360° Analysis

Notes From the Underground: Iran’s Alternative Music Scene


December 01, 2013 02:50 EDT

“In Iran, we’ve learned how to speak our minds without creating problems for anyone.”

A few months back, on a sunny Thursday morning, I met a lanky, wavy haired wild child for tea at Tehran’s Khaneh-ye Honarmandan – a cultural center in the smoggy heart of the city. I’d been in touch with Moslem Rasouli for a while online, after having developed an interest in his ingeniously clever Facebook images, mostly featuring his face superimposed on those of Qajar concubines, subjects of Renaissance paintings, and Hollywood belles. It was only later, of course, that I discovered his recordings, and his experiments in fusing classical and folk music from Iran with modern, electronic sensibilities, and his ambition for preserving his country’s musical heritage.

Sipping on a cup of hot Indian chai, overlooking the leafy square below us (where a few individuals had been hanged only weeks earlier), Moslem and I chatted about his rise to comic fame, our shared Rashti roots, and his penchant for Spongebob Squarepants, as well as Tehran’s underground music scene, his life as a twenty-something musician in Iran, and his work.

Having been recently featured on a UK radio program, and with a new music video out on the net, Moslem is one emerging musician who’s been making quite a “sound” these days, as we Iranians like to say. 

Joobin Bekhrad: How long have you been working as an electronic musician, and how did you enter the Iranian alternative music scene? I know your father is a poet… did he and others around you encourage you to become a musician, or was it more of a decision you made on your own?

Moslem Rasouli: I can say I’ve been working as an electronic musician since I was 12 or 13 years old. At the time, I began creating mixes of various songs; the mixes were fraught with imperfections, although gradually I began to find my way as a musician, and my music started to become more “professional.” That being said, though, I’m still learning and experiencing things, and I hope to one day reach a much more advanced level.

I had wanted to put together a collection of mixes of songs that I had heard – just songs that I had listened to, not necessarily ones that I had edited or worked on. That’s essentially how I “entered” the alternative music scene in Tehran.

What’s interesting for me when it comes to this sort of music is how it can bring together people from different corners of the earth so closely together. For instance, a German prog rock band sampling the music of an old villager in some remote part of Iran… you never know – I might find my “hidden half” on the other side of the world one day as well!

Regarding my mother and father… my father gave me lots of freedom, and really supported me; although I must say that my mother, first and foremost, has been the one who has been the most encouraging. It was my mother who bought me my first instrument… she had to sell some of her gold jewelry to do so.

BekhradAs a musician working in a non-traditional genre, and one that doesn’t receive much support from the government, have you ever encountered any obstacles or impasses? If so, how did you go about dealing with them?

Rasouli: I haven’t encountered any particular problems to date… the only thing is that I sometimes receive messages from “purists” who think I’ve “insulted” traditional Iranian music. In my opinion, the government doesn’t really have an issue with underground music. Recently, they’ve even been supporting it, to a degree; it’s this society that doesn’t change. A half-naked woman, for instance, poses no threat to the Iranian government… it’s society that wouldn’t accept something like that, and that would oppose it. In spite of all the difficulties, though, in Iran, we’ve learned over the years how to speak our minds without creating problems for anyone.

Bekhrad: In the film, No One Knows About Persian Cats, Bahman Ghobadi tried to cinematically portray the alternative music scene in Tehran. How close would you say his depiction was to the reality there, taking into account the experiences of you and your colleagues? 

Rasouli: I don’t know enough to be able to comment on the works of Bahman Ghobadi, but I can say that although things have gotten better in Iran, the case is more or less the same as Ghobadi depicted.

I was once speaking with Ashkan [a member of the now London-based indie band Take it Easy Hospital, featured in Ghobadi’s film], and he was telling me about how Ghobadi’s film was a representation of the general situation of that particular time, not necessarily of the state of underground music.

