 Some of the most potent
reservoirs of signification are rooted in the country’s defining cultural sources
and anxieties, such as pre-Islamic Persian culture and its traditions, Islam in
its various Iranian configurations, political tyranny, Westoxification (imitation
of the West, loss of Iranian identity), modernity, the discourses of freedom,
and the forces of globalization, to name only the most significant. The various
instances of performativity of these and other citations, in the public sphere
more broadly and in the musical sphere more specifically, allow for overlapping interpretations of the past and an engagement in a national discourse
about the future.
It is in part because the state transgresses into people’s most personal spheres
that they resist those transgressions with minute and personal subversive acts.
Here Michel de Certeau’s notion of the “weapons of the weak,” formulated in
everyday practices and tactics, will be useful in analyzing the ways in which both
the producers of music and the “other producers,” namely the consumers, write
themselves into the public space that the state aims to control.31 On a similar
plane there is Asef Bayat’s useful concept of “quiet encroachment,” by which he
too means the behavior of (in our context) politically and culturally repressed
people whose everyday acts keep expanding their territory into the spheres
of state power.32 Bayat also explains how in order to assert their identities, the
young often utilize what look like accommodating strategies, using dominant
norms and institutions to “creatively redefine and subvert the constraints of
those codes and norms.”33 This he calls “subversive accommodation,” such as
when the young turn austere Muharram processions into “Hossein parties” in
Iran.34 When musicians and their audiences insert themselves into and traverse
the space between what James C. Scott has termed the “public transcript” (authorized by the dominant power) and the “hidden transcript” (critique of power
spoken behind its back) and increasingly widen the parameters of the “public
transcript,” it is often through such subtle subversive acts of creating new meanings.35 However, as I hope to show in my discussion of music, there is no binary
process of domination and resistance, and no singular “hidden” or “public” transcript. Rather, transcripts—like other social constructs—are multiple and their
forms and content depend on the given c­ ontexts. Nonetheless, I do use the term

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T H E P O L I TI CS OF MUS I C

“public transcript” to invoke that which is propagated or permitted by the state,
and “hidden transcript” to point to all that which is not officially approved or is
disapproved.
In such performative acts, people often enlist what Pierre Bourdieu has
called cultural capital, along with the affects—or expressions of emotion—that
are rooted in the traditions being cited.36 Within the Iranian symbolic market (where social and cultural goods contain varying degrees of prestige and
honor), this concept works well on the ideological register. So, for example,
the greatest goods are those that subtly or clearly—depending on the official
legitimacy of that good— signify where the allegiances of their possessors lie:
on what stretch of the spectrum between diehard pro-velāyat-e faqih (Supreme
Leader) and secular anti-regime. There are of course various shades all along
the way, from religious but anti-regime to secular but vaguely in support of
the status quo if not the regime, drawing on various strands of the three main
romanticized identities (rooted in either traditionalist conceptions of Islam,
Islamic reformism, or a secular modernist outlook) within postrevolutionary
Iran.37 Using Bourdieu’s analogy, culture or cultural signifiers are in effect being
used as currency for the performativity of identity: for the expression of a political, social, or cultural stance.
To give an example, in my later discussions of pop music I will argue that
both musicians and concert audience members employ the affect of joy as a
subversive act.38 The state puts great human and financial resources into controlling any joy and self-expression that take place outside of its power paradigm. Such expressions are tolerated within the context of celebrations of the
revolution’s anniversary, for instance, but they can be punished if they are spontaneous or occur outside of official frameworks. As recently as ten years ago,
governmental monitoring bodies that oversaw public gatherings, including
concerts, did not tolerate enthusiastic clapping, and as I have mentioned, minders still monitor all concert audiences to make sure no one gets up to dance or
becomes too enthusiastic in other ways. The enforcement of public piety and
solemnity is one way in which the Islamic Republic performs its official culture.
Shi’ism—its holy persons and commemorative days and its rites and rituals—
are held paramount over all competing sources of national identity. Iran’s often
joyous pre-Islamic holidays are therefore not promoted, and some clerics even
call for their complete elimination. Shi’ism itself is used by the state largely
within its capacity as a religion of mourning. That is not to say that participants
don’t find joy in Shi’i rituals and gatherings, or that ta‘ziyeh performances (Shi’i

THE P OLIT ICS OF MUSIC

13

passion plays) are bleak affairs—quite the contrary—but the most important
holidays are held to commemorate the death of holy persons and involve black
banners and clothes and a lot of weeping, real or pretended.39 There are many
sacred mourning days that Shi’is must observe, culminating in the ultimate
holiday of ‘Āshurā when the favored hero, Imam Hossein “the oppressed,” is
slaughtered. In fact, there are only very few joyous holidays, including the birth
of the Prophet Mohammad and the Mahdi as well as the main Islamic Eids,
such as Eid-e Fitr (the end of Ramadan), Eid-e Qorbān (the Sacrifice Feast),
and Eid-e Ghadir, when according to Shia lore the Prophet appointed Imam Ali
as his successor.40 Even Ramadan is a somewhat solemn affair in Iran, whereas
in some Sunni countries it can often be a month of joyous gatherings.41 Hence,
in politically enforcing a familiar and deeply ingrained culture of Shi’ism, the
Islamic Republic is able to use grief both to perform and assert its identity, and
as a powerful tool of subjugation. The disciplinary nature of this performativity
reinforces the state’s paternalistic relationship to its subjects, and it does so by
intruding into a very personal sphere of its subjects, namely their feelings and
expressions of joy.
In Iran’s authoritarian polyarchy, legitimacy is drawn from Islam as well
as from the state’s genesis in the vastly popular 1979 revolution.42 The Iranian
government does not merely rely on Iranians’ verbal expressions of their obedience to reproduce its authority; its power is ubiquitously inscribed into the
physical public space and onto people’s bodies. P
­ osters and murals of senior
religious figures and martyrs cover most cities. Mechanisms such as the obligation to wear Islamic dress to which all women (and to a lesser degree, men) are
subjected, or the fact that until recently Iranians had to live in public spaces
that often evoked war, death, loss, and mourning as well as the state’s constant
reiteration of the sacrifices of the revolution, inherently reinforce the state’s
self-projected legitimacy and authority.
Needing to submit to circumstances imposed from the outside is part of
what Bourdieu calls “symbolic violence,”43 in which people, motivated by a host
of factors, often voluntarily subject themselves to restrictions. In submitting to
Iran’s government-regulated public space, as they are required to varying degrees to do, Iranians must act according to the “public transcript” authorized
and promoted by the state. Depending on their situation (for example whether
they are enrolled in state universities or hold government jobs), they are subject to varying forms of symbolic violence. For my purposes here, this notion
expands to include the realm of cultural production and music. Within this

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T H E P O L I TI CS OF MUS I C

sphere, musicians have to dissimulate and submit to official regulations, often
against their beliefs and choices, in order to obtain permits for publications and
performances.
AN ALT E R N AT IVE PU B L IC SPH E R E

