Mashallah News will feature two weeks of articles dedicated to counter-culture. First a series on Iranian underground music, then stories from Istanbul, Ankara, Beirut, Tunis and Ramallah. Keep your eyes open.
In the quiet Western Tehran suburb of Shahrak-e-Gharb, a withered man waters his flower pot outside a crumbling old house. He moves slowly, shuffling from pot to pot as life in the quiet suburban street goes by.
There’s a loud thump.
The man pretends not to hear and clears his throat. He continues to water the plants.
Then another thump.
It’s coming from the basement. Suddenly a humming noise can be heard, but it’s dull and muffled.
The man frowns but persists to water his plant. He glances around to make sure none of the neighbours have heard anything. There’s a good reason for this charade. Crammed into a basement below him are almost 200 young Iranians. And they’re dancing.
The room smells like sweat, cigarettes and marijuana; hallmarks of any rock concert. The walls are covered with graffiti, and the room is lit up with bright strobe lights.
A small stage has been set up where the four unshaven young Iranian punk rockers known as The Yellow Dogs explode into a musical frenzy. Obaash, the lead singer, walks onto the stage and looks down at the waiting fans. They’re huddled in two groups; one of mostly men and the other of mostly women. Obaash grins and yells down at them:
“This isn’t a fucking wedding. It’s not men over there and women over there. Get together!”
That was more than two years ago. Now, the architects of The Yellow Dogs, one of Tehran’s first underground rock gigs, sit comfortably around a table in their loft apartment in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The streets of New York may be a long way from Tehran, but the Iranian underground is everywhere.
“When you play a gig, even if it’s in front of just five people, you feel the adrenaline and the stress. Imagine playing in front of one hundred people in an illegal place where at any time cops might come to arrest you,” says Obaash as he leans back in his chair and takes a long drag of his cigarette.
He’s a tall and imposing figure with a mane of dreadlocked hair that stretches down well past his shoulders. With his threadbare sweater and whiskered face, he’s the epitome of a punk rocker.
“Our music is dance punk, and dancing is illegal in Iran. You know when you go out of your mind dancing, they think it’s a satanic thing.”
And ‘satanism’ has serious consequences in Iran.
Shortly after the Islamic revolution in 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini banned rock music, because of its associations with the United States. While during the 1990s and early 2000s, music was more accessible and easier to play, after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became president in 2005, rigid bans on access to music and culture were imposed.
The same year, he banned all Western rock music in Iran, and foreign movies promoting “secularism, feminism, unethical behaviour, drug abuse, violence or alcoholism”.
Now, musicians who want to release an album or play a gig need to go through the Ministry of Culture. More often than not, the process ends up in rejection.
“It was obvious that our music couldn’t get permission from that ministry,” Obaash explains in his low and rumbling voice. “So we said, ‘OK, fuck it, we’re gonna record with our friends and we’re going to play our own concerts.’”
Instead of destroying Iranian rock music, the ban has driven it underground. And there, in the darkness of old basements, it has grown slowly, mutating into a new wave of music experimentation. The Yellow Dogs are just one of many young Iranian bands who have embraced the underground and risked their lives in the pursuit of music.
“They want everything to be the Islamic Republic of Iran version of what it is. So they want their pop music to be the version that they like,” says Obaash.
But, the dangers soon became too great for The Yellow Dogs. After having played several underground rock gigs, the band was featured in No One Knows About Persian Cats, Bahman Ghobadi’s 2009 film about the Iranian underground. As their profile grew, so did the risk of attracting the attention – and wrath – of the Iranian government.
It became more and more difficult for bands to play gigs underground. The climax of ‘No One Knows About Persian Cats’ is a sequence in which one of the musicians plunges to his own death from a building – an event that actually happened in 2008.
“We didn’t want to get caught, so we decided to get out of Iran,” says Obaash. “We had our fans in Tehran already, and most of them were our friends. So that’s why we wanted a bigger audience.”
And, a bigger audience they found: in the thriving Brooklyn music scene. The Yellow Dogs played at the world-famous South By South-West festival in Austin last March; a sign that they’re at the beginning of a bright future.
Obaash: “We struggled a lot for this opportunity. We fought all kinds of laws and authorities and went through a lot of struggles just to come here and play music.”
Shahrak-e-Gharb is quiet now. Almost 3 years after the infamous gig of The Yellow Dogs, the Tehran suburb has become a much colder and darker place. Gone is the old man watering his flowerpots.
Sadly, many of those gigs don’t happen anymore. The risks are simply too great. But the reason is not that there is no Iranian music, quite the opposite. The Yellow Dogs, like other bands, continue to play and spread their music across the world.
The article was first published last April on Paul Farrell’s blog.