From what I’ve seen and experienced, there are many in Iran who still believe that a music scene “exists” in Iran, as well as many other things, and that we shouldn’t be critical… but when you step outside the country, you see that a music scene doesn’t really exist in Iran; everything here is inherently flawed.

Bekhrad: Mosfata Heravi has made a new video, using one of your songs as its basis. Where did the idea for the project come from, and what’s the story? As well, where has it been released to date, and what do you think of Mostafa’s interpretation of your work?

Rasouli: I was very happy to collaborate with Mostafa Heravi. Mostafa is currently making a film about movement and dance, and as he said, there are certain types of music that add to his work. The music for Unlikely Lullaby was an excuse to collaborate together on that video, and he will be producing a number of other works in the same vein.

The video has only been released on the Internet so far. In terms of the story… well, naturally, Mostafa had something in mind. Although I myself, when it comes to producing a work of art, don’t necessarily look for stories or concepts; I instead try to produce something I enjoy – especially when it comes to producing accompanying music for a dance project, which is all about form and movement. Generally speaking, the concepts behind dance aren’t too complicated, and we don’t have any set “rules.” For instance, we wouldn’t say, this movement means “this” or “that” – everyone has their own interpretation. There are many dance productions that have storylines, although the focal point is always form.

In Unlikely Lullaby, we presented a form of modern dance… even though it was quite “simple,” and aesthetically it wasn’t anything grandiose, I am quite proud of what Mostafa achieved.

Bekhrad: I know you’re very passionate about Iranian folk music, from all around the country. What importance does folk music hold for you, as an electronic musician? Many in Iran – especially those of our parents’ and grandparents’ generations – believe that the two styles of music are irreconcilable. What do you think?

Rasouli: A few friends and I began listening to various styles of music from around the world. Afterwards, one of us became interested in electronic music, the other in jazz and classical, and another in metal, while I developed an interest in folk music. I was looking for emotion, which I found in that style of music. In folk music, there are all sorts of emotions and feelings. For me, a classical piece performed by the best musicians in a symphony orchestra pales in comparison to the thrill of listening to the voice of an old villager in the middle of nowhere.

It’s only natural that folk and electronic music are often at opposite ends of the spectrum. However, even though they’re very different, essentially, that doesn’t mean that they can’t be reconciled. The mixing of the two styles is like the friendship between two people with fundamentally different beliefs – who says they can’t still be friends? In fact, one of the reasons I combine the two is to bridge the gap between these two generations you referred to. I thought that maybe as a result, our parents could forge a relationship with today’s music, or vice versa, that the young people of today’s generation could develop an interest in Iranian folk music.

Bekhrad: We were recently talking about Iranian underground music from before the revolution, and you seemed quite sad about the fact that certain groups weren’t received very well and given enough support to continue making music. Have any of these groups influenced your music in any way? As well, what do you make of the recent fascination in the West with many hitherto unknown rock, psych, and funk records from Iran?

Rasouli: There were a lot of groups that were active before the revolution — like The Rebels, Ojoobe-ha, The Jokers, Tak Khal-ha, and many others — who in the long-run, weren’t received too well and slowly disappeared over time, or whose members went on to form other groups [such as The Rebels’ Shahram Shabpareh, who later performed with other legends such as Ebi and Farhad as The Black Cats].

After the revolution, of course, while the music scene effectively disappeared, the music itself did not. The fact that record labels in the West [e.g. Finders Keepers, Pharaway Sounds, Light in the Attic] are interested in the songs of that era is wonderful to hear. Great works – even in the absence of their composers – remain, and will always keep their name and memory alive.

Bekhrad: What are you working on at the moment? What’s next for Moslem Rasouli?

Rasouli: Right now, I’m working on a project called Genital Instrument, a collection of covers of popular rock songs, as well as songs from other genres, on the setar [a long-necked Persian lute, meaning literally, “three (se) strings (tar)”]. Aside from my personal projects, I’m also working on music for television programs, short animations, trailers, and video games.

*[This article was originally published REORIENT.]

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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