Music is present in the lives of most Iranians, whether they listen to it in its officially approved form on state media; tune in to foreign-based Persian satellite
television channels for both foreign and homegrown productions; or listen to
a random assortment of music on public transport such as shared taxis, where
drivers play music to their heart’s delight, from prerevolutionary pop to current hip-hop. Music is more accessible to Iranians than film or theater, both of
which require, at a minimum, dedicated time for their viewing, whereas music
can be listened to throughout the day and alongside other activities. Crucially,
however, as far as the political nature of the musical sphere is concerned, music
concerts allow for a communal sharing of critical views between perfect strangers, and consequently a critical discursive community that is unavailable elsewhere in the official sphere, short of direct political protests.
Music’s greatest power lies in its ability to create publics, the deliberate
coming together of strangers, engaged with each other through mere attention
to certain texts (in this case music) and involved in poetic (i.e. imaginary and
aspirational, as opposed to real) world-making.44 These publics can manifest as
simply as in their shared attention to certain music. Listeners who purchase or
download a song and appreciate its content constitute a public because they are
partaking in the same discourse. Such a public can come face-to-face with itself
virtually, in online forums; or actually, in concerts or protests, lending substance to its world-making. No other form of cultural production makes this
possible with quite such ease. In order to be part of a public that appreciates
certain literature, for example, one must invest time in studying that literature.
In order to be part of the Tehran Friday prayer public, to cite another example,
one should, ideally, attend the sermon, because physical presence and participation in its rituals, such as the chanting of slogans and communal namāz
(prayer), are important aspects of this public. But to belong to a public around
music, all one needs is to have heard a song and identified with its sentiments.
Music allows for socially constructed imagined communities that exist purely
on the level of discourse.45 Importantly, these publics built around music, or
even just a couple of lines from a song, can become activated and come to the

THE P OLIT ICS OF MUSIC

15

fore at times of heightened political or social tension. It is at such times that
members of such a public are able to communally express their common interest and investment in a certain text and world-making, manifesting the extent
and power of their public. This was the case during both the 1979 revolution
and the 2009 Green Uprising, when perfect strangers came together to express
shared sentiments through popular songs.
What forms of “publicness” are available to Iranians, and what do we mean
specifically when we use the term “public sphere” in the Iranian context? Jürgen
Habermas’s coinage of the term “public sphere” referred to the reasoning public of eighteenth-century Enlightenment Europe engaged in rational-­critical
discourse, in a space free from the infringements of official authority.46 In using
the term for the contemporary Iranian situation, we have to dislodge it from
these earlier associations, but it is still a useful concept for examining the ways
in which people can come together as a public and express their views. Especially if we draw out the nuances of the German word Habermas uses for the
public sphere—Öffentlichkeit, rooted in the German word “offen” (open)—we
can come closer to an understanding of the kinds of publicness that state bodies allow to be performed openly.
Throughout the nineteen-eighties, the state monopolized public spaces like
streets, squares, and halls for the exhibition and performativity of its Islamicrevolutionary ideology and fervor. As Roxanne Varzi writes in her observation
of the public space:
By the time the generation of youth born at the beginning of the revolution
was fully cognizant of its environment, Tehran was already transformed
into an Islamic revolutionary space: Islamic covering for women was fully
enforced; old monuments were replaced by revolutionary ones; and billboards of Muslim clerics and other Islamic visuals covered the city.47

The public sphere was so restricted that people organized events that would
otherwise have been public affairs, such as poetry readings and photo ­exhibits,
in private spaces such as basements and garages. With the end of the war
and the election of the somewhat more moderate president Akbar H
­ ashemi
Rafsanjani, the “reconstruction” government launched a program in the
­nineteen-nineties to create public spaces for leisure, and some of these formerly “private” public events surfaced in the newly created public spaces. But
cultural events that were outside of the state’s permitted parameters—such
as rock music concerts, readings of works by banned authors, or photo and

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T H E P O L I TI CS OF MUS I C

art exhibits that did not conform to norms of official morality—continued to
take place either within these “private” public spaces or in spaces that were legally outside of government control, such as the places of worship of minority
groups or foreign embassies.
The parameters of the official public sphere—of what amount of openness
and what kind of conversation are officially tolerated—are fairly well delineated, though not static, and the boundaries of the permissible are more or less
known to most Iranians. Two very powerful promulgators of official norms
are the state media and the Friday prayer leaders, not to mention the Supreme
Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei himself. The pronouncements and policies of
the sitting president, his ministers, and members of the majles (parliament)
can also function as purveyors of the acceptable, but more often such guidelines come from the more powerful hard-line or conservative governments,
ministers, or parliamentarians whose views are closer to those of the Supreme
Leader. So, for example, criticism of the Supreme Leader or showing unveiled
Iranian female actors is unthinkable on state television.48 However, both of
these things, and many others that would be unacceptable to the Islamic Republic, regularly occur on expatriate satellite TV channels that are watched
by millions of Iranians inside Iran. This points us to another, parallel, public
sphere in Iran.
Since about 2005, new communication technologies—mainly mobile
phones, satellite television, and the Internet—have provided an alternative to the
approved public sphere, one that is much less susceptible to state control. When
examining the discourses and debates taking place within the Iranian “public
sphere,” it is therefore necessary to define that space to include both the internal,
state-controlled public sphere and the expansion afforded to it by the large expatriate community abroad and the new media technology. While there are no
accurate statistics for Internet and satellite TV use in Iran, the Internet World
Stats research group, which tracks Internet usage worldwide, puts the number
of Internet users in Iran for the year 2015 at 46.8 million, or 57.2% of the population.49 By 2014, Iran had 88 mobile phones per 100 inhabitants of all ages.50 This
affects the perspectives available even to those who do not personally participate
in the Internet and satellite TV mediascape, as interesting occurrences on these
freer channels are sometimes reported in conventional media and often talked
about in the informal channels of talk and gossip, even between perfect strangers. This increasingly widespread access to new media and satellite television
over the last decade has led to the expansion of the space wherein critique can be

THE P OLIT ICS OF MUSIC

17

mounted against religious and political authorities, to a degree that was previously impossible.51
This alternative public sphere is almost like a big national private sphere,
where conversations can take place on a mass level, on mobile phones, satellite
TV programs, and the Internet, and off the state’s approved register. The state
security apparatus understands the significance of this alternative public sphere
and tries to shut down communication channels at times of heightened political crises by disrupting mobile phone networks and satellite TV broadcasts and
cutting off the Internet.
Within this larger, multifaceted public sphere, which encompasses both
state-controlled and uncontrolled spaces and media, music plays a particularly
important role in allowing for a national conversation outside of official parameters. Music is essential to the creation of these alternative discursive spaces, as
well as to the construction and performance of identity among Iranians, young
and old. There are several reasons for this.
For one thing, the Islamic government’s fraught relation to music has imbued this particular art form with greater political significance, so that often
its presence alone, or one’s participation in particular forms of it, can project
certain meanings, indicate a certain attitude, and construct a social or political
position.52 In the first postrevolutionary decade, people were regularly arrested,
fined, and lashed for having music tapes in their cars, as I have mentioned, and
musicians carrying their instruments in public often saw them confiscated or
broken. Hence, one’s very association with or support for music could signal
opposition to the draconian measures of the early Islamic Republic. More specifically, partaking in the discourse of a particular musician by quoting certain
lines from his or her work could and still can readily signal a political association, depending on the context. “Imposing” in one’s taxi the music of a prerevolutionary pop diva, on the one hand, or Qur’anic recitation, on the other, can
signal a particular political and religious alignment, although these ­markers
are of course not necessarily permanent. Identity and subjectivity are fluid and
can take on different forms depending on all sorts of variables, including the
social and political context. A taxi driver who drinks arak at night and listens
to the music of the sexy Los Angeles bombshell Sepideh will do neither of
those things even in the privacy of his own home when a religious relative is
visiting, and is likely to switch the music off in his car if he happens to pick up
a passenger who looks like a diehard regime supporter with the potential to
cause trouble.

