Soundtrack of the Revolution: The Politics of Music in Iran

Soundtrack of the Revolution: The Politics of Music in Iran

by Nahid Siamdoust


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Soundtrack of the Revolution: The Politics of Music in Iran by Nahid Siamdoust

Music was one of the first casualties of the Iranian Revolution. It was banned in 1979, but it quickly crept back into Iranian culture and politics. The state made use of music for its propaganda during the Iran–Iraq war. Over time music provided an important political space where artists and audiences could engage in social and political debate. Now, more than thirty-five years on, both the children of the revolution and their music have come of age. Soundtrack of the Revolution offers a striking account of Iranian culture, politics, and social change to provide an alternative history of the Islamic Republic.

Drawing on over five years of research in Iran, including during the 2009 protests, Nahid Siamdoust introduces a full cast of characters, from musicians and audience members to state officials, and takes readers into concert halls and underground performances, as well as the state licensing and censorship offices. She closely follows the work of four musicians—a giant of Persian classical music, a government-supported pop star, a rebel rock-and-roller, and an underground rapper—each with markedly different political views and relations with the Iranian government. Taken together, these examinations of musicians and their music shed light on issues at the heart of debates in Iran—about its future and identity, changing notions of religious belief, and the quest for political freedom.

Siamdoust shows that even as state authorities resolve, for now, to allow greater freedoms to Iran's majority young population, they retain control and can punish those who stray too far. But music will continue to offer an opening for debate and defiance. As the 2009 Green Uprising and the 1979 Revolution before it have proven, the invocation of a potent melody or musical verse can unite strangers into a powerful public.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781503600324
Publisher: Stanford University Press
Publication date: 01/18/2017
Series: Stanford Studies in Middle Eastern and Islamic Societies and Cultures
Pages: 368
Sales rank: 384,439
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Nahid Siamdoust is a Postdoctoral Fellow and Lecturer at Yale University's MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies. She has taught at Oxford University and New York University, and previously worked as a journalist based in Iran and the Middle East for Time magazine, Der Spiegel , and Al Jazeera English TV.

Read an Excerpt

Soundtrack of the Revolution

The Politics of Music in Iran

By Nahid Siamdoust


Copyright © 2017 Nahid Siamdoust
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-5036-0032-4



ON ONE OF MY FIRST EVENINGS back in Iran after a long absence, my parents treated me to a meal at the garden restaurant of Tehran's Hyatt Hotel — called Azadi (Freedom) following the 1979 revolution — where they had occasionally taken me and my three siblings as children. It was 1996, and I had been away from my home country for ten years, going to school in Germany. When my siblings and I were growing up in the revolutionary and war-torn Iran of the nineteen-eighties, this was one of the biggest treats my parents would afford us during the city's hot summers. I remember that at least once, at one of those dinners, one of the adults pushed us kids into the large swimming pool for fun. Although it was kept fairly clean, the pool had become off-limits to all guests since the 1979 revolution, since the public exhibition of semi-clothed bodies was forbidden under the new Islamic regime.

As a returning teenager, I instantly recognized the place. Everything looked the same, just more faded and dilapidated: a retro hotel of former glory. Formally dressed but sloppy-looking waiters attended to customers in an uninterested manner. But then I noticed something that jarred with my memory of those strict earlier years. There was a black grand piano next to the pool, and a male pianist was playing Persian and Western classical music on it. Still, the atmosphere was quite somber. After the pianist finished each piece, patrons remained unmoved. Clearly, they knew that they must not clap. Although in the late nineteen-nineties President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani's policies had led to a loosening in the social sphere, the expression of joy by means of clapping in public was still not acceptable. I commented to my parents that it seemed as though sadness had enveloped Iran, and happiness was a sin.

Fifteen years later, in March 2011, on the last night of my penultimate research trip to Iran, I attended a pop concert that would have been utterly unimaginable in 1996, just as the restaurant piano would have been unimaginable a decade before that. The teen-idol crooner Benyamin, looking suave in his black outfit and trendy glasses, was moving about on a stage drenched in red light and smoke and singing "I've fallen in love" ('asheq shodam) to fast rhythms and a pounding beat. His fans, revealed by flickering stage lights that panned over the audience, were moving along rhythmically and could barely stay attached to their seats; they sang along with every single word. Throughout, guards were running around frantically to admonish audience members to lower their arms or stop dancing with their upper bodies.

