Underground Iranian Band Steps Out Of The Shadows

Making music is tough in Iran, the regime censors everything from lyrics to instruments. That's why the underground band Kiosk has brought their work to the U.S. Their sound is influenced by Gypsy jazz, Iranian folk, blues and rock. Guest host Jacki Lyden speaks with lead singer Arash Sobhani about their latest album, Outcome of Negotiations.

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JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

Recently, a friend handed me an Iranian music CD and said you have to hear this. My friend is an Iranian filmmaker and once, long ago, he took me to an underground jazz concert in Tehran. It was dramatic traveling through back alleys to get to the gig and I did a story on it for NPR then in 1997.

One of the musicians I met that night was a bass player named Marob(ph). Speaking through a translator, he mentioned the freedom music creates, even in an authoritarian society.

MAROB: (Through translator) I won't do anything that doesn't give me a sense of freedom. I feel freedom in the music and I think there will come a time when we will be able to perform for the public.

LYDEN: But that time hasn't yet come and the last I heard of Marob, he was playing bass in Toronto, yet their musicians continue to leave Iran. The music they make still rallies their followers. Iran's so-called Green Revolution was stymied after the elections of 2009, but exile doesn't mean giving up.

The band Kiosk hasn't. Their Persian lyrics are provocative, sharp, satirizing the hypocrisies in Iranian society. The group's influences range from Bob Dylan to Dire Straits to Balkan gypsy music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'M LEAVING")

ARASH SOBHANI: (Singing in foreign language).

LYDEN: So this song is called "I'm Leaving" in English and it's from the band's latest album, "Outcome of Negotiations," their fifth. And we're joined now by the founder and lead singer of Kiosk. Welcome, Arash Sobhani.

SOBHANI: Thank you very much for having me.

LYDEN: Would you just please translate some of the lyrics from "I'm Leaving" for us?

SOBHANI: Yes. Well, it says my days are full of fear and the arrival of night. My days and nights are both entwined with injustice. Darkness is the name or the password to this road and I'm leaving.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'M LEAVING")

SOBHANI: (Singing in foreign language).

LYDEN: You know, it's so evocative. What were you thinking about, specifically, when you were writing that?

SOBHANI: Well, it's the general feeling a lot of Iranians have to experience, the feeling of leaving home and leaving it with a mixed feeling of anger and feeling that you've been defeated by the destiny, so I think it was a mixture of that feeling and it stays with you for a long time.

LYDEN: Arash, why did you call the group Kiosk?

SOBHANI: First of all, kiosk means, basically, a temporary structure. Any temporary structure is called (foreign language spoken) in Farsi, which is kiosk in English and many other languages. And that temporary structure that we thought, you know, was a label of where we could get together and practice or do a jam session as musicians, so we would call that place because it was always somewhere new. You're really looking forward to be there and to rest under its shade and everything. You know, it was like a temple for all of us. I thought, that's the best name that describes the underground spirit of this band.

LYDEN: Let's play some more music. I love this song. I've had the catch of it in my head. It's called "It Never Rains Here Morteza." Morteza is a person's name and I only have a few words of Farsi, but I did get that it was wry and very funny.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IT NEVER RAINS HERE MORTEZA")

SOBHANI: (Singing in foreign language).

LYDEN: So you're singing this to this hapless fellow, Morteza. Tell us about it.

SOBHANI: Yeah. It's a friend that I used to go to and, you know, used to get drunk and I would, you know, nag about the situation and start, you know, complaining about this and that and he would just sit there and listen to me and pour me more drinks and it was like a free therapy for me. So this is the continuation...

LYDEN: With alcohol in the Islamic Republic.

SOBHANI: Yeah. Imagine that.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IT NEVER RAINS HERE MORTEZA")

SOBHANI: (Singing in foreign language).

So it's - you know, it's basically the same structure. I'm complaining about what the situation is with the people over there, with the country and where we're headed and I keep calling his name because he's probably in the kitchen looking for more stuff to drink.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IT NEVER RAINS HERE MORTEZA")

LYDEN: And you talked about contradictions. Some of the lyrics translate to - it doesn't rain here, but the streets are all wet. The cows are happy and yet they're in line for the sausage factory. Really, talking about that frustration that just slams from what you dream into reality.