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T H E P O L I TI CS OF MUS I C

As the state’s stance toward music—and hence the official musical space—
has evolved over the decades, the meanings of this participation have also
evolved. Whereas some families once considered it haram, forbidden by Islamic
law, to attend any live music concerts or listen to recorded music at all, now
their attendance at a state-approved singer’s concert might signify support for
an evolved official state ideology, while a youngster’s attendance at an underground rock concert signifies more open attitudes that diverge from the officially propagated framework on a whole range of issues.
The very nature of the musical medium is also a main contributing factor to its flexible and multifarious use by cultural producers and secondary producers alike (following de Certeau’s designation of consumers as the
“other” producers, discussed above53). Because of “music’s location between
the real and fictional, serious and sarcastic, musical mediation provides a
wider space for expression than even verbal discourse or behavior.”54 Music
can express a sentiment at a lower risk than could, for instance, explicit verbal
communication.
At the presidential candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi’s largest campaign
event, on 23 May 2009 in Azadi Stadium, “Āftābkārān” (literally “Sun-­
Workers”), a song with communist connotations, was revived: in great part
to project hopefulness, as the song augurs the end of winter. A few seconds
into the song, Maryam, a journalist in her mid-thirties who was seated next
to me, burst into tears. She said, “It tells you that Mousavi is ready to move
beyond old animosities, to put those dark days behind us and work together
for a better Iran.”55 It signaled a sort of “let bygones be bygones,” even towards the Islamists’ archenemies, the communists; and it was something that
no politician could have actually said in so many words, but that music could
communicate subtly.
Furthermore, and this is quite important, among the arts, music is the most
inclusive and salient communal discursive space, because, as already mentioned, it is present in most Iranians’ lives in multiple forms and forums, and
unlike theater or film, can be consumed while other life activities are going
on. Music is also more affordable. For a thousand toman (approximately one
dollar), you can buy a CD containing more than a hundred MP3 tracks from a
street peddler, some of whom function as disc jockeys for the neighborhood or
the entire town and choose and burn the selections themselves.56 Increasingly,
though, people now simply download their music online for free, from sites
such as Radio Javan.

THE P OLIT ICS OF MUSIC

19

As for the political nature of the musical sphere, music concerts allow for a
communal sharing and performativity of critical views and consequently a critical
discursive community that is unavailable elsewhere in the official public sphere.
Walter Benjamin points out (comparing painting and film) that “painting simply is in no position to present an object for simultaneous collective experience”;
more than any other art form in Iran, music does allow that kind of experience.57
Similarly, Walter Ong notes that “sight isolates, sound incorporates. Whereas
sight situates the observer outside what he views, at a distance, sound pours into
the hearer,” allowing for a kind of communion between performers and audiences as well as among audiences in a way that no other art form really does in
this intrinsic, sonic form. Hence, “by contrast with vision, the dissecting sense,
sound is thus a unifying sense.”58 This is not to negate sound’s (and, by extension,
music’s) multisensory dimension, nor its necessarily social construction.59 I am
simply arguing that music, more than any other art form in Iran, is able to allow
for a popular, collective experience. The public concert in contemporary Iran
(along with theatrical performances, though to a lesser extent) is the only type of
event that brings together a self-organized public and allows for the spontaneity
of live action both onstage and within the audience. Gatherings around music
are also potent because they are based on Iran’s long-standing cultural engagement with the embodied sense of sound, rooted in its cultivation of poetry as the
master sonic form. Poetry, meanwhile, finds its strongest form of mass mediation
through music, which is able to magnify its social reach and impact.
What is also important is that musical mediation is possible within the
small spaces over which people have direct control, even within officially overseen public spaces: the small spaces that flow into and expand the alternative
public sphere, such as shops, taxicabs, and even the very personal space that
can be colored through the humming of a controversial tune or lyric. Blaring
the song “Āftābkārān” out one’s car windows in the period after the 2009 elections, for example, a time of great political contention, was a way to create a
very clear political positioning.
Last but not least, while on the one hand we invest music with this great
capacity to relate universal truths, on the other hand, paradoxically, we deny
it the kind of weight or importance that we accord to other forms of political communication, such as political speeches, newspaper editorials, or actual
street demonstrations. Hence, music is somewhat unburdened and, as such,
freer to function in important ways, while because of the attributes discussed
above, it can never be truly controlled by any governing body.

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T H E P O L I TI CS OF MUS I C

P ERSIAN M U SIC

There is material evidence that music has been played in Iran for over five thousand years. The Greek historians Herodotus and Xenophon wrote about both
religious and military uses of music at the time of the Achaemenid Empire, and
Ferdowsi’s Shāhnāmeh (Book of Kings) is replete with references to the musical
preferences of Iranian kings.60 However, there is still too little material for it to
be possible to weave a comprehensive history of music in Iranian lands reaching any further back than about a thousand years.61 Most scholars who have
studied the history of Persian classical music believe that the foundation of this
music, the radif (a series of modal scales and melodies that must be memorized, which I describe in detail below), was only reified as a system about two
hundred years ago, although its components have existed and evolved for centuries, possibly even millennia.62
It will be useful at this point to talk a little bit about the somewhat complicated subject of Persian classical music and its foundation, the radif repertoire, which I will be referring to again at various points in this book. In
Persian, this classical music is usually referred to as musiqi-ye asil-e Irāni
(authentic Iranian music) or musiqi-ye sonnati-ye Irāni (traditional Iranian
music), and in English it is variously called Iranian or Persian classical, traditional, or art music. This tradition is regarded as a quintessential Persian
heritage. In this musical system, there are twelve principal modal categories,
which are divided into seven dastgāhs (loosely, “modes”) and five āvāzes
(loosely, “lesser modes”), not to be confused with “āvāz” in its definition as
free-metered vocals within Persian classical music, about which I write in
chapter 2. The dastgāhs are more complete and complex musical modes and
contain a greater number of gushehs (melodic units). Strictly speaking, however, the European term “musical mode” does not adequately capture the term
dastgāh, as each dastgāh also exhibits a certain melodic character. So, for example, the shur dastgāh—which is the basis of many folk songs—is characterized by burning and yearning for the beloved, while the chāhārgāh—which is
used for the musical accompaniment of the heroic epic Shahnameh (Book of
Kings)—has qualities of heroism and grandeur.63 Furthermore, each dastgāh
is actually a collection of several modes but gains its name from the mode in
which it begins, a mode that is repeated as a theme throughout. The radif repertoire includes the totality of all the gushehs, categorized as they are within
the tonal spaces of the various dastgāhs and āvāzes. Depending on the source