There had been a sea change in Iran's musical scene from 1996 — when just about enough time had passed since the end of the war in 1988 to allow for a slightly more relaxed atmosphere — to 2011, when the government no longer stood in the way of dance-pop concerts. Of course, the waning of the revolutionary government's zeal, as well as the chronological distance from the revolution itself and from the war years, had led to a general easing up of the public atmosphere. But while Benyamin was allowed to croon about adolescent love to hordes of Iran's majority-youth population, many other artists who attempted to sing about socially or politically sensitive subjects were stopped in their tracks.

After initially banning all music, following the 1979 revolution, the Islamic Republic's leaders bowed to the need to allow some music. Nevertheless, they have stifled music that does not serve their political and ideological interests, banned music that they perceive as threatening those interests, and facilitated a popular but shallow musical culture while an officially impotent but lively subculture thrives mostly outside of the official public realm. Since 1979, both state-approved and banned musicians have to varying degrees contested and critiqued the state's official rhetoric. Throughout these years, music has served as an important alternative political, societal, and ideational space, and Iranians, music producers and consumers alike, have imbued it with great significance. The soundtrack of revolutionary Iran tells the story not just of the matters that have lain at the center of the people's and policy makers' negotiations about politics, religion, and national identity, but also the story of the evolution of the Islamic Republic itself.

Music was one of the first official casualties in 1979. When the revolutionaries overthrew the shah's regime and established the Islamic Republic, their new, "pure" society was not going to allow for music. In their view, music had been complicit in the moral corruption of youth. But only months after the revolution, music was "revived." When Ayatollah Morteza Motahhari, one of the dearest protégés of the revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, was assassinated in May 1979, musicians who were loyal to the regime wrote a song to commemorate him. They presented the song to the Imam himself, and (as I describe in greater detail in chapter 4) Khomeini was so moved that he vowed to support this "beautiful music committed to the revolution."

After that, music of a certain kind was green-lighted for broadcast on the radically conservative state media. Indeed, the state made heavy use of music for its revolutionary propaganda and during the long Iran-Iraq war, which broke out soon after the revolution and raged from 1980–1988. But it repressed other kinds of music, often punishing people who made, traded in, and consumed them. Even makers of Persian classical music, which the revolutionaries viewed as unadulterated by Western influences and as "authentically" Persian, were at first severely restricted in their art. Eventually, however, Khomeini's views and a later postwar edict, in 1988, opened the floodgates to music, and in the years since, every major genre of music has been practiced to varying degrees of official or underground reception. Throughout these changing circumstances, female musicians have suffered the most. Women's voices were deemed un-Islamic soon after the revolution, and so some of Iran's most famous musicians of all time were forced into what seemed to be permanent silence. This silence, this nearly total absence of the female voice in postrevolutionary Iranian music production, is glaring, all the more so because it stands in stark contrast to the soundscape of Pahlavi-era Iran. The solo female voice remains officially banned to this day.

Music has played an important role in Iran's political upheavals since the Constitutional Revolution of 1905–1911, when Iranians rose up against the Qajar-dynasty ruler Mozaffar al-Din Shah to demand a constitution, which led to the establishment of Iran's first majles, or parliament. This period produced some of Iran's most enduring freedom-seeking songs, a repertoire that was kept alive throughout the 1979 revolution and revived yet again at the height of the Green Uprising in 2009. In the social realm, music has been important for at least that long as a way to relay critiques and to broach taboo subjects, often using playful, innocent-sounding folk songs that belie their sharp edges. And in the years since the Pahlavi monarchy was toppled in 1979, the children of the revolution have come of age and expressed their critiques of political and social conditions on a wide musical scale, continuing a tradition that links the many Iranian generations who have sought political freedom for over a century.


Still in the throes of its own revolutionary genesis, the newly formed government of the Islamic Republic set out in 1979 to create a vast series of laws and institutions to Islamize the country's politics as well as its polity. This affected everything from the regulation of the public sphere and the creation of media content to the formulation of school curricula, as well as more personal matters like dress and alcohol consumption. When the constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran came into being in December 1979, it stipulated in its Article 4 that:

All civil, penal, financial, economic, administrative, cultural, military, political, and other laws and regulations must be based on Islamic criteria. This principle applies absolutely and generally to all articles of the Constitution as well as to all other laws and regulations, and the fuqaha of the Guardian Council are judges in this matter.

