ISLAMIC HEAVY METAL IN MIDDLE EAST
The landmark album from EMI is about to drop. Flowers in the Desert, featuring 19 of the best metal, rock, hiphop and rock bands from the Muslim world featured in the book and produced by Mark LeVine, is scheduled for a pre-holiday release.
“We play heavy metal because our lives are heavy metal.”
-Reda Zine, one of the founders of the Moroccan heavy-metal scene
“Music is the weapon of the future.”
An eighteen-year-old Moroccan who loves Black Sabbath. A
twenty-two-year-old rapper from the Gaza Strip. A Lebanese singer who quotes Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song.” They are as representative of the world of Islam today as the conservatives and extremists we see every night on the news. Heavy metal, punk, hip-hop, and reggae are each the music of protest, and in many cases considered immoral in the Muslim world. This music may also turn out to be the soundtrack of a revolution unfolding across that world.
Why, despite governmental attempts to control and censor them, do these musicians and fans keep playing and listening? Partly, of course, for the joy of self-expression, but also because, in this region, everything is political. In Heavy Metal Islam, Mark LeVine explores the influence of Western music on the Middle East through interviews with musicians and fans, introducing us young Muslims
struggling to reconcile their religion with a passion for music and a desire for change. The result is a revealing tour of contemporary Islamic culture through the evolving music scene in the Middle East and Northern Africa. Heavy Metal Islam is a surprising, wildly entertaining foray into a historically authoritarian region where music just might be the true democratizing force.
As the crisis in Iran continues to unfold, Mark has kept in regular touch with many of that country’s leading metal and hiphop artists, who have been sending him regular updates on the situation. To follow their reports, check out Mark’s blog on the Huffington Post HERE which has links to Mark’s analyses of the evolving situation. MEANING
FLOWERS IN THE DESERT
Blog Posts From Iran’s Metal and Hip Hop Artists: Is Music the Weapon of the Future in Iran?
Despite a general ban on most forms of popular music by the Islamic government in Iran, rock music has become one of the most vibrant forces for critiquing the various ills of Iranian society, and the basic ideology of the Islamic Republic as well.
When I last visited Iran I was amazed at how vibrant, and how courageous, the heavy metal and Hip Hop scenes had become. Long before the current violence, metalheads were willing to risk arrest, forced haircuts in jail, beatings and even threats to their families in order to pursue the music they love. The loose clothing and short hair favored by hip hoppers have made them a less obvious target for regime thugs and morality police; but both extreme metal artists and hip hoppers in Iran have been arrested for the politically and socially charged nature of their music, which circulated throughout the internet despite the best attempts of the government to stop it.
Music, and artistic expression more broadly, has always been a core part of Persian culture. While music has yet to play a public role in the protests similar to the role of artists in the Beirut Spring of 2006, they are working behind the scenes, using their art as a way to write about the experiences of the last week, and to describe a vision for a better future.
I have been in contact with some of the most innovative and talented artists in Iran over the last few days. Below are some of the emails they’ve sent me describing what they’ve been experiencing. I’ve changed the names to protect their identities, but to quote one rapper about the his use of Tupac Shakur’s lyrics, “Those who know, will get it…”
The great Nigerian Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti titled his last album “Music is the Weapon of the Future.” In the current protests in Iran, it is bubbling under the surface, and will help shape the way the still young Revolution will develop now, and be remembered later. For more information about Iranian metal and hip hop artists, including links to their videos and music from the forthcoming EMI album Flowers in the Desert, please visit here . I have uploaded the galley from the chapter of Heavy Metal Islam dealing with Iran here to help contextualize the situation in Iran vis-a-vis its all important youth culture.
For more analysis on this issue you can see my articles on the protests at al-Jazeera’s English website here, for the Social Science Research Council here, and for the Huffpo here.
And if you are an Iranian artist/musician/rapper, or know any who want to share their experiences, please have them contact me at mlevine@.
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For an arts perspective on the situation in Iran, Tehranavenue.com, the online magazine covering the arts scene in Tehran (and which has sponsored several online “battle of the bands” featuring some of the best metal groups in the country), has extensive coverage of the protests, including videos. And it’s in English. Check regularly for updates. HUFFINGTON POST
An Iranian death metal song that predicted the rebellion of the youth over 2 years ago:
ArthimotH – Baptize (Iranian Death Metal)
Officially, I had been invited to Iran to give some academic lectures and meet with members of the religious establishment. But my real reason for coming to Iran was to meet with musicians. “The first thing you need to understand about music in Iran today,” Behnam explained, “is that you can’t show instruments on TV because that’s considered against religion. You can have people playing them on TV, and you can hear instruments and the music, but you can’t see the musicians playing the instruments, except for the daf [a type of drum] or flute—unless, of course, you’ve got an illegal satellite dish.”