THE P OLIT ICS OF MUSIC

21

of the notation of the radif, there may be as many as eight hundred gushehs.
The most canonical repertoire is one recorded by Mirza Abdollah Farahani
(1843–1918), which contains two hundred and fifty gushehs. Each gusheh can
belong to one or more dastgāhs and play roles of varying importance. I should
also note that Persian music contains a quarter tone, a pitch halfway between
the semitones in the usual twelve notes of a chromatic scale. Memorization
and improvisation are such integral parts of Persian music that until Mirza
Abdollah recorded his encyclopedic knowledge of the radif, no such written
notation existed. And to this day, different sources still give varying accounts
of the number of gushehs—and even dastgāhs—depending on the definitions they use. For that matter, the radif has never been static and its gushehs,
dastgāhs, and āvāzes have been continually transformed through the myriad
interpretations of its practitioners.
The best record of the state of Iranian music in the first half of the twentieth century was compiled by Ruhollah Khaleqi, himself a musician and music
educator. Khaleqi’s work offers a unique and indispensable musicological and
sociopolitical account of Iranian music from the constitutional period onward,
with profiles of musicians, stories about concerts, texts of songs, and his own
insider perspective on the significance of it all.64 There is little else that was
written about music during this period. But based on the available writings, we
know that the great jolt to Persian music—leading to the many divisions and
schisms over its value and place in Iranian culture and education that continue
to this day—happened in the nineteen-twenties, early on in Reza Pahlavi’s
reign. In his great zeal to modernize Iran, the newly minted Pahlavi king devalued Persian music as unscientific and invited European educators to Iran to
teach his people Western music. Reza Pahlavi’s regime actively promoted the
sorud—a marchlike anthem genre informed by Western military music that
is also a favorite genre of the Islamic Republic’s—over the homegrown tasnif,
a lighter, more rhythmic genre that had often been used for songs of freedom
since the Constitutional Revolution of 1905–1911.65 While the sorud filled the
official national soundscape, other more popular, grassroots musical forms,
such as ruhowzi (social theater often performed in house courtyards, offering
a comical commentary on daily life) and pish-pardeh-khāni (adopted from the
French “avant-scène,” literally “before-scene performance,” short pieces, often
politically infused, inserted between the acts of a play but thematically independent of the play), occupied alternative, semipublic places in the absence of
the tasnif.

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MUSIC AL E D U C AT IO N

During the Islamic Golden Age (generally regarded to be the period from the
beginning of the Abbasid caliphate in 750 until the Mongols’ siege of Baghdad
in 1258), the great Persian scholars considered music as a field of knowledge,
ranked among the theoretical and empirical sciences. Scholars such as Ghazali,
Farabi, Avicenna, Eshshaq Movaseli, and Safi al-Din Armuyi wrote treatises on
music and taught music to their pupils, just as they taught them other sciences
such as medicine and philosophy. For the renowned Iranian musician Hossein
Alizadeh, this was the first of five phases of the history of musical education
in Iran.66
Over the course of the next phase, during the Safavid Dynasty (1501–1722),
music lost its grand status. The Safavids institutionalized Shi’ism as the land’s
religion, and music was repressed to such an extent that many musicians emigrated to neighboring countries. Those who remained practiced in secrecy.
Officially, music and the other arts were promoted only within a religious
framework.
During the Qajar dynasty (1789–1925), royal courts started supporting
music once again, and this trickled down to an increased practice of music
in society at large. Alizadeh calls this the period of practical reconstruction,
in which teachers emphasized practical training. Music continued to be at the
service of religious, literary, and dramatic expression, and the Arabic maqām
repertoire was slowly replaced by the Persian radif, which was compiled by
Mirza Abdollah, as we have already seen, and taught orally. The teacher played
an all-important role in this phase; learning took place by imitation.
But in 1868, a Frenchman by the name of Alfred Jean-Baptiste Lemaire
came to Iran and established the “State Music School” as a branch of the Dār
al-Fonun—Iran’s first European-style polytechnic school, founded in 1849—to
train state bands to accompany royal occasions.67 On his first visit to Europe
in 1873—in fact the first European visit of any Iranian monarch—the Iranian
king Naser al-Din Shah Qajar became so impressed with the ceremonial march
music he heard there that he asked the French government to send more experts to teach this military music to Iranian soldiers. This is when the words
muzik, muzikchi and muzikānchi first came into use.68 Lemaire composed Iran’s
first national anthem in 1873 and formed its first royal orchestra and several
Western-style marching music bands. Following his death, one of his best students established the Music School in 1918, where uniformed military students

THE P OLIT ICS OF MUSIC

23

could train to play in marching bands for official occasions, while civilian students studied Western classical music.69
The next phase, the modern period, spanned the Pahlavi dynasty (1925–
1979), when Iran was dominated by Western culture. The belief in Western supremacy was so absolute in some circles that people even debated eliminating
the quarter tone from Iranian music. In 1923, Ali-Naqi Vaziri, a military man
whose dexterity on the tār was legendary and who had just returned from five
years of musical education in France and Germany, opened the Music Academy, which was a counterpart to the Music School. He also started a musical
club, a “klāb musikāl,” where an orchestra comprised of students and Vaziri
himself performed a weekly program for members of the all-male club.70 In
his school, however, Vaziri received unprecedented official permission to run
two classes for young girls, which his own daughter Badri attended.71 About
one hundred students formed the inaugural class, studying both Western and
Iranian music and instruments. Unlike the Music School, which neglected
Persian music in favor of Western music, Vaziri’s Music Academy was dedicated to promoting Persian music, but via “scientific” methods. This basically
meant using Western-style notation and a teaching method far removed from
the Iranian one-on-one master-apprentice model, which relied on memorization and improvisation. Fifteen years earlier, Vaziri had spent eighteen months
with Mirza Abdollah as well as some of his students and notated the seven
dastgāh (the principal musical modalities described above) of classical Persian
music, which had not existed on paper until that point.72 In an unprecedented
move, Vaziri taught his students the dastgāh by teaching them to read written
music, rather than through imitation. Out of Vaziri’s school was born a genre
of music called musiqi-ye melli (national music), which still thrives today. It is
Iranian music performed with Western instruments and regimented in a way
that classical Persian music is not. Iran’s alternate (unofficial) national anthem,
“Ey Iran” (O Iran), is an example of this. Vaziri’s school produced some of the
most important musicians of its time, including Ruhollah Khaleqi himself, the
composer Javad Ma‘rufi, the songwriter and composer Hossein Gol-Golab, and
the violin virtuoso Abolhasan Saba. Due to disagreements between the founders of the different schools about the value of Persian music, the schools were
eventually completely divided: by 1948, the Music School—by then renamed
the Higher Academy for Music—was only teaching Western music, and the
Academy of National Music, the successor to Vaziri’s Music Academy, established in 1949, taught only Persian music.

