The crowd in a small music venue in Oxford is young, there to listen to Iranian songs, including pieces in Azeri, Kurdish and Armenian. Late in the performance somebody calls for “Winter is over” (Sar umad zemestoun), a song from the 1960s now enjoying new life as an anthem of the reformist Green Movement (1). The band agrees to play as long as the audience sings. People hesitantly come to the front of the stage as an impromptu choir, knowing this is a public proclamation of allegiance: the event is being filmed so they could end up on YouTube, visible to the Iranian regime and its agents. Bad things could happen to family members in Iran.
After June 2009’s contested elections, popular anger welled up in Iran. When people attacked the vehicles of the basij militia in the streets during December’s religious festivities of Ashura, half seemed armed with rocks and the other half with mobile phone cameras. They broadcasted the images globally on YouTube and Facebook (2). People allowed themselves to be filmed during these attacks, and that seemed a sign that the theocracy ruling Iran was losing its power over them.
Professor Annabelle Sreberny of London’s newly-established Centre for Iranian Studies points out that, for Iranians at home and in the diaspora, social networking sites provide spaces that have transformed into “fast and extensive conduits of political content”. When the Iranian authorities arrested student leader Majid Tavakoli in December 2009, they humiliated him by photographing him wearing a woman’s hijab and published the picture in the newspapers. Within a week, hundreds of Iranian men had photographed themselves in hijabs and posted the photos on Facebook and Youtube (3) in an imaginative protest.
Sound plays a part in the new alignments: every night after the elections, Iranians cried themselves hoarse from Tehran’s balconies and windows, an eerie wail. Their chant of Allah-o akbar was a way of expressing determination, hope and frustration, and of creating a spirit of solidarity (4).
Music has an important role in this opposition between Iran’s people and their government. Traditional music, which in the past was a means of protest, is having a resurgence and being criticised by the authorities. A low-grade cleric appeared on TV to attack music as a source of evil. He mentioned the santur (a multi-stringed hammer dulcimer), 10 times in a few minutes, a reminder that in 2007 the government had bizarrely banned Santoori, a Dariush Mehrjui film about a would-be santur player. Ayatollah Khamenei has recently pronounced that learning music runs counter to the principles of the Islamic republic and is a waste of time. Young Iranians are becoming interested in classical music, which a few years ago only older people listened to.
There was a brief flowering of traditional music in Iran shortly before the 1979 Islamic revolution. Under the shah, westernisation had threatened the centuries-long traditions of Persian classical music. In protest, small groups of musicians, including leftists and progressives, began to stage performances and make recordings of classical music. Albums by artists such as Hossein Alizadeh, Sedigh Tarif and Mohammad-Reza Shajarian included powerful songs of resistance and political liberation.
But soon after the revolution, albums and songs with an explicit political message were banned; mere possession of tapes could mean arrest and imprisonment. Public performance in Iran and in the diaspora (where the regime remained vigilant) effectively ceased. Shajarian, doyen of Iranian classical music, avoided making political statements. But the pressure of the regime and the growing strength of everyday resistance led him to take more radical positions. When President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad called the popular resistance movement “dust and trash”, Shajarian immediately broadcast a BBC interview: “This voice has always been for the ‘dust and trash’ and will remain that way, and I will never allow the state radio and television to use my voice.”
Shajarian sings liberation songs. A fine piece, composed and accompanied on santur by the legendary Parviz Meshkatian (5), is a song in “injustice mode” (avaz-e bidad) – once used by musicians to criticise the king. Then there is “Bird of the morning” (Morg-e sahar) which rails against the injustices of tyrants (6); and the Jalaluddin Rumi poem Shajarian recently performed in Los Angeles, significantly, with women performers onstage, about freedom from prison.
A small group of musicians, including Persians and Kurds, based at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), is establishing a musical project until the end of 2011, “Songs of Love and Liberation from Iran”. The project defends ordinary people and popular culture in Iran and the organisers regard the work as active musical archaeology. They are contacting musicians and singers, in Iran and in the Iranian and Kurdish diasporas, to create a catalogue of songs and instrumental pieces of “love and liberation”.
One such song has a long history. At the time of the Iranian movement for constitutional monarchy in 1905, Persian classical music was mainly in the service of the court. The poet and musician Aref Qazvini (1882-1934) wrote that when he started composing epic songs, the arts had sunk so low that musicians would make songs even for the king’s cat. The constitutional movement was suppressed, during three years of political unrest known as the “little tyranny”. This moment became a turning point in Persian urban music.
Qazvini, a revolutionary who supported the movement, composed songs for these bitter events. One is “From the blood of the homeland’s youth” (Az khun-e javanan-e vatan). Though it was dedicated to Heydar Khan Amoo Oghli, a founder of the Communist Party of Iran, it remained popular throughout the reign of the shah and the Islamic revolution (Shajarian recorded it twice). It is in the Iranian tradition of spring songs (bahariye) for the new year (nowruz). But the original version sings of the sufferings of the people and calls for resistance: “Stand up against the bullets”. This part was censored and recorded versions contain only the first verse. The censored sections will be restored.
The project will include travelling concerts, workshops and seminars. The performances will be filmed and sound-recorded to provide a historical internet record of the lost repertoire; the aim is to create an archive of definitive versions of songs that have been forgotten, buried or mutilated by censorship (and self-censorship), and publish a songbook. As musicologists, we see this as a model for social consolidation in other diaspora communities.
There’s a recent video clip that shows two young girls in a provincial town in Iran (7). One, wearing a symbolic green headscarf, plays the setar; the other, only eight or nine, plays the tonbak drum, and sings a traditional song: “Break your repentance. O drinkers open the taverns… Drink in hidden ways.” At the end the adults around her applaud – and post the performance on Facebook.
Ed Emery is organiser of Universitas adversitatis, a web-based free university; the first concert by Songs of Love and Liberation from Iran will be held at SOAS in London on 5 November 2010
(1) “Sar oomad zemestoon”, Youtube, 22 may 2009.
(2) “Demonstrators retaliate and attack the Riot police and basij militia”, Youtube, 30 december 2009.
(3) “Tavakoli”, 12 december 2009.
(4) The recordings have the common title “Poem for the Rooftops of Iran”.
(5) “Bidad”, Ostad shajarian, on 4shared.com.
(6) “Morghe Sahar”, Performance at the concert for the victims of the 2003 Bam earthquake.
(7) See on Youtube; in Iran the first-time penalty for drinking alcohol is 80 lashes and the third-time is execution.