Indeed, in a society where there’s not much to do outside the home, dinner has become one of Iran’s most important social lubricants. A member of Iran’s top metal band, Ahoora, told me, “Our whole life is inside.” Inside you don’t need to wear your veil, you can blast your music, dance, watch pirated copies of the latest Hollywood—or Bollywood—movies, kiss your girlfriend, and otherwise feel free. Of course, most Arab/Muslim countries try to control the use of public space by citizens—both where and how they can come together and what they can do and say when they do so. But in Iran the level of control is greater than in any other country outside of Saudi Arabia; it’s surely the envy of the Egyptian or Pakistani Interior Ministries. As in the old Soviet Union, there simply is no public sphere in the traditional meaning of the term, as a space where citizens meet publicly and freely discuss issues of social or political concern.
The basij, and the interests they serve, have made it nearly impossible to find a good place to play or hear heavy metal in Tehran. For the most part, nontraditional music, and rock in particular, is heard not just indoors, but quite literally underground, in basements, the storage rooms of apartment buildings,
and parking garages. Performances are occasionally allowed, but only under tightly controlled conditions, and even then they can be canceled with little notice, sometimes in mid-performance. Few countries in the world have repressed non-official public culture, and particularly music, as thoroughly as has Iran.
What most defines Iran for me is a particular musical interval, one traditionally unique to Persian and Indian music. Called the koron in Persian, and a “neutral third” by Western musicologists, the first time I heard the koron it literally stunned me, since it’s almost completely unknown in Western classical or popular music. It is a microtone, an interval less than the semitone (for example, C to C#), which is the smallest interval traditionally used in Western music. The koron is formed by taking the major third of a key and lowering it by somewhere between a quarter-tone and a third-tone, which produces a very strange and unsettling yet somehow “neutral” sounding interval, so it’s difficult for a westerner to tell whether the piece is being played in a major or minor key. The koron is not used very often in Iranian metal because it’s difficult for fretted instruments (and impossible for the piano) to play microtonal intervals. But it helps us understand the complexity of Iranian culture more broadly—that is, the ability to hold two seemingly contradictory positions and achieve a kind of reconciliation, or harmony. MEANING.ORG
Seeds of Iblis claims to be from Iraq, they also claim that they are initially formed as a four-member band including two men and two women with the concept to desecrate the principles of Islam. However, none of the previous information is certain.
THE ROOTS OF IRANIAN ROCK
Heavy metal joined the sonic environment around the end of Iran’s brutal eight-year war with Iraq. Perhaps the first band to achieve something of a breakthrough in the metal scene was O-Hum (Illusions), founded in 1999. The band plays a well-orchestrated blend of Western hard rock and Persian traditional music and instrumentation, with many of the lyrics taken from the fourteenthcentury poet Hafez. After its first album was rejected by the Ershad, or Culture Ministry, band members created their own website and offered free downloads of the album—one of the first Iranian examples of using the Internet to get around state restrictions on cultural production. By 2000, there were roughly fifty bands just in Tehran, but the scene had a hard time growing because it’s so difficult to make it as amusician in Iran and the government routinely cracks down on alternative cultural expression.
A professor who works closely with the Miras Maktoob Institute (Institute for the Written Heritage) explained the larger phenomenon reflected by Iranian metal this way: “On the one hand, in the current political situation you can’t come to the surface here; the ‘real underground’ is in Iran these days, and one would imagine that because of this we are isolated from the rest of the world. Yet Iran has been at the crossroads of culture since Cyrus the Great. We’ve always been open, that’s why the Iranian government has tried, and failed, to suppress our instinctual drive to reach out and absorb other cultures.” MEANING.ORG
The song NUKE MECCA from the second demo “NUKE MECCA 2011″ for TADNEES, Anti Islamic Black Metal Band from Saudi Arabia
Censoring the Uncensorable,
Foregrounding the Underground
The restrictions the regime has imposed on the performance of music are many. As Behnam explained, “The most important thing is that you can’t see women singing on TV, and they aren’t allowed to sing solo in public, so musicians have to do special arrangements of their music in order to have at least two women singing, or singing in the chorus of a performance featuring a male singer.” Women are clearly the most heavily censored and filtered “item” on the Internet in Iran as well. Tens of millions of websites are blocked, as part of what one scholar terms the “gender apartheid of Iran,” just because
they contain the word “women” in them. The government automatically assumes that any website with women as a subject is “immoral.”