24

T H E P O L I TI CS OF MUS I C

Both academies continued their activities until 1978, when the revolution disrupted schools across the country. While these were the most important institutions for official musical education in Iran, there were also a series
of other, smaller private schools that blossomed in the middle decades of
­twentieth-century Iran; music was coming out of the proverbial closet and into
the open in an increasingly modern Iran, where the state protected and promoted such ventures.73 After its foundation in 1934, Tehran University, Iran’s
oldest modern institution of higher education, also added a faculty of fine arts
in 1941; music theory and composition were taught in a more systematic fashion as of 1965. It was also during these years that the younger Pahlavi, Mohammad Reza Shah, took some steps toward the preservation of Iranian music by
establishing the Foundation for the Protection and Promotion of Music (which
still exists today), centers for the documentation of ancient artifacts, and festivals for the display of Persian classical music (most notably the Shiraz Festival).
With the revolution of 1979, all music schools and departments were shut
down. Many musicians with whom I have talked believe that the government’s
repression of music in this period actually led to a wider circulation of music
in society. Ten years after the revolution, musical education was able to begin
again legally. For decades prior to the revolution, music had been taught exclusively according to Western models in official settings, which meant that explicitly and implicitly, Western music was accorded greater value, while indigenous
forms and methods were for the most part ignored. In response to this Westernization, A
­ lizadeh believes, a form of extreme traditionalism emerged that
reacted strongly against any creativity or novelty in classical Persian music,
which has contributed to a sort of stagnation, decried by both musicians and
critics, that has caused great chagrin to some Persian classical musicians. Many
of the music students and teachers that I have talked to over the years have
complained about the lack of a clear foundation or mission for musical education in Iran today and blamed it on the ambivalence of the music community
of the preceding decades toward the value of Persian music.
Throughout the nineteen-eighties, a few music classes were held in secret,
mostly in Tehran. But following a fatwa by Imam Khomeini in 1988, the gates to
music opened up more publicly and the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance (commonly called Ershād) even set up classes itself, through its cultural
centers and branches in the provinces. Tehran University’s College of Performing Arts and Music began taking students again in late 1988. At the time of
the revolution, five arts colleges and academies, including the two abovemen-

THE P OLIT ICS OF MUSIC

25

tioned music academies with their respective Western and Iranian emphases,
had been united under the umbrella of a University of the Arts, but while other
faculties at this university started accepting students in 1983, its music college
only reopened in 1994. In 1989, Tehran’s Azad University established an Arts
and Architecture College, where music is also taught. The universities of Karaj,
Gilan, and, more recently, Shiraz offer music degrees as well. Other colleges
and centers where music is taught include the Sureh University, a subsidiary
of the Islamic Development Organization’s Arts Domain, Howzeh-ye honari.
There are many opportunities for the young to pursue studies in music in Iran
today, though the prospects for professional and economic success are rather
grim. This situation is compounded by the uncertain status of music, which
came to light again in 2010 when the Supreme Leader stated that while music
was not haram per se, the promotion of music and musical education were not
compatible with the highest values of the Islamic Republic.74
T HE PO L IT IC S O F M U SIC IN IR AN

This book presents a sort of soundtrack for Iran’s tumultuous postrevolutionary decades. I trace the evolution of music and music policy in Iran through
four periods, highlighting one genre of music within each period and, within
each genre, one musician—a giant of Persian classical music, a government-­
supported pop star, a rebel rock and roller, and an underground rapper—each
with markedly different political views and relations with the state. The chapters
are organized in pairs, with the first providing the necessary historical, political,
and social context in each case, and the second delving deeper into a discussion
of the music and, in particular, of the work of the highlighted musician.
Chapters 2 and 3 offer insight into the status of music before and in the
immediate years after the revolution and then go on to highlight the life and
work of Iran’s preeminent vocalist of Persian classical music, Mohammad Reza
Shajarian, a highly revered and sometimes polarizing figure whose career has
spanned the reign of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi and the entirety of the
Islamic Republic so far. Islamic Republic officials have often admitted that
­Shajarian’s work “aided the aims of the revolution,” and his vocalization of a
Ramadan prayer was until 2009 the official overture on all state media to the
broadcast for the breaking of the fast, but he has since been recategorized by
conservative state mouthpieces, from a “treasure” of the revolution to a “traitor.”
Shajarian claims that throughout his long career, he has attempted to remain

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T H E P O L I TI CS OF MUS I C

outside of politics by following a path that he calls “mardomi ”—which translates as “popular” but has historical connotations of “democratic” in Iran—all
the while producing some of the most “political” songs of the past decades.
Shajarian has arrived at his art by undergoing the traditional process of the
“heart-to-heart” apprenticeship, and he utilizes Persian poetry in a socially
and politically active capacity. The tradition of using a typical trope of Persian
literature—“gol o bolbol ” (the rose and the nightingale)—to signify loss and
mourning, not for the lover but for a political struggle, is rooted in Iran’s Constitutional Revolution, when it represented a turn in the use of Persian poetry
and song. Shajarian creates a language that links itself to this freedom-seeking
repertoire of a century ago, when music was first used as a medium of protest.
It was also during the Constitutional Revolution, in early-twentieth-century
Iran, that the musical concert crystallized as an important venue where, according to music historian Khaleqi, those who attended came to share a “hidden secret.” Persian classical music retained its subversive cachet throughout
Iran’s prerevolutionary period of the nineteen-sixties and nineteen-seventies,
when this music was set up by supporters as the “authentic” counterpart to the
“Westoxified” music of the so-called cabarets, where pop music often reigned
and the Iranians who mingled there looked no different from Parisians or Londoners. This cabaret scene was regarded as the epitome of Iran’s Westernization
and was one of the revolution’s very first casualties, with the cabarets being shut
down and vandalized.75 Many of the creators of pop music then moved to Los
Angeles, where they established an elaborate and professional expatriate music
scene with studios, concert halls, and satellite television channels that eventually broadcast their music back into Iran. (Los Angeles has such a large Iranian
population that Iranians call it Tehrangeles.)
In Iran itself, it seemed as though pop music had been eliminated for good.
But restrictions eased up eventually, and chapters 4 and 5 narrate the process
through which a few officials within state television, in the mid-nineteennineties, opened the floodgates to pop music for the first time in nearly twenty
years. Secure in their revolutionary credentials, these officials yielded to the enthusiasm of several young musicians who had been pushing for the inclusion of
pop music, deciding to support them in order to stem the unidirectional flow
of expatriate Iranian pop music from Los Angeles into Iran. These chapters,
based on interviews with Islamic Republic officials at the heart of policy making, examine this process and highlight some of the most popular music of that
time, with a focus on the work of Alireza Assar.

