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Iranian rhythms persist despite sanctions and restrictions

For some Iranians, the joy of music outweighs the risks of keeping available the long list of artists banned by the government

Dina Ezzat , Saturday 1 Sep 2012
A collections of Iranian signers album covers

For many Iranians, politics, economy and debates over the future can be set aside for the love of music, says a CD merchant in Tehran

"Music could keep you alive when you are otherwise almost dead. I know from experience. Music is exactly what could keep many Iranians going," said Amir as he searched for a copy of Um Kalthoum's famous piece "Enta Omri" that was produced in the mid-1960s.

"There are so many Iranians who come and ask for Um Kalthoum songs. Oh they love her. They are mostly from the older generation, but some also from the younger generation. They especially love the Um Kalthoum songs that are composed by (Mohamed) Abdel-Wahab. They are divine these songs," he added.

The acquisition and selling of songs performed by female singers, including Iranians who were known for beautiful performances prior to the 1979 Islamic Revolution, is strictly an underground business in Iran. But Amir takes the risk.

He provides a CD selection of Um Kalthoum songs, of Edith Piaff, and indeed of Haydeh, "the Um Kalthoum of the Iranians."

Amir is not the only one in the business of providing what he calls "illegal and underground music" — not only of female singers but also modern Iranian pop singers whose lyrics about love and passion are forbidden by the authorities. Western and Arab pop and much traditional singing is also hard to come by.

"It is almost all forbidden — Gogoosh, an Iranian Diva, the Bee Gees, whose songs are popular with all of my clients, the Beatles, Amr Diab, Zaz, Abba," said Amir.

According to Amir, and some of his clients, the accessibility of good quality "legal music" does not mean that people won't search for a wider selection.

However, in the presence of a foreigner, clients who have seen this music provider get into serious trouble before by daring to provide the unavailable, act with caution and ask instead for the available works of Feard Zoland, an acclaimed Iranian singer of Afghani origin, and that of Varoujou, a singer of Armenian origin.

"Iranian music, whether old or new, is so beautiful. It is such a pity that the world does not get a chance to listen to a great deal of it because of the politics and anti-Iranian sentiment," Amir laments. He added: "Some of the great Iranian singers who were forced to stop singing after the revolution left Iran and went mostly to live in L.A. They are heard there, but then again, it is limited, and is beneath what Iranian music deserves in terms of world acknowledgement."

To deprive the world of the beauty of Iranian music is one thing, but to provide the Iranian people — who "are true lovers and avowed connoisseurs of music" — is another. Amir is willing to do everything to keep the flow of music going for all who care about it.

For Amir, a good piece of music is always appreciated by an Iranian, even the most orthodox of the very radically religious would still find something that suits his or her taste.

Iranians, Amir said, can talk and argue much about politics, about hardliners and reformists, discuss the fate and value of the nuclear programme, complain about annoying sanctions, but when they are offered a good piece of music they are always willing to sit, listen and relax.

Amir argues that Iranians find solace in music. He personally resorted to the tunes of his favourite singers when his house was completely demolished during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s.

Only a schoolchild of no more than eight years, Amir one day returned to his house, in the south of Iran, to find it gone.

"Nothing was left there. Nothing," he recalls. Amir held onto his mother's hand and waited while she looked for his father and brothers who were out of the house when the air raid launched by the Iraqi army razed the entire neighbourhood.

The entire family found refuge and it took them a while to get a small house where they could settle in and pick up again. During the hard days, Amir's father, a writer, and his mother, a teacher, were endlessly listening to music. "It was partially an act of nostalgia but it was also an act of meditation. It helped everybody get by and make a new beginning."

Today, Amir is providing music on CDs, flash drives or by direct download on mobile phones.

Amir is also living with his music. Shajarian, an Iranian singer who was allowed to continue performing after the revolution and who lives between Iran and the US, is a favourite of Amir and he often plays his music in his store in Tehran.

In the privacy of his home, Amir turns to the illicit tunes of Yassmine Levy, a Spanish Jewish singer, Marcel Khalifa and Charles Aznavour.

"It makes you think of the good memories and dream of better days to come," Amir said.

For this 35-year-old Iranian who studied theatre and cinema writing in Iran, a better day is not just about easing the "suffocating" restrictions imposed by the government on the people with regards to social and cultural choices. It is also, he said, about an end to the sanctions imposed on Iran by the US and the West over its "peaceful nuclear programme."

According to Amir, the end of sanctions would mean that Iran could open up to the outer world and let its culture be reached and let other cultures get through to the Iranian people. "One day ... Maybe one day," he said.   

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