Pop music from Iran: both ordinary and unusual

April 2010 -

Rather quickly after the Iranian revolution in 1979, there was a genuine revival of classical music from Iran. Shajarian, Nazerie and Hossein Alizadeh have become popular guests in prestigious concert halls. Of course, there is also pop music in Iran, but people are less familiar with it. But that is about to change.


Scene from 'No one knows about Persian Cats'

"Do you like Indy rock?" Naghar asks a young woman. "Yes, I love 50 Cent and Madonna." This dialogue from the film No one knows about Persian Cats by Bahman Ghobadi shows how differently pop music is viewed in Iran than in the Western world. This is not strange, since pop music is forbidden in Iran. However, in a country in which half the population is under the age of 30, such a ban is tricky.

Bands practice in basements, on the roofs of flat buildings and even in cow stalls. The word underground conjures up images of violent rap songs full of militant texts or harsh metal sounds. You will find this sort of music in Iran, as well, but you will also find much more. The April 2010 issue of the ever-vigilant British world music magazine, Songlines, includes a CD containing music by fourteen Iranian pop acts. In addition to rap music and hard rock, the CD contains a surprising number of melodious rock, 'easy listening' and light folk songs. In other words, not particularly revolutionary; most of the texts are anything but inflammatory. Nonetheless, even smooth sounding guitar licks find no favour in the eyes of Ahmadinejad and his henchmen.

Many bands dream of performing abroad. In No one knows about Persian Cats, we find dubious persons that demand astronomical amounts for a passport. The film offers a good glimpse into the recesses of a complicated, but fascinating country that is difficult to understand. Because Ghobadi was certain that his line was being tapped, he used a different telephone every day during the filming. When he promotes his film abroad, pop musicians travel with him, if they can. The main character Negar Shaghadi and Ashkan Koshanejad of the band Take it easy Hospital have both profited from this arrangement; they now live in London. Others continue to slog on in their basements and place their music on the Internet.

No one knows about Persian Cats won the special jury prize in Cannes in 2009 and will be playing in Dutch cinemas starting 1 April 2010.