THE P OLIT ICS OF MUSIC

27

Interestingly, most of the first-generation postrevolutionary pop singers were clean-shaven, wore jeans, and imitated famous Iranian voices from
Los Angeles (called los anjelesi).76 The heavily bearded Assar, however, had a
unique style and sang in a somber manner about heavenly love and heroism,
drawing on Shi’ite themes that resonated with a public that had only recently
been through the traumatizing experience of the Iran-Iraq war. While the conventional wisdom has been that the popularity of religious pop music such as
Assar’s is a result of government backing, this independent, trendy religiosity
actually competed with the state’s promotion of dogmatic religiosity and offered an attractive alternative for postwar youth.77
The turn of the millennium was an important juncture for politics and
music in postrevolutionary Iran, a period that I describe in chapters 6 and 7.
Nearly two decades after the revolution, President Mohammad Khatami’s reformist government eased restrictions on the public sphere and allowed for
openings in the intellectual, artistic, and physical realms. Simultaneously, the
Internet was spreading in Iran. This opening allowed the first wave of alternative and rock musicians in Islamic Iran to surface. What many consider to be
the first underground rock concert in postrevolutionary Iran, a concert by the
band O-Hum at Tehran’s Russian Orthodox Church, took place in 2001, and
this is also the period in which the alternative music scene’s enfant terrible,
Mohsen Namjoo, was developing his unique style of music in Mashhad. Before
the advent of Namjoo’s iconoclastic attitude and music, it was unthinkable that
a musician would be able to ridicule the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, in the most offensive terms, and even deny the existence of God. Namjoo’s
absurdist nihilism resonated with many members of his generation who had
come of age during some of the Islamic Republic’s strictest years and rejected
everything religious or ideological. But his gripe is not just with the state; he
has also broken the mold of the permissible within Persian classical music by
combining it with rock and other genres and, what is for some the most sacrilegious, fusing doglike howls with lines from Rumi.
New media fundamentally transformed the framework for the production, distribution, and consumption of music in Iran. With music software
and home studios at everyone’s fingertips, musicians no longer needed permits from the state, allowing for unprecedented freedom in lyrics and musical
styles. Chapters 8 and 9 discuss the turn in music due to new media, the muchhyped phenomenon of underground music that it facilitated, and the highly
popular genre of Rap-e Farsi—Persian rap. Hichkas, the so-called godfather

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T H E P O L I TI CS OF MUS I C

of Persian rap, whose work I look at closely here, came of age about ten years
after Namjoo. In his formative years, he did not experience the worst of the
repression, the way the generation before him did. More importantly, he grew
up in a post-9/11 world, in which his identity as an Iranian was denigrated in
the global media and his existence placed directly under the threat of military
attack from the United States. Hichkas’s work is particularly attractive to young
Iranian men because it offers an alternative approach to the old Iranian ethic
in which honor is paramount. Hichkas places the responsibility for protecting
that honor on Iran’s youth, assigning them the role of upholding Iran’s flag and
even manning its army, both core elements of modern nationalism.78
The political unrest following the 2009 presidential elections—commonly
called the Green Movement or Uprising—involved the greatest political and
social upheaval in Iran since the 1979 revolution and represented a pivotal moment for the musicians I showcase here. Each of the four artists utilizes a particular discursive strand anchored within Iranian culture and society to lend
relevance to his work and find resonance with his audience. In drawing out
some of the ways in which each artist deals with the state, I show how they
all face restrictions on their creativity as well as the communication of their
messages, and how each of them adopts a unique strategy in order to function within the given parameters while still retaining and projecting a sense
of authenticity and integrity. As all of the artists put it to me, in slightly different ways, “lying is the death of the artist.” The momentous events following
the 2009 elections forced all but one of these artists to take clear positions,
jeopardizing their artistic futures within the Islamic Republic yet securing their
credibility with their audiences.79 Throughout the upheavals, musicians and
consumers revived old political songs to highlight the Green Movement’s connection to previous political struggles and created new songs to fit the spirit of
the new movement.
LINES IN T H E SAN D

As will become apparent over the course of this book, many of the red lines
drawn by the Islamic Republic on the subject of music have shifted over time, as
the once-revolutionary state evolves in response to internal and external developments, such as the youth bulge or advancing media technologies. Thus, it has
lifted the unwritten bans on musical education, the import and sale of musical
instruments, and even, eventually, pop music. However, while a faint tendency

THE P OLIT ICS OF MUSIC

29

towards liberalization in cultural policy can be seen over the now nearly-fortyyear arc of the Islamic Republic, many of the shifts in policy and occasional
transgressions of the boundaries actually appear rather erratic, caused by temporary fluctuations in the political climate, infighting among cultural bodies
with counterintuitive results, or some individual in charge somewhere deciding
to take matters into his own hands. So, for example, the Khatami era (1997–
2005) initially allowed for a cultural openness that has not been witnessed
since; one of the first postrevolutionary pop stars was allowed to publish an
album in 1999 that contained songs using the illicit 6/8 beat (as I will explain,
this is traditionally a dance-inducing rhythm within Iranian ­music) before he
was banned from appearing on state media and emigrated to Los Angeles; the
cultural arm of the conservative Islamic Development Organization (Howzehye honari) published an album in 2007 that the otherwise more liberal Ministry
of Culture rejected; and every now and then—though very rarely—state television has aired programs in which musical instruments can be seen.
Still, despite such anomalies, one could argue that the only prohibitions that
have remained fairly constant are the ones applied to the female solo voice; the
exhibition of musical instruments on state television (except for the marching band during the Sacred Defense Week commemorating the Iran-Iraq war
of 1980–1988); extensive use of the 6/8 beat; and, of course, political criticism
of or insult to Islam, the Islamic Republic, or its officials. Some of these uncrossable red lines, such as political criticism or insulting the Supreme Leader,
are self-evident. No musician would dream of submitting an album with such
content to the Ministry of Culture (Ershād) for review. But when I first started
researching music in Iran, it was a question for me as to how people in charge
knew what was permitted and what was not. After all, there seemed to be no
booklet with guidelines, let alone any laws that spelled out the boundaries. In
my conversations with officials working in state television and radio, as well
as governmental organizations regulating cultural production, every now and
then I would hear phrases like, “oh yes, there was a directive on the ban on 6/8,
but it’s somewhere in my files, I’ll try to find it for you,” and of course, I would
never see any such piece of paper.
Slowly, I came to understand that specific policy was set in a fairly organic,
and mostly unwritten way. For example, the Supreme Leader would give a
talk to a small circle about some aspect of music, or the Supreme Council for
Cultural Revolution would have a meeting (whose minutes are not public)
on music. The heads of state broadcasting and other cultural arms would be

30

T H E P O L I TI CS OF MUS I C

present, or they would be informed later about the content of these meetings.
Subsequently, those directors would hold meetings with their managers and
relay the substance of these talks, or at least the points that mattered as far as
practice was concerned. Sometimes these directors would also issue directives
to their managers, though in my conversations I found no one who had compiled these directives into organized volumes of any sort. They all appeared
to be hidden in piles of paper somewhere. (In 2011, for the first time, I heard
of an actual manual, which had been distributed within state television and
radio with a series of dos and don’ts that managers could refer to. I managed to
acquire a copy of this manual, which I discuss in more detail in chapter 4. The
rules do not clear up all of the ambiguities and gray areas that existed before,
but they do present a basis for practice, black on white, for what seems to be
the very first time.80)
Probably the greatest rupture in Iranian music following the revolution was
caused by the new religious state’s ban on the female voice, one of the most
stringently applied prohibitions over the last decades. This imposed silence is
beautifully captured in Newsha Tavakolian’s photographic series called “Listen,” where she features close-ups of six professional female singers against
sparkly set designs, with their eyes closed, drowning in the passion of singing.
But of course, we don’t hear their voices because they have been banned. One
of those photographs, picturing the singer Maral Afsharian, is on the cover of
this book.81 In the opening of her exhibition, Tavakolian accompanied her photographs with fictional album covers and empty CD shells for each singer. This
silence is also palpable throughout the present book, featuring as it does musicians whose work was produced inside Iran and was able to create a national
conversation on social and political matters within the internal musical public
sphere. The ban on the solo female voice in postrevolutionary Iran meant that
women singers were unable to release songs that could have brought about the
kinds of conversations and publics that I examine here.
F EMAL E SIN G E R S

