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Iranians Get Their Music Amidst Restrictions

Iranian band Kiosk, underground no more
Iranian band Kiosk, underground no more
That the Iranian government censors the news is nothing new. But the regime also tries to restrict the music Iranians listen to and create. Distorted guitar is illegal, and for an act to make it big it will have to submit lyrics to a government agency for review.

Arguably, no one is more in touch with Iran’s music culture than Payam Razi, the chief music producer for RFE/RL’s Persian Service (Radio Farda). Here, he explains the ever-evolving musical tastes of Iranians, navigating the authorities’ censors, and the rise of the home studio in Iran.

Q: Name some Iranian bands that people should be listening to.

Kiosk, 127, and Hypernova are quite well-known because they left the country and launched a professional career. But in the past few years, the appeal of rap music greatly increased. During these years, rap music changed rapidly and adopted itself to the rhythm of Persian language (Farsi) and introduced itself as a new music genre called Persian rap. Groups such as Hich Kas and Yas are the best examples of this.

Q: What types of music are you playing on Radio Farda?

Radio Farda is a 24-hour operation. We have a broad base of listeners, so we play a variety of musical genres. Like everywhere, musical tastes in Iran are in constant flux and differ from generation to generation. Many Iranian musicians moved to L.A. after the 1979 revolution, and a lot of Iranian pop music is produced there which was quite popular in Iran during the 80s in 90s. But with the years the gap between those musicians and new generations of musicians and listeners inside the country grew wider. We keep our finger on the pulse and look for bands and musicians that produce material inside the country – underground groups ranging from indie rock to punk to pop. But in order not to lose connection with our older audience, we keep playing the familiar, old songs as well. As a result, we play a creative and entertaining combination with a little bit of everything.

Q: What sort of interaction do you have with your audience? How do you know what they want to hear?

We conduct audience surveys on a regular basis and ask questions about our music program as well. We also receive thousands of SMS messages, voicemails and emails every week that have helped us build a close relationship with listeners. For us, the most important thing is to be as close to our audience as possible. And, with the rise of the internet, people have found a new way to listen to the music we play, and to underground musicians in Iran.

Q: What do the authorities ban in Iran? How do bands get around restrictions?

The first law came about 10 years ago, banning any sort of music using instruments that produced a distorted sound. Later, during Khatami’s presidency, the field was more open to the musicians and that was when lots of new bands began to surface. During the last five years, many albums and innovative musical styles were restricted not only because of their music, but because of their lyrics. Many bands cannot get their material played on the radio in Iran, and they are not allowed to perform concerts. We have created a special email address that allows them to bypass government restrictions: they email us their songs, and we play them on our radio and introduce their music to other Iranians. A lot of the songs we receive were produced in home studios in someone’s house or apartment.

Q: Did you see a change in what people wanted to listen to after the events of June 12?

I tried to change my selections because of what was happening in the streets of Iran. With people protesting, facing violence, and being under so much pressure, we wanted to play a type of music that kept people calm and that was appropriate in times of crisis. Listener feedback during our broadcasts also helped us adjust. We tried to play selections that focus on traditional and folk-type songs that people are familiar with.

--Zach Peterson