In Iran, a country where many forms of free expression are banned and artists face limitations on their creativity, it can be very difficult to form a band, not to say it is impossible to perform. Despite these limitations, rock band Kiosk was born in Tehran in 2003, not long before Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took power, chaining its social and artistic geography.
Kiosk are currently working on their sixth album, of which the lyrics – in Persian – will be looking into contemporary realities in Iran. The band are preparing for their first big tour of Europe and North America in early 2013.
Moreover, in the face of rising calls for change in the Arab region, the band is also planning for dynamic cooperation with Arab musicians, hoping that this will be paralleled by a chance to visit the region soon.
While waiting to see their new musical fruits, Ahram Online talks to Kiosk about their career, which is almost a decade old, and which took them from the Iran underground music scene to the international artistic arena.
Kiosk consists of five members: Arash Sobhani, songwriter, singer and guitarist; Shahrouz Molae, drummer; Tara Kamangar, violinist; Ardalan Payvar, keyboardist and accordionist, who also designs the band's album covers and posters, and Ali Kamali, bassist and the band's technician who owns a home studio where the band recorded their latest album Outcome of Negotiations.
"The band's name is Koshk in Persian (kiosk in English) to represent any place we could jam in, different each time," Sobhani said. "This random kiosk was our temple."
Kiosk started as a classic rock band with electric guitars and bluesy riffs driving the sound but has developed into a musical fusion of different genres. Following Ahmadinejad's presidential election victory in 2005, a large section of Iranian artists were forced to go underground.
In 2006, many of the band’s members left Iran for the USA and Canada where they got together via the internet to produce their music.
"Many people like us lost hope, we waited 8 years for the reforms to change the regime and make the environment more tolerant and gain more freedom. But after 8 years there he was, a huge turnaround to the dark ages of the 1980s," Sobhani said.
"When we moved to the West, not all of the musicians involved in the first project left Iran. From our first performance until today, four members of the band have been constant and we have added a violin player. Like any other rock band there were a couple of musicians who helped us in some of the concerts, but this line up today has four members from the very first concert plus Tara Kamangar on violin."
Today, living and making music outside Iran, the band melds their experiences without forgetting their roots as well as looking into the region’s musical riches. Sobhani listens a lot to Anouar Brahem, a prominent Tunisian oud player. "I have been exposed to Omm Kalthoum who is popular in Iran. Recently I listened to an Egyptian band called Wust Al Balad that I found quite interesting," Sobhani added.
Outside Iran, the band were exposed to other genres and started inclining towards gypsy music from the Balkans which shares many resemblances with Iranian folk music.
Kiosk has released five albums so far, each conveying the true Iran experienced by Iranians. "We are observing what is happening to our generation and we reflect on that in our lyrics. The political events that have impacts on our social lives are the main themes of our albums," Sobhani said.
Their first two albums, Ordinary Man (2005) and Amor De La Velocidad (2007), were straight rock with some influence from Balkan music, and Global Zoo (2008) had some tango influences. The fourth one, Triple Distilled (2010), had more gypsy influence.
"Through our music we try to give a voice to the oppressed. The majority of Iranians have no way to express themselves, while Kiosk being outside can take advantage of our freedom and not be scared of the government."
In 2008, Kiosk received the Best Blues Band award from the World Academy of Arts, Literature, and Media (WAALM), a non-profit and independent organisation that stands for cultural diplomacy, promotes cross-cultural activities, conferences and humanitarian efforts.
"It was a very nice to be noticed, and amongst other things it helped us get more attention and establish ourselves."
For their latest album, Natigej e Mozakerat (Outcome of Negotiations, 2011), "Kiosk became more conscious of the role of each instrument," Sobhani said. "The violin and the accordion were inclining more towards eastern melodies, while the bass and drums stayed solid rock and the guitar tried to weave them together."
"The social and political forces in Iran have become much more polarised and that is, I think, the main concern of our latest album," Sobhani explained.
The album features an English version covers of two famous songs, one is the popular tango Kiss of Fire, the other is the originally Russian song, Those Were the Days.
"The musical structure of Those Were the Days is very attractive and we have used similar structures in some of our previous works, the lingering between the major and minor keys, the tempo and how it speeds up, the energy etc."
But those are not the only covers that Kiosk plays. "We had done English songs in a previous album as well, we covered a Tom Waits song. In our concerts we do a few English songs: Dire Straits, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan etc. We think we should do that more since the band is becoming more exposed to the non-Farsi listeners."
Kiosk is the first Iranian band to record an album, Triple Distilled, live at San Francisco's legendary Jazz club, Yoshi. "It was a challenge," Sobhani recalled. "Yoshi’s is a legendary venue, a lot of big names have performed and recorded there, from Al Di Meola to Joe Pass. We are happy we got to experience that stage."
"At the time we were working on Triple Distilled, there were a lot of talk about the underground music of Iran in the West but no one really looked at the music part seriously. Westerners were just amused by the fact that there is rock music in Iran, and I don’t like this orientalist approach towards cultural phenomena. We decided to showcase our musicianship by recording live... and for many reasons no other Iranian band had done this before, so it was a big challenge."
The band is in the process of recording their sixth album, which will mostly be in Persian. They will be collaborating with a musician guest and will be touring Europe and North America in March.
"We would love to perform in the Arab countries," Sobhani stated. He mentioned that his band has been invited to perform in Dubai a few times. However, each time they were told that they are banned from performing in the UAE, since the UAE does a lot of business with the Iranian government.
He concluded that his band is working on a musical collaboration project focused on the Middle East, regarding the region's various experiences and how everyone comprehends what is happening from different angles and perspectives, expressing his hopes to work with Egyptian musicians on this project.
Sobhani expressed his happiness about the Arab revolutions. "I am sure the whole region will soon be free of tyrants and dictators. However, I am very concerned about fundamentalism."
"Iranians and Arabs have so much in common, we are all familiar with corruption, inequality, oppression and radicalism, so in many ways I think there is room for all of us to exchange ideas via music," Sobhani concluded.
Read more about Kiosk on their website