Those who are familiar with the cultural history of Iran know that some of
the country’s all-time most popular singers have been female, beginning with
Qamar-ol-Moluk Vazirizadeh (known simply as Qamar), whose groundbreaking performance at the Tehran Grand Hotel in 1924 marked an unprecedented
feminist gesture. Qamar appeared unveiled in front of a mixed-gender audi-

THE P OLIT ICS OF MUSIC

31

ence and began her concert with a song composed to the famous anti-veiling
poem by Iraj Mirza:
Her radiance melts the heart right through her mask
If she had none, God’s help we’d have to ask.82

A few decades later, the cabaret performer and singer Mahvash was so popular
that when she died in a car crash at the age of forty, in 1961, her funeral processions were reportedly the largest Tehran had ever seen. Many of the greatest singers of prerevolutionary Iran were women, including Delkash, Marzieh,
Susan, Parisa, Hayedeh, Mahasti, and Homeyra, not to mention Googoosh,
Iran’s most prolific and famous pop star of all times.83 Googoosh (born Fa’eqeh
Atashin) remained in Iran after the revolution and kept silent for twenty years.
In 1999, she managed to leave the country, gave concerts the world over, joined
the expatriate Iranian music scene in North America, and restarted her career.
Hers was an astonishing—and astonishingly strong—rebirth.84 Her Googoosh
Music Academy—a musical talent television show launched in 2010 that ran
for three seasons—provided a platform for young musicians to present their
work outside of the restrictions of the Islamic Republic. Importantly, her show
became a venue for female singers (many of them recent emigrées from Iran)
to air their voices to thousands of viewers—inside and outside of Iran—who
watched the program on the Persian expatriate satellite channel Manoto.
However, while expatriate female singers like the ones mentioned above
maintained their popularity with fans inside Iran, and younger singers like the
classical singer Shakila and the Shakira-esque pop singer Sepideh joined their
ranks in Los Angeles, their music was not produced from within the social
and political contexts that prevailed inside Iran. As for female musicians inside Iran, the two female members of the important Chavosh group (a group I
discuss in detail in chapter 3), Hengameh Akhavan and Sima Bina, were prohibited soon after the revolution from collaborating with the collective. Bina,
a highly accomplished Persian classical musician, pursued her passion for Iranian folk music and is today perhaps the leading expert on and performer of
Iranian folk music, though her solo concerts to mixed audiences only take place
abroad. Other prominent singers like Simin Ghanem, Pari Zanganeh, and Pari
Maleki, who stayed in Iran, eventually started giving occasional concerts to allfemale audiences two decades after the revolution. Still other musicians, such
as the composer and folk singer Maliheh Saeedi, have succeeded in publishing albums in postrevolutionary Iran by employing the multi-vocal method,

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T H E P O L I TI CS OF MUS I C

in collaboration with other female singers. Some younger vocalists, like Mahsa
Vadat, who live in Iran and have created a following through private concerts,
unofficial CDs, and concerts abroad, still refuse to perform to all-female audiences on principle, however. Within the official pop genre, the highly popular
band Arian drew attention in the first decade of the millennium for incorporating female vocalists, the sister duo consisting of Sahar and Sanaz Kashmari.
The government organizes an all-female music festival every year, the Jasmine
festival, where female musicians perform for all-female audiences.85 I have seen
several performances at Jasmine festivals over the years, including, in 2008, the
band Orkideh, which has been the most visible attempt at nurturing a selfsufficient all-female band, including instrumentalists and vocalists. However,
while the band members’ skills may have improved in the years since then, at
that time, their lack of exposure and competition, given the prohibitions they
were subject to, was reflected in the low quality of their music. I should add that
solo female vocalists are not just prohibited from performing to mixed-gender
audiences, they are also entirely prohibited from selling records.
The lasting impact of this government-imposed silence became evident
when young musicians started contributing to the burgeoning of an underground music scene that was not dependent on government approval. Underground musicians were for the most part unbound by government policies,
as they distributed their music in unofficial networks and, later, online and
performed, if at all, in the unregulated underground. And yet, as this music
scene slowly developed, and even a decade or so later, when underground hiphop music attracted a vast following in Iran, there emerged no vastly popular female vocalists who matched groups or singers like O-Hum, Namjoo, or
Hichkas in significance. In fact, female performers were few and far between.
The absence of the female voice in the public realm for the entirety of these
young women’s lives, as well as the higher social and political risks involved for
women in this field, may go a long way towards explaining the dearth of female
musicians even in the underground scene.
The first female rock band to have a real following—not to mention sophisticated reggae-rock-pop crossover music and, often, sociopolitically critical l­yrics—is the Iranian-born Swedish sister duo Abjeez, who grew up and
formed their band outside of Iran. And there are many other Iranian female
musicians abroad who have built successful careers outside of Tehrangeles as
solo singers in Persian—such as Rana Farhan, Sara Naini, Eendo, and 25band,
to name just a few—but the focus of this book is specifically musicians who

THE P OLIT ICS OF MUSIC

33

have developed their music in Iran. Within the rap genre, Salome MC, Iran’s
first female rapper, was also for a very long time Iran’s only female rapper of
note, though there are now a few others.86 Around the year 2000, tracks sung
by the underground musician DJ Maryam in the style of prerevolutionary pop,
but with an electro twist, were often played at parties and have found interest
among young and old. Otherwise, in the underground music scene, there is
a very limited number of female acts with any renown; in 2010, a singer by
the name of Mehrnoosh became famous with her sweet, mellow pop song
“Cheshmāt” (Your Eyes), which was broadcast many times a day on expatriate
radio and television channels, with a colorful video that is clearly produced
abroad. However, few know that the song (and in fact the whole album) was
arranged and produced in Iran, which would make her one of the few widely
known female “underground” singers, except that she resides in the US. Two
other newish “underground” singers are Melanie and Madmazel, whose soulful songs and artful videos are produced inside Iran and broadcast on satellite
channels. But it would be amiss to say that they were widely known.
However, over the years since the revolution, many girls have taken up
the study of music and musical instruments—mainly in the Persian classical genre—and they have now started to appear more frequently in musical
performances. For the most part, female vocalists like the ones portrayed in
­Tavakolian’s series “Listen” have had to make a living appearing as background
singers (usually to male singers), as part of large ensemble choirs, dubbing children’s voices for television and film, or lending their voices to commercials. The
only semi-public mixed-gender occasions at which some female singers have
been able to perform solo are probably events at foreign embassies in Tehran,
where the rules of the Islamic Republic do not apply.
Much more recently, on very rare occasions, one has even been able to hear
short passages by female solo vocalists at mixed-sex concerts in Iran. One musician who has taken it upon himself to promote women is the composer and
tār player Majid Derakhshani, a member of the Chavosh collective and a collaborator of Mohammad Reza Shajarian’s. Derakhshani formed the almost-allfemale Khorshid ensemble, as well as the Māh ensemble with its female vocal
soloist, and it was in a performance by Māh that the female singer Mahdiyeh
Mohammadkhani sang solo at a concert in October 2014 in Tehran’s Tālār-e
Vahdat (Unity Hall), an unprecedented act in the history of the Islamic Republic.87 However, by the spring of 2015 there seemed to be a backlash against
female musicians, even instrumentalists, with repeated instances of women