In his first New Year's address as Iran's leader in March 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini emphasized above all that a "fundamental cultural revolution all over" Iran was necessary. In subsequent speeches and decrees, Khomeini reiterated the goals of this policy:

Exiting the ill-formed western culture, and replacing it with the Islamic-national educational culture and the cultural revolution in all fields across society, demands such an effort that we should strive for long years to materialize it and fight [against] the deeply-rooted penetration of the West.

In order to determine the outlines of this revolution, Khomeini decreed that a Cultural Revolution Headquarters be created, and it was established and in force by early 1981. It was also legally stipulated that the state be established on Islamic foundations, but due to the position of moral and religious supremacy the new regime had adopted, it set out on a somewhat ambiguous objective not merely to regulate the public aspects of its citizens' lives, but also to enforce correct Islamic behavior in the private sphere. In the first decade after the 1979 revolution, the state — through its mobilized masses of volunteers, the basij — undertook aggressive incursions into people's private lives.

The importance of universities and student activism in Iran's 1979 revolution was amply clear, and so the first task of the Cultural Revolution Headquarters was to Islamize universities, which were shut down for three years during these operations. The universities were purged of about twenty thousand professors who either espoused other political convictions, such as Marxism or liberalism, or were not believed to be sufficiently revolutionary. Within this new political context, being revolutionary meant believing in and practicing Islam and fully supporting the state's new ideology and political system, which were based on the "guardianship of the jurist," the Supreme Leader. Other tasks involved training new professors, purging universities of nonrevolutionary students, and revising textbooks.

In December 1984, the new Supreme Council for Cultural Revolution replaced the old Cultural Revolution Headquarters, and its tasks became more formalized and all-encompassing. This new body was now in charge of Islamizing all aspects of society, not just the universities. Khomeini soon decreed that "the declarations and directives issued by the esteemed Supreme Council of the Revolution must be enforced." The body was declared the highest instance for the determination of the country's policies in all spheres of culture and education, and while it is not a legislative body, its decrees carry legal power.

With the success of the revolution, Iranians were for the first time witnessing a state that claimed to be the official protector and promoter of Islam, although for centuries Iranian kings had claimed legitimacy on a two-pronged basis: national and Islamic. In fact, it had been the clergy's very lack of involvement in, or even oppositional stance towards, former governments that had caused many Iranians to trust the clergy. And now, after the victorious revolution, many believed that Khomeini would retreat to the religious seminary town of Qom. Many (mostly middle-class) Iranians who regarded themselves as believing Muslims, but whose religious beliefs and practices were not as strict as the version that was officially propagated, felt alienated and disenfranchised by the government's discourse. Not surprisingly, the vast reach of state-imposed Islam has rendered the interpretation of what exactly Islam means and where its place is in Iranian society one of the most contested matters for recent cultural production, including music.

The mainstays of Islamic Republic ideology, as projected in regime speeches, policies, and material culture, have remained fairly consistent over more than three decades. They include immense devotion to Islam, the Prophet Mohammad, and the twelve Shia imams. It is not enough to be inwardly committed to Islam; one's piety is to translate into ideological allegiance and must be outwardly visible. (This is why during the strictest postrevolutionary years, clean-shaven men or men sporting Western neckties were punished. A man could be an observant Muslim, as indeed many clean-shaven, necktie-sporting men were, but if he did not grow an "Islamic" beard or if he appeared to support Westernization through his attire, he was suspected of not supporting the revolution.) Another hallmark of this ideology is indebtedness to a long series of martyrs who sacrificed their blood for the potential or actual Islamic Republic, from martyrs of prerevolutionary eras, who agitated for a strict Islam and were later lionized by the Islamic Republic, through martyrs of the revolution and the Iran-Iraq war and beyond. Other elements of this ideology include an aversion to vanity and earthly joys, strong anti-Western sentiments, and pride in independence. As the revolutionary leader Khomeini had avowed, the motto of the new Iran was to be "nasharqi, na gharbi," neither Eastern nor Western. An important component of Shi'ism and hence a pronounced part of the new ideology is also fervor for the twelfth imam, Mahdi, the hidden messiah. And finally, full commitment to the political system of the velayat-e faqih (the rule of the jurist) and subservience to the "Guide of the Revolution" (the Supreme Leader) are indispensable elements of this ideology. In his theoretical treatise on the velayat-e faqih, Khomeini concludes that religious jurists have "the same authority as the Prophet and the imams, ... in other words, disobedience to the religious judges [is] disobedience to God."

