Absence: A survey of music from Iran by Tony Mitchell


The Tehran underground music scene – which means everybody who hasn’t got a government permit to play music, a process which can take years – is featured in semi-fictional form in Bahman Ghobadi’s film No One Knows about Persian Cats, a title which alludes to a government edict banning cats and dogs in public. Kurdish-Iranian Ghobadi’s film was banned in Iran, but managed to do the rounds of foreign film festivals and even got shown on Australian television. Ghobadi hasn’t yet suffered the fate of his compatriot Jafar Panahi, who was banned from making films for 20 years, but he did get into a stoush with his former mentor Abbas Kiarastami, whose assistant director he used to be, who criticised the film for ‘lying’. Panahi continues to make clandestine films such as This Is Not a Film (2011), which was smuggled to Cannes on a USB stick hidden in a cake, and Taxi (2015), which also did the rounds of film festivals, winning the Golden Bear at last year’s Berlin film festival. The Sydney, Brisbane and Adelaide film festivals held retrospective tributes to Panahi in 2011, and have continued to screen his clandestine films.

Ghobadi’s first feature film was the highly successful A Time for Drunken Horses (2000), the first Kurdish film produced in Iran, which won the Caméra d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. His 2006 film Half Moon narrates the story of a group of Iranian Kurdish musicians trying to travel to Iraqi Kurdistan to organize a concert there, and No One Knows about Persian Cats follows on from this in tracing the hardships facing young Iranian indie musicians seeking to evade censorship. Ghobadi appears in the film, making music while waiting for a permit for his next film, and the couple in the film, Negar and Ashkan, dream of escaping to the UK, which they eventually did in real life, and also talk about wanting to go to Iceland to see Sigur Rós play. In the process, they and their sometime manager Nader take us on a tour of Tehran’s musical underground, mostly in living rooms, lounges and tiny clubs, ranging from metalheads on a farm to street rappers to classical Persian songs performed by an all-women group – which is illegal because they are performing in mixed company. Also featured in the film were Yellow Dogs, a Western styled group who sang a song in English, ‘New Century’, and who cited Joy Division and Talking Heads as influences. They subsequently moved to New York and played at the US premiere of the film. In November 2013 two members of Yellow Dogs were shot to death by a disgruntled hanger on of the band, who subsequently committed suicide. Even émigré Iranian musicians are not safe, it would seem. The film culminates in a violent encounter between Negar, Ashkan and their dog and the police.

It also features Iran’s first rapper, Hishkas (Nobody), often referred to as ‘the godfather of Iranian rap’, who formed the group 021 (the area code for Tehran) in 2003 and released the first Iranian hip hop album, Jangale Asfalt (The Asphalt Jungle) in 2006. He began rapping in English, but soon switched to rapping in Farsi, and has collaborated with UK rapper Reveal. As Laudan Nooshin of City University, London, the UK’s foremost authority on Iranian music, the author of a book on Iranian Classical Music, and several articles on Iranian pop, rock and hip hop, has written of his 2004 track ‘Tripe Ma’ (Our Everyday):’’Tripe Ma” has a strong local feel typical of Hishkas’s work, beginning with an invocation to God and weaving the “traditional” sound of the setar lute through the music, as well as a gentle background male chorus. … The work of Hichkas, perhaps more than any other Iranian rapper, has shifted the class associations of hip hop: for instance, ‘Ye Mosht Sarbaz’ (Bunch of Soldiers), places hip hop firmly in the poor, working class and traditional areas of south Tehran, with its militia-style imagery in the young men rapping with Hichkas, and its prominent references to religion and nationhood, together with the poor urban neighbourhood where the video is shot’.

As Nooshan explains elsewhere, ‘For much of its 60-plus-year history, mediated popular music in Iran has been closely associated with the relatively affluent, educated and cosmopolitan middle and upper classes’. She also points out that the end of Khatami’s presidency in 2005 coincided with the ‘meteoric rise’ of rap in Iran, where there are between an estimated 1000 and 2000 amateur and professional rappers, most of whom operate without a permit. Nooshan also writes at length about the female rapper Koli (Gypsy), who combines hip hop as social comment and personal therapy, and is little known in Iran, but gained international exposure through the film The Glass House a 2008 documentary about a Tehran-based charity, Omid-e Mehr, which supports girls and young women from disadvantaged backgrounds. The film has not been screened in Iran. According to Nooshan, Koli ‘epitomises the growth of a grass-roots hip hop movement in Iran, and specifically in a sector of society where popular music has traditionally been problematic. … Koli also illustrates how the increasing presence of women rappers shapes the kinds of topics addressed in Iranian hip hop, particularly formerly “hidden” subjects which disproportionately affect women, such as domestic violence, runaway girls, and rape.’

