'Sounds of Silence': Rocking Out in Iran A generation of artists are creating and distributing new music behind the back of the Islamic republic. Eschewing traditional music approved by religious censors, these musicians rock -- and even rap -- while dodging the authorities.
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'Sounds of Silence': Rocking Out in Iran

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'Sounds of Silence': Rocking Out in Iran

'Sounds of Silence': Rocking Out in Iran

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This is DAY TO DAY, I'm Alex Chadwick.


And I'm Madeleine Brand.

Iran, it makes headlines almost daily.

CHADWICK: What we read in the papers and see on TV and hear about on the radio usually is about Iran's nuclear enrichment plan. Often there are pictures of gray-bearded Mullahs cloaked in black robes and turbans.

BRAND: But Iran's population is a lot younger than these media representations have led us to believe. Sixty-five percent of Iranians are actually 25 years old, or younger.

AMIR HAMZ (Iranian filmmaker): So what happens if you are walking on Tehran's streets, you literally only see young people? Could be in a cab, could be in a police station, could be the guy who's selling, I don't know, vegetables next door. Almost everybody is young in Iran.

BRAND: That's Amir Hamz; he's a young Iranian filmmaker from Germany, who co-directed a documentary about Iran's underground music scene. Alex, the youth of Iran want their MTV. Amir and I talked about how they're creating and distributing new music behind the backs of those gray-bearded Mullah's.

(Soundbite of music)

BRAND: Well, so you profiled some groups and bands in your movie. Where are they playing and who are they playing for?

Mr. HAMZ: It was a bit, pain in the ass - I'm sorry to use this word - to get hold of these bands, because obviously, since there is no real music industry it was really hard to get hold of these bands. So fortunately, the Internet was very very helpful in that case. And they normally play in basements, they have studios in basements; but also within their own four walls they just have a little computer screen, they bought a nice mike and just do their own thing.

(Soundbite of music)

BRAND: And what kind of music is it? Describe it for, for people who haven't heard it.

Mr. HAMZ: There's real large variety of music. So, starts from rock, that you would probably also hear from, I don't know, Pearl Jam and all these kind of established bands; but also trance; hip hop. At least those bands that we covered, they combine it with oriental elements.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. HAMZ: So for example with very old instruments, like setar or buzok. Lyrics from old poems, for example Hafez, Molana; they wrote poems centuries ago and they incorporate these kind of lyrics in, in their songs. So it's really interesting that they stick to their oriental roots and are very proud of being Iranian.

(Soundbite of music)

BRAND: Describe the process that Iranian musicians need to follow in order to get their music played.

Mr. HAMZ: Well if you want to organize a concert for example, you have to apply for a well, official venue permission from the venue owner. Parallel to that, you also have to apply for Ershad for permission.

BRAND: What's that? What's Ershad?

Mr. HAMZ: Ershad is this Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. And if both parts green-light then you can, well you can have a concert. But of course, you have to follow all the rules.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. HAMZ: You can't dance during a concert, not even head banging. So it's always a seated concert. And if they see, for example, someone dancing in the crowd, or someone even dancing on stage - which is of course, much much more dangerous, then they would instantly cancel it.

BRAND: Cancel it?

Mr. HAMZ: Yes, it, it has happened already. If you want to publish your music, you have to apply for Ershad permission, and they have three different committees. One of them is only checking and controlling the lyrics. So they basically go through the scripts, read everything, and follow it.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. HAMZ: Then the other committee is checking the music in general; and the third committee is called the cultural committee; they try to figure out whether the music as a complete thing could cause any trouble if people listen to it.

(Soundbite of music)

BRAND: What are they afraid of?

Mr. HAMZ: I can't answer this. Honestly, I don't know. I think. I don't know. That's an interesting question. I don't know what they are afraid of.

BRAND: Well perhaps they're afraid of creeping Western influence, in society, and the devaluing of their culture?

Mr. HAMZ: Possible, possible.

BRAND: But you don't know.

Mr. HAMZ: Maybe I do know, but it's possible, sometimes - you know it's better not to answer.

BRAND: Why not, why?

Mr. HAMZ: Well you know, I don't want to cause any trouble. I mean all these fans still live there, and you know, it's better not to answer everything.

BRAND: Okay.

Mr. HAMZ: That is, by the way, Madeleine - that is one of the strong elements of the film. At least for Iranians - of course with subtitles it's always a bit harder, that our protagonists sometimes don't say everything they want to say. But the way they look, the way they pronounce something, can at least tell you a little hint of what they actually want to say. So I would call them, in general Iran's people, in general, rhetorically well-trained so they know how to act to the outside.

BRAND: Is that why you called your documentary sounds of silence?

Mr. HAMZ: In a way, yes.

BRAND: That is the somewhat mysterious Amir Hamz, co-director of a new documentary, Sounds of Silence. It's a film about the underground music scene in Iran. To hear songs from the bands profiled in the documentary, go to our website, NPR dot org.

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