SOBHANI: You've been to Iran, Jacki, and it's an amazing place in the sense of contradiction.

LYDEN: It is. Yes. In terms of contradictions and in many other ways and...

SOBHANI: Yeah.

LYDEN: ...extremely beautiful and talented.

SOBHANI: So you've seen how, you know, you have one of the youngest population of the region, yet the ruling officials are like 40 years older than the majority of the people. You've got, like in the kindergarten there, separating the girls from boys, yet you have the - I read somewhere a few days ago that the age of sexual contact has dropped down to 11. So, you know, you see all of these contradictions and all of these paradoxes in Iran and it really makes you wonder, where is this society headed to, you know? And it makes you worried.

LYDEN: Yeah. If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. We're talking with lead singer, Arash Sobhani, of the underground Iranian music band Kiosk. Their latest album is called "Outcome of Negotiations."

You know, we were talking before about how young the population is and has grown progressively younger ever since the 1979 revolution. Tell us about how many underground bands there are and what the government does to try to - we say, suborn that movement, even creating its own fake underground scene.

SOBHANI: I was invited by a friend of mine who runs a website about the underground music to be one of the juries of a underground music competition. I was surprised that 80 people submitted music in one category. It was a big surprise to me, so there are a lot of bands. There are a lot of musicians working underground in Iran.

And what the government is doing is exactly what they did with the cinema. When the Iranian cinema started to give the Iranian people a voice to start representing Iranians outside of the country, Iranian government created its own version of the independent cinema. They ruined the whole cinema for us. Now, they're doing the same thing with music. They're creating their own version of underground music and they're promoting it, trying to deviate the direction that these youths want to take with their music.

LYDEN: Arash, you lived in the U.S. when you were in high school and you've done some amazing homage to Bob Dylan. Also, there's a story about your uncle leaving his cassettes behind after the revolution. Talk about Bob Dylan's influence on you, would you?

SOBHANI: Yeah. I started playing guitar when I was 14 and I was in the States and, you know, any other young kid would want to be a rock star at that age and playing guitar was so cool and I really related to it and it was fun. But when I heard Bob Dylan, it gave rock music a whole new dimension. It opened so many doors. It was like it was a whole new thing. It was something beyond music. It gave it power. It gave it that edge. You know, it became a tool for me to express what I think about life and society and what's going on around me. I mean, I think Bob Dylan is a prophet.

LYDEN: Let's listen to your interpretation and this is from the song, "Always a Failure with You."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALWAYS A FAILURE WITH YOU")

SOBHANI: (Singing in foreign language).

LYDEN: Probably people were not expecting the Balkan violin in the Bob Dylan homage, but that's something, also, that you got. I mean, you do sound like this sort of Dylan-esque character and then you have a female Iranian violin player for your gypsy music. Yeah?

SOBHANI: Yes. Yeah. Tara Kamangar. She was actually born in the States, but she's a professional piano player, but in our band, she plays violin and we're so lucky to have her. When we came to U.S., I started relating more and more to gypsy music and I think a lot of it had to do with the fact that gypsies like us, they don't belong to anywhere anymore. They just have to keep moving and they take their music with them. And there's a sense of joy and sadness in their music that I found I relate to more and more every day, so we decided that we had to add a violin and we're so lucky that Tara accepted to join us.

LYDEN: Because you are - Tara, who I just want to give a shout out, studied social anthropology at Harvard, I believe I read.

SOBHANI: Yes.

LYDEN: Quite an amazing performer. Well, Arash Sobhani, it has been such a pleasure speaking with you.

SOBHANI: Thank you.

LYDEN: Arash Sobhani is the guitarist, lead singer and lyricist of the underground Iranian music band Kiosk, and he was kind enough to join us from our bureau in New York and we want to say (foreign language spoken) and (foreign language spoken).

SOBHANI: (Foreign language spoken).

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