Another Iranian-American band which has now established itself in the USA is Kiosk, a blues-rock-country group with Iranian folk characteristics and a female violinist (Tara Kamangar) who sing in Farsi. They were founded by Arash Sobhnai in Tehran in 2003, but after censorship in Iran, emigrated to the USA, and have since toured the world, even Australia, and released seven albums. They specialise in confronting Iranian cultural angst, and Time magazine referred to them as ‘a band that can criticize the Iranian government without retribution.’ Kiosk, along with a number of other Iranian groups and performers such as Radio Tehran, Federale, Farah and Bei Ru, provided the soundtrack for Ana Lily Amirpour’s 2014 black and white Iranian-American cult feminist vampire western film A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, which was set in ‘the Iranian ghost town Bad City’ and depicts the doings of ‘a lonesome vampire’.

Closer to home, Omid Tofighian is an Iranian-born researcher in the philosophy department at the University of Sydney, and a hip hop aficionado, who has written about a collaboration between Aboriginal hip hop artist Izzy (Jacob Ballard) and Iranian rapper Mamali (Mohammad Ali Gholami), who recently arrived from Ahwaz in Iran, at Krosswerdz Hip Hop Church in Sydney’s suburb of Belmore: ‘Their raps contextualise experiences of injustice and hardship through different characters and render complex commentary on greed, war, colonialism, persecution, loneliness, friendship, belonging and hope’. Tofighian also talks about the lesbian activist rapper Saye Sky who fled Iran to Turkey and now resides in Canada. Tofighian is a regular contributor to The Conversation in Sydney, and he has spoken of the repression in Iran since President Hassan Rouhani came to power:

‘Significant issues and events remain relatively under-reported in Western news coverage. International sanctions continue to cripple the economically vulnerable and the culturally progressive; state executions have increased since Rouhani took power, making Iran the world leader in executions per capita; Iran is experiencing an extreme brain drain; ethnic minorities such as Kurds, Baloch, Arabs and Afghans are denied many rights; homosexuals are persecuted; and Baha’i graves are razed and their leaders imprisoned’. But even Rouhani expressed his support for a group of young people who were arrested for filming a video of themselves dancing to Pharrell’s hit song ‘Happy’.Tofighian concludes, ‘However, a sense of hope endures within Iran’s cultural scene, together with a burning creativity and critical insight. The revival of a rich literary and oral tradition perseveres through the ambiguities and irregularities of state policy and implementation’.

The Mehr Ensemble is a traditional Persian vocal music ensemble formed in Iran by Pooya MehmanPazir who include Samira Karimi on vocal and tanbour and are now based in Melbourne. Davood A. Tabrizi is a pioneering Sydney-based Iranian musician who plays the kamancheh – a spike fiddle – and performs with his multicultural group the Far Seas. He has been based in Sydney since 1980 and composed a number of Australian film scores, including Clara Law’s Floating Life (1996), Vincent Ward’s The Navigator (1988), and Mojgan Khadem’s Serenades (2001). With the Far Seas he composed ‘Kooch: Journey of the Gypsies which celebrates the migration of Gypsies around the globe. Musicians involved include Indian tabla player Bobby Singh, Kim Sanders (saxophones), Turkish composer Metin Yilmaz (Kaval, Zorna); Rafael Alcolea (Vocals); Greg Alfonzetti (flamenco guitar); Sukhi Singh (Indian harmonium); Boyd (brass) and Mustafa Karami (Daf, darabuka, doholl), a Kurdish singer musician from Iran.

Now comes Absence, a compilation of Iranian ambient electronic music released in February by the Sydney and Belfast-based label Flaming Pines, which was launched 3 years ago. In his introductory essay to the compilation, Siavash Amini points out that most Iranian music is regarded by the western media in an exclusively political context, which he sees as highly reductive: ‘The tracks collected for this compilation are a perfect example of art that is not “newsworthy”. And in this way they act as a gateway to the ignored and overlooked landscape of experimental electronic music in Iran’. Artists include Siavash Amini himself, a musician and producer born in 1987 who began playing guitar in 1999 and formed his first band in Tehran in 2001, before moving on toexperimental electronica. His 2015 ‘instrumental ambient drone’ album Subsiding can be found on bandcamp https://futuresequence.bandcamp.com/album/subsiding, and combines ‘controlled noise’ with modern classical composition including violin and viola, as well as strings and clarinet recorded by Pouya Pour-Amin. His 2014 album What Wind Whispered to the Trees features violins by Nima Aghiani, and was mastered by Australian producer Lawrence English, while track titles reference characters from Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov and The Devils.

