Many a touring band has faced the same dilemma: you’ve managed to secure a one year cultural exchange visa to the United States, a country with which your government has had no diplomatic relations since the overthrow of the Shah and hostage crisis of 1979.Though it is illegal to distribute your demo tape without prior approval from the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, you were able to play a few gigs here and there under the lenient eye of the previous reformist administration.However, a new conservative government is in power, and it has clamped down on both rock musicians and draft dodgers.Your drummer and bassist must stay behind to complete their mandatory military service; your keyboardist will have to return early to return money he borrowed for the state’s student travel deposit.What do you do?
The answer, of course, is to pack your guitar and trombone and tour as a two-piece.Tehran’s 127, already the first Iranian rock band to play in the United States, is now the first Iranian band to do a follow-up tour, albeit with a smaller lineup.
On July 13, they returned to the belly of the beast, the Black Cat. This time, they brought with them the international media, with an Al-Jazeera camera crew capturing 127’s bouncy fusion of punk, prog, and jazz and the bilingual stage banter of Sohrab Mohebbi (guitar) and Salmak Khaledi (trombone).Al-Jazeera’s English-language affiliate was tipped off by D.C.’s the Cassettes, who had played 127’s previous Black Cat show two years earlier.This set up an unusual interview for the Qatar-based satellite network, known more for their coverage of sectarian strife in Lebanon than punks in sweatboxes.A segment on an Iranian rock band is “not that common,” acknowledges Al-Jazeera producer Sophia Qureshi, but “we try to balance hard news with human interest stories.” Given the glut of stories on tensions between the U.S. and Iran, the 127 segment “is a way of humanizing and understanding what’s going on from other people’s points of view.”
So what is the music scene like in Iran?Information is spotty and experts are of dubious credibility.“Twenty percent of the Iranian people are interested in modern music,” declares Mohammad Pazhutan, author of a 2001 article for Empty Words webzine, “Metal in Iran.” “They generally enjoy every style of music, listening to techno in their cars while joyriding through the streets.People listen to rap, hip-hop and pop music, and when they talk about rock, they mean Pink Floyd and Dire Straits, they aren’t interested in Rush or Led Zeppelin.”Metallica, too, is popular, although unfortunately only “the albums after 1991.”
127’s Mohebbi confirms that Pink Floyd and Jethro Tull are big influences, after someone smuggled their records into the country.“Before the Internet it was harder.Now that you have access to peer-to-peer networks it’s very easy to get music from other countries” – which, we hope, would at least point them in the direction of Metallica’s pre-Black Album material.But before Thomas Friedman starts spouting off about MySpace making the world safe for Western liberalism, Mohebbi reports that in Iran at least, the world is not yet flat.“We don’t have broadband.”
There is also the problem that most non-traditional music is still illegal, going back to the Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa against rock and roll (which, legend has it, inspired Joe Strummer to write “Rock the Casbah”).“There’s no written law that says what you’re not allowed to play,” says Mohebbi, which leaves much arbitrary discretion to the censors at the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance.Most issues arise from bands’ lyrics, which must be submitted to the Ministry in advance for any state-sanctioned shows or recordings.Some metal bands such as Khatmayan get around this by simply recording instrumental albums.Others like 127 go underground, playing house shows exclusively.“You invite people you trust,” says Mohebbi.“We invite five friends, and they each invite five of their friends.”As a result, shows are attended by insular cliques of Web-savvy music nerds who all know each other, go to the same shows, and start bands with each other.Not unlike a normal night at the Black Cat.
Sunday’s crowd was no typical shoegaze-revival or dance-night audience, however.In addition to Al-Jazeera, 127’s high energy show attracted a packed house that—-given thejokes in Farsi that everyone except this reporter seemed to get—-looked to be drawn largely from D.C.’s Persian community.The reception has been similarly enthusiastic throughout 127’s five months-and-counting nationwide tour, even in cities with little to no Persian connection. “In Pittsburgh there were no Iranians.But it was good anyway.”Mohebbi attributes this to both positive press and the popularity of “new wave-gypsy-punk” —-which is apparently an entire genre of music, despite comprising only one band you’ve ever heard of (Gogol Bordello), and Mohebbi is confused as to why 127 gets lumped in with them.“Maybe it’s the brass factor.”
Whatever it is, the crowd loved it.The novelty value may wear off, but 127’s earnest goofiness is about as foreign to most jaded Pitchfork readers as their music is to the Ershad.We can hope they won’t smuggle back everything they picked up on the US indie circuit, and Iran will be spared the scourge of MacBook DJs, fixie bikes, ironic facial hair and Sparks.God willing.