Politicians, prophets, and even philosophers have been warning societies about the threat posed by music, and especially the female voice, to the social order since Homer introduced the Sirens to literature and Socrates urged the banning of eight types of music in the Republic on the belief that they encouraged drunkenness and idleness. Early Muslim leaders— although not the Qur’an—held similar views. After the Iranian Revolution, one newspaper explained, “We must eliminate music because it means betraying our country and our youth . . . Music is like a drug, whoever acquires the habit can no longer devote himself to important activities.”
[…] Ultimately, the near-total ban on rock music during the Revolution’s first fifteen years was loosened a bit under the presidency of Mohammad Khatami, who was more responsive to the demands of the younger generation than had been his predecessors Khamenei and Rafsanjani. Metal bands even managed to get permission to hold a few concerts during this period, but President Ahmadinejad’s election in 2005 led to the banning of all Western music from state-run TV and radio stations, making it harder—but not impossible—for fans to hear live metal in Iran.
Schools have been on the frontline in the struggle for the soul of young Iranians since the Revolution. High schools were both where most metalheads were introduced to the music and where the government tried to clamp down on it from the start. Guitarist Ali Azhari, one of the most important artists in the Iranian scene, recalled with a smile, “The principal of my school had a shelf in his office filled just with my T-shirts and bracelets. He was trying to demetalize me,” Ali said, coining a new word to explain exactly what was being done to him. “But it didn’t work.” Later on, when metalheads started to become a more public, if strange-looking, presence on the streets, the government began to accuse—and soon after, indict—them for being satanists, spreading Western culture, and simply for being in a metal band (which, when I checked the Iranian penal code, was not actually a crime). Convictions of musicians were almost always overturned, but the government’s point was made. MEANING.ORG
AN ANTI-ISLAM DEATH METAL GROUP FROM BALTIMORE: INFIDEL
Is This Music or Magic?
How Metal Invaded Iran
Indeed, metal “fever” had spread among young Iranians at the very moment that the fever of the Revolution began to dim. As Pooya put it during yet another four-course meal at the home of a musician, “Out of the death of Khomeini the flowers of metal grew.” Another musician picked up on the paradoxical image of metal as beauteous and life-affirming, explaining that when it first hit Iran, metal was “like a flower growing in the middle of the desert” of Iranian politics and culture.
Like the sitar, the setar has movable frets that make it possible to play various modes of Persian music and the combination of semitones, quarter-tones, and korons that characterize it. I was aware of how versatile the instrument was, but I’d never listened to the kind of traditional Persian music Sohrab was playing for me, particularly the songs based on the segah mode, which combines a koron with a semi-flat re, or second, for a truly haunting sound. MEANING.ORG
Epic Persian Fantasy Metal Music – The Blade Dancer
Like Walking Without Legs
Finally, Iranians connect with their music through the Internet, not just in English but in Farsi as well (while only one in sixty people in the world speak Persian, the language ranks fourth in frequency of use in Internet blogs). As Behnam explained about Tehran Avenue’s focus on creating a web-based community of artists and fans: “Increasingly we’ve chosen to go through the cyberworld because of the ban on live shows.” But, I wondered, how do you do music without live shows? Behnam thought for a second and agreed, “Yes, it’s like walking without legs. Music is supposed to bring people together and create communities—real, not virtual. If you can’t do that, then something is missing.” MEANING.ORG
Iranian Metal band “Aliaj” (www.zirzamin.se)
New Gods and Old Martyrs
“When you breathe in our country, it’s political,” admitted Ali Azhari. “But even so, we’re not doing stuff to harm the system, we’re just trying to survive.” Ali was trying to convince me of his innocent intentions. But it was hard to take his protestations of innocence very seriously when he was wearing a T-shirt that read, your god is dead. Ali’s T-shirt, but not his argument, made more sense when he introduced his new project, Arthimoth. “Arthimoth is a newborn god I created myself, a combination of an ancient Persian name with the Greek goddess Artemis [the goddess of the wilderness and fertility]. I thought that this is the time to re-create ancient gods as a legacy of our fathers. Musically, we try to remix very old, traditional Iranian village music with contemporary music and especially extreme metal. In other words, we root the metal in our culture.” MEANING.ORG
Master Of Persia – Mazda Huu @ Persian Metal Festival 2012 In Armenia
From Boom Boxes to Mobile Phones:
