Musicians and Composers Battle Censors in Iran

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: In Iran—you know, that arch-enemy of Israel—there are some jobs that can be really troublesome. Take being a musician, a risky business. That was clear this week when Iranian authorities arrested five members of an underground band. Their crime was working with dissident Iranian singers and TV channels in the US. We wondered what it's like to be a musician in Iran, so we asked one.

Iranian Musician: Self-censorship starts even before any notes is played.

Werman: That's a composer and musician based in Tehran. We're not using his name for security reasons.

Musician: If you want to compose a piece of music or an album and release it officially in Iran, the fear starts in the beginning. There is an Office of Music in the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, which is downtown, and the procedure is that first you supply them with the lyrics. Then they will ask you, how do you want to sing these lyrics. Then you have to either say it's a melodic, or it is spoken, or it is a mixture of melodic and spoken. They will cross out some words or they will just say no, or they will approve it. Then the next step is you go to a recording and then provide the pre-release album to the same place, but to the other room, which is controlling the musical part of it. Then they go to another meeting for themselves, it will take another couple of months, and then they finally may say this is approved or not approved. They may take out part of a song, or remove complete songs from the album. They have a very closed mentality, and this kind of things which are totally illogical happens.

Werman: The whole process sounds not only bureaucratic but quite surreal. I'm wondering, are there talented musicians in Tehran who just say, this is just too much, I'm not even going to be a musician, or try to, because I have to go through this whole rigmarole?

Musician: Yes, many people have just put away music, or they are just playing music for themselves at home, and they record and put the music as MP3 online just for the heck of it. Because it's only the first part. If you get the permit of the album, then you may or may not get the permit for performing that album. Because of the mentality of these crazy people, they say that maybe one song is approved to be release on a CD, because a CD can be played at home or in a car with a maximum of 10 people around you.

Werman: Is that stated in the law, you can't have more than 10 people listening?

Musician: No, no, no. There's nothing written about this.

Werman: Okay.

Musician: They will tell you right there. But if you go to a concert, they say that one particular song, if it can raise the hormonal level of the young people in the concert which may lead to inappropriate social behavior of the concertgoers, that song will be omitted from the performance.

Werman: What about the government? Is there a possibility that they do see some of these censors in place to kind of prevent a cultural flood of western sounds coming into Iran?

Musician: The scholars concluded that anything that takes the mind away from the religion, from God and create an illusion or a joyous feeling which takes you away from the religion is prohibited. And then they conclude this can be music.

Werman: Can't have that joyous feeling I guess.

Musician: Yes.

Werman: We've been speaking with an Iranian musician in the capital Tehran. He has not used his name for security reasons. I want to thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us.

Musician: You're welcome. Thank you for having me.

Werman: Now, despite the enormous restrictions, many Iranian rock and pop bands somehow manage to thrive, above ground and below. Not surprisingly, the ones who really take off have to leave Iran to do so. Here's one such group I presented a few years ago at SXSW in Austin, Texas. The first underground Iranian band to tour the US, this is 127 and a lovely tune from a couple years back titled Coming Around.

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