Guided by their benevolent leader, Iranians were promised a truly Islamic society that would be the exact opposite of the corrupt, Western Pahlavi puppet regime. This new Iran "would be free of want, hunger, unemployment, slums, inequality, illiteracy, crime, alcoholism, prostitution, drugs, nepotism, corruption, exploitation, foreign domination, and yes, even bureaucratic red tape. It would be a society based on equality, fraternity, and social justice." The discrepancy between these lofty promises and the inevitable unfolding of reality has not ceased to offer substance for critique in cultural productions.


In July 1979, the all-powerful new leader Ayatollah Khomeini shared his views on music in a speech to state radio employees:

One of the things that intoxicate the brains of our youth is music. Music causes the human brain, after one listens to it for some time, to become inactive and superficial and one loses seriousness. ... Of course music is a matter that everyone naturally likes, but it takes the human being out of the realm of seriousness and draws him toward uselessness and futility. ... A youth that spends most of his time on music becomes negligent of life issues and serious matters, and becomes addicted — just like someone who becomes addicted to drugs, and a drug addict can no longer be a serious human being who can think about political issues. ... Now you must take these issues seriously, and turn away from jokes and light matters. ... There is no difference between music and opium. Opium brings a sort of apathy and numbness and so does music. If you want your country to be independent, from now on you must transform radio and television into educational instruments — eliminate music.

In the new Islamic Republic, then, music was to be neglected, if not eliminated altogether. Most kinds of music were soon prohibited on radio and television, music schools were shut down, and musicians, especially female singers, were badly treated. Soon the new state prohibited the importing of foreign cassette and video tapes and recorders. The state regularly deployed its forces, at the time known as the komiteh or just basij ("committee" or "volunteers"), to confiscate such equipment from cars and homes, punishing the owners with lashes or fines. In the first decade of the Islamic Republic, when thousands of young men were falling in the Iran-Iraq war, the only tunes broadcast on state television were marches, patriotic hymns and songs, and religious lamentations (noheh-khani).

The permissibility of music in Islam has always been a matter of interpretation, and views have ranged from a total ban to permission for all music and instruments, including dance. Since the ultimate authority in Islam, the Qur'an, does not mention music explicitly, and the sunnah — traditions of the practices and sayings of the Prophet Mohammad as recorded through hadiths — offer little clarity on the subject, Muslim scholars and authorities have interpreted various verses in the Qur'an according to their own points of view. Most of the Islamic discussion has revolved around three Qur'anic verses where abstention from "lahw al-hadith" (idle talk) is advised, which conservative Islamic scholars have interpreted to mean music, espousing the view that music is "futile folly." However, some of the most important and influential Islamic theoreticians on music, including Al-Ghazali, Al-Farabi, and Avicenna — all of whom happened to be of Persianate origin—viewed music favorably. Ghazali's work on music, which many other scholars followed as a model, concluded that both "statutory and analogous evidence indicate the admissibility of music." A major point in his argumentation, which has since been replicated by authorities within the Islamic Republic, is that the impression that music leaves on the heart "follows the rule of what is in the heart," meaning in effect that it is the intention of the listener that determines his or her reception of a piece of music.


Excerpted from Soundtrack of the Revolution by Nahid Siamdoust. Copyright © 2017 Nahid Siamdoust. Excerpted by permission of STANFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

1 The Politics of Music 1

2 The Nightingale Rebels 37

3 The Musical Guide: Mohammad Reza Shajarlan 63

4 Revolution and Ruptures 87

5 Opening the Floodgates to Pop Music: Alireza Assar 109

6 The Rebirth of Independent Music 157

7 Purposefully Falsh: Mohsen Namjoo 183

8 Going Underground 209

9 Rape Farsi: Hichkas 235

10 The Music of Politics 263

Acknowledgments 283

Note on Transliterations and Translations 287

Notes 289

Select Bibliography 327

Index 339

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