Also included on Absence are musicians Sote, Pouya Pour-Amin, Idlefon, Umchunga, Pouya, Parsa Jamshidi, and Shaahin Saba Dipole, all male, and all part of what the label tells us is ‘the amazing music coming out of Tehran in particular, and this represents the first compilation to celebrate this scene’. One noticeable factor is the immediate presence of conventional instruments such as piano on Amini’s ‘Shadows of Dusk’, while Arash Akbari’s ‘Falling’ offers a rather bland electronic soundscape with no identifying characteristics, and 9T Antiope’s ‘Venator’, the Latin word for hunter, which is also used to describe an ant-like jumping spider, as well as denoting a dagger-shaped starship, is more turbulent, featuring a siren followed by stirring electronic features, and a female voice chanting in Farsi which seems to proclaim some degree of urgency. Idlefon’s ‘Headless’ is a surging drone, with embedded voices, followed by percussion effects; Bescolour’s ‘Alogia’, meaning poverty of speech, is a metallic-sounding quasi-dub track, one of the longer tracks on a generally brief collection, while Sote’s ‘Beautiful Black’ offers a bit more rhythm.

Pouya Pour-Amin’s ‘A Perfect Persian Circle’ can be found on YouTube and features a string orchestra, as does his track here, ‘Exterior wash’, which combines strings with electronics, while Pouya Eshaei’s RocRast ‘#12’ goes to deep bass electronics, and is part of a long series of live tracks he has released. Tegh’s ‘Station Four’ is a single-note ambient piece, part of the solo music project of Shahin Entezami, as is Parsa Jamshidi’s ‘nncdraG’, while Shaahin Saba’s ‘Remembrance’ is a gently dub-inflected swirl and Umchunga’s ‘RS’, the last track on the compilation, is a droning synth wash. It’s difficult to find any Iranian characteristics anywhere on this album apart from the Persian classical elements used by Pour-Amin and Amini, and as with most ambient music, it tends to fade into the background. Amini’s other work is quite intriguing, especially What Wind Whispered To The Trees, where the combination of drones and violins generates a real atmospheric effect, but too many of the tracks on Absence leave no residue. Amini cites as influences Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek and Esthonian composer Arvo Part, as well as the writing of semiotician Roland Barthes, and uses just a guitar and a laptop to create his soundscapes, along with strings.

In a recent Guardian feature ten émigré Iranian artists, who all fled the 1979 revolution, and are now living in the USA, Canada, France and Italy, were interviewed about how they navigate the dichotomy between reflecting their homeland and ‘speaking to universal issues’. While some have managed to avoid the Iranian ‘label’, most found they were expected to draw on their Iranian identity, especially in the USA, where it was definitely newsworthy and ‘sexy’. For younger Iranian artists and musicians living in Iran there is a definite choice between protest and eschewing politics altogether and ‘speaking to universal issues’, which Absence definitely does. Since the recent parliamentary elections in Iran on February 26, which elected a Reformist majority in Tehran, but included only 15 women out of a total of 290 parliamentary members, and a conservative majority outside the capital, Iran still faces a history of human rights abuses and an unstable economy, as well as the entrenched position of hardline anti-Western Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. President Hassan Rouhani recently secured a nuclear deal with Western powers, and has pushed for an opening, at least economically, to the rest of the world, but in general there is little hope for any real change in the country. So is Absence justified in avoiding political statements altogether? In relation to the musicians featured in No One Knows about Persian Cats, it would seem not.

You can find Absence here.

* You can read Siavash Amini’s response to this piece here.


About Author

Tony Mitchell is an honoraray research associate at the University of Technology, Sydney. He has edited a number of books: on global hip hop (Global Noise, 2001), on Australian Popular Music (Sounds of Then, Sounds of Now, 2008), and New Zealand Music (Home Land and Sea, 2011). He is currently co-editing a book about Icelandic music.