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T H E P O L I TI CS OF MUS I C

being asked to leave the stage by security forces. But today there is a large and
formidable cadre of well-trained young female vocalists and instrumentalists
in Iran, a fact that the Islamic Republic’s policy makers will have to face sooner
than later.
T HE SO U N D T R AC K O F T H E R E VO L U T I O N

My work is informed by research spanning a period of five years in Tehran.
Prior to and overlapping with this period, I worked as a journalist for American, German, and Qatari print publications and television networks, which
also involved my spending periods of several months at a time in Iran. This
enabled me to undertake extensive participant observation, attending music
practice sessions, talks and lectures on music, and concerts and music festivals,
as well as participating in insider conversations in various contexts. However,
the central pillar of my methodology has been interviews, with the main artists
discussed in my work as well as with other knowledgeable sources in the field
of music. I met and interviewed each of the four principal artists treated in this
study several times, often in different countries, and placed the information
and knowledge they generously shared with me within the context of my other
interviews as well as of my research in Persian- and English-language primary
and secondary sources. I was able to meet and talk about music with a wide
range of people active in the field, from masters of Persian classical music to
popular artists in pop, rock, and rap, and from government officials working
for conservative state radio and television in various capacities to independent
producers, songwriters, instrumentalists, and journalists. My research also involved interviews with other concert attendees, close listening to audio and
video recordings, and a great deal of research online on Persian music sites and
YouTube.
Most of my interviews were semi-structured, which meant that I had prepared certain topics of conversation and questions, but allowed the interviews
to be led in directions determined by the material that was produced as the interviews proceeded. I often found that interviewees in official positions, in particular, warmed up over the course of our interviews, providing better insights
into their work and experience the longer we talked. I often had to corroborate
information given to me by one interviewee with other sources, and I often remained unable to weave one definitive narrative about a given topic. Due to the
various sensitivities regarding music in Iran, where a person’s job can depend

THE P OLIT ICS OF MUSIC

35

on one’s religious or political position on any topic, it was sometimes hard to
ascertain the real position of an interviewee on a given topic. Where necessary,
the book reflects these ambiguities.
The most difficult aspect of my interview-based research over the past years
has been keeping a critical distance to subjects whose work I admire and being
able to place their generously offered insights into the context of my other research. The breadth of material that resulted from my participant observations,
interviews, and eyewitness research was too vast to fit into any book, but has
fully informed what I present here.

CHAP T ER T WO

THE NIGHTINGALE REBELS

T H E E N D O F A L M O S T E V E RY Mohammad Reza Shajarian concert unfolds similarly, in what by now has become a ritual: Shajarian intones
the last notes of his performance, often in a crescendo, and finishes the show
to ecstatic applause. But then, whether in Tehran, London, or New York, the
imploring audience soon calls out for him to sing an encore, and always the
same one: the song “Bird of Dawn” (Morgh-e sahar). With his right hand on
his heart, the iconic septuagenarian bows down and, without much hesitation,
indulges the audience’s request. As he sings in his familiar plaintive tenor, he
embodies the pained bird, dramatizing in music and verse the epic struggle
of a people. Set to classical Persian music in the upbeat māhur scale, “Bird of
Dawn” is a song that urges the bird to summon its powers and, as it progresses
with its swinging rhythm and rolling crescendo, urges the bird to build up the
resolve to break free from its cage and fill the air with tunes of freedom:

Bird of dawn, start your lament, relight my anguish
Break this cage with your scintillating sighs and turn it upside down
Wing-tied nightingale, emerge from the corner of the cage
Compose the song of freedom for humankind
And with your breath fill the arena of this people’s land with sparks
The cruelty of the oppressor, the callousness of the hunter, have destroyed
my nest

An enraptured audience eagerly joins in on the lyrics that call on the powers of

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T H E NI G HTI NGA LE REBELS

the universe to bring about the metaphorical dawn, expressing their desire for
freedom from tyranny. And on the prayerlike refrain, the audience members
raise their voices:
Oh God, oh Heavens, oh Nature, turn our dark night into morning again!

Shajarian first performed “Bird of Dawn” publicly on his 1990 United States
concert tour, in commemoration of the song’s main composer, Morteza NeyDavud, who had just passed away.1 The timing was hardly accidental. Iran was
very slowly emerging from the devastating Iran-Iraq war, which had ended in
1988 after nearly eight years, making it the twentieth century’s longest conventional war. Bolstered internally, as governments tend to be by war, the Islamic
Republic had consolidated its grip on power in the nineteen-eighties, ruling
through a politically and socially repressive culture of death and martyrdom.
Shajarian’s “Bird of Dawn” quickly became a celebrated, if subdued, protest
song, so much so that his early concerts became one of the very rare public settings in which, by joining in with this song, people could express their
protest against the prevailing conditions. This was of great significance in the
pre-Internet and pre-satellite-TV era, when no other forms of communal antigovernment communication could take place without grave repercussions.
The poem “Bird of Dawn” dates from the nineteen-twenties, when the poet-­
educator-politician Malek o-Sho‘ara Bahar2 wrote it in apparent criticism of the
newly crowned Reza Shah’s increasingly authoritarian rule. The exact year of
the poem’s creation is not known, but it first appeared in print in the magazine
“Nāhid” in 1927, without attribution.3 In the many decades since then, artists as
varying in style as the pioneering female vocalist Qamar and the prerevolutionary folk-rock singer Farhad Mehrad have performed their own renditions of
this song, attesting to its continuing appeal.4
In his own words, Shajarian reached for this particular song because he
knew it would resonate with his audience:
“Morgh-e sahar” is a very social-political tasnif [rhythmic song] . . . and I
felt that I should sing it again in a way that creates a lot of attention, [so I]
waited for a moment in which the conditions in society required it. . . .
People like to hear these words from their artists and so I sang it and everywhere that we’ve had a concert they always ask for “Morgh-e sahar.” I still
always tell my group to prepare “Morgh-e sahar” because it’s a rallying cry, a
form of protest that must be repeated over and over again, which says, “we
still have this protest, we still feel the same way.”5

THE NIGHT INGALE REBELS 

39

By choosing to revive this particular song, Shajarian was plugging into a nearlycentury-old freedom discourse, encapsulated in the lyrics of the song. In every
one of the Shajarian concerts that I have attended—New York in 2002; London
in 2005, 2008, and 2011; Tehran in 2007; and Beiteddine (near Beirut) in 2010—
the ending scene described above has been played out. Usually the audience is
largely of Iranian origin, though outside of Iran there are also a good number
of non-Iranians at Shajarian’s concerts. He is, after all, Iran’s preeminent vocalist of Persian classical music and has performed on the international stage since
1987. The Iranian crowds in his audiences—both inside and outside of Iran—
tend to be from diverse social and economic backgrounds. When Shajarian
went on a world tour following Iran’s contested 2009 elections and the ensuing uprisings, Iranian audiences accompanied his singing of “Bird of Dawn”
by flashing V for victory signs and shouting Marg bar diktātor, “Death to the
dictator,” making the song’s implicit message explicit.
Mohammad Reza Shajarian came of age in the nineteen-fifties and was
trained by celebrated old-school teachers