Rock Me, Ahmadinejad!

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Mehdi Chebil / Polaris

An underground rock concert in Tehran, Iran.

The 300-person auditorium in Tehran's Artists' House is so completely packed that at least 40 people are crowded around its entrance in the adjacent hallway. Inside, the heat is on — both literally and figuratively. An audience of mostly twentysomething men and women is here to see Mohsen Namjoo, the new local sensation whose music combines classical Persian music and poetry with such Western imports as rock and blues. While dozens of traditional, classical and pop music concerts are staged in Tehran every year, rock's standing is still unsettled. What has made this event permissible under the conservative strictures that govern the arts in Iran is that it's supposed to be a formal critique of Namjoo's work, whose sudden and immense popularity prompted the liberal Artists' House to seek explanations. But the crowd gives the two critics on stage no chance to speak, and less than an hour into the session both have walked off in protest.

The audience's impatience with the critique format is emblematic of a generational yearning for greater freedom of expression in the cultural sphere. Music's status is contested in Islam, with some jurisprudents arguing that it is halal, permissible, and others insisting that it is haraam, forbidden. Following Iran's 1979 revolution, the new Islamic Republic at first banned all music. Although most classical and traditional music was soon allowed again, it wasn't until moderate President Khatami's term in 1997 that regulations loosened up sufficiently to allow Iranian rock band to spring up in garages across Tehran. Today, even state radio runs government-approved pop music, but independent rockers and rappers have thus far failed to receive permits for concerts or album releases.

"This vacuum, this missing musical space, leads to exaggerated reactions to someone like Namjoo, whose music is still very immature," says Ramin Sadighi, owner of the Hermes record company. To promote music in the public sphere, Sadighi and a few others formed the Hafta group last year. Another leading member of Hafta, Sohrab Mahdavi of the online culture magazine, had in 2002 helped start an underground rock music contest.

"Until the festival in 2002, we thought there are perhaps two or three other bands like us in Tehran," says Payman Mazaheri, singer of the now-dissolved band Fara, whose song "Mosquito" won first place. "All of a sudden we realized that kids across Tehran were all hard at work making rock music. It was motivating," he adds nostalgically. Unable to receive permits, Fara ultimately dissolved as band members had to go about making a living. The only top-ranking band from the 2002 contest that has survived financially is 127, and it has done so in part by touring Europe and the U.S.

"In Iran, you either have to make it all the way to the top or get exterminated — the necessary layers in the middle are completely missing," explains Sadighi in a Bohemian café in downtown Tehran, where Hafta has started a program to promote a different musician every week. "In other countries you have clubs, restaurants, smaller concert venues, subway stations, and a lot of other spaces where you can be face-to-face with people. Our artists don't have that space."

To build a fan base, the typical contemporary Tehran music act relies on word of mouth and MySpace and YouTube. The rapper Yas, whose socially critical rhymes have gained him a considerable following, has given up trying to get a permit. "Rap's beat is transgressive, it doesn't matter what your lyrics are," he explains. Even artists who have successfully promoted their music online are unable to make any money without legally publishing their music, and that requires obtaining a permit from the Ministry of Culture — a procedure so arcane that most attempts fail. Many, like the former rock band Fara, are asked to change parts of the music or the lyrics, but are unwilling to do so. Others aren't even sure they want a permit, as one rapper made clear, confidentially. "My stance is an oppositional one," he said. "Some friends don't think getting a government permit is actually good for me."

But Iran's godfather of pop, producer Mohsen Rajabpour, has no patience for musicians' complaints about permits. "If you try hard, you'll get a permit. Give me another year and I'll produce a rap album," he says self-assuredly, adding that the reason rock and rap haven't been officially successful is because Iranians prefer pop music. "Iranians are instinctively drawn to emotionality in music," he says, leaning back in the executive armchair of his slick black-walled record company.

Rajabpour's observation on Iranian tastes would certainly help explain the popularity in Iran of Chris de Burgh, the Irish balladeer best remembered for his early '80s saccharine pop hit "Lady in Red". The pop mogul has been hosting De Burgh in Iran this past week, and a concert tour planned for the fall would make the British singer the first Western pop star to perform in Iran since 1979. De Burgh will share the stage with Iranian pop giants Arian, on whose forthcoming album he has collaborated — in one song, De Burgh even sings "I love you," in Persian.