In The Mideast, An Online Music Site With A Message

The Iranian band Comment formed in Tehran

The Iranian band Comment is one of hundreds listed on the Mideast Tunes site. After the group formed in Tehran, it began recording in a home studio. The band cites Radiohead, Pink Floyd and Dave Matthews as influences. Mideast Tunes hide caption

itoggle caption Mideast Tunes

A new website dedicated to underground music from the Arab and Islamic world hopes to be a MySpace for musicians pushing for social change.

Fans of hits like "I Shot You Babe" — an Iraqi ditty based on the Sonny and Cher tune — can find the songs on the Bahrain-based Mideast Tunes site.

Esra'a al-Shafei, 24, founded the English-language site and is also director of the group Mideast Youth.

She tells NPR's Steve Inskeep that the group's music site — a sort of regional iTunes, but free of charge — is intended to allow musicians and listeners to connect in a part of the world where many young people feel helpless. A 2009 U.N. report says 60 percent of the Arab world's population is under the age of 25.

"I hope to have people become more aware of what's going on around us from people whose lives are at risk. And they're risking their lives to tell you their stories," she says.

The song "I Shot You Babe" was recorded by an Iraqi artist who calls himself DJ Foundation. Al-Shafei says the artist must remain anonymous for his own safety in a country riven by war and sectarian discord.

"I think he's trying to show the absurdity of the violence around him," she says. "I think it's a sad song, but in a funny way. I mean, it's good that people laugh out loud. But it's the kind of song that makes you laugh for five minutes and think for 10 minutes."

Despite the social and political restrictions in Iran, a number of musical artists have emerged in the Islamic republic, particularly in the metal and hip-hop genres.

"You know, being in a metal band [in Iran] potentially can get you killed," she says. "A lot of it is extremely controversial. It's very rare that you listen to [Iranian] hip-hop music and it doesn't have an extremely religious or political message."

She cites an Iranian rapper named Foad Manshady, of the Baha'i faith, who takes risks to relate the problems of being a religious minority in Iran. The music can be danced to, she says, but the lyrics are extremely powerful.

The website collects music from throughout the Middle East and North Africa. But al-Shafei says there are limits to expression, even in her home country of Bahrain, where parliamentary elections will be held on Oct. 23.

"A lot of them tend to stay away from local politics," she says of musicians in Bahrain. To criticize the monarchy, she says, "you're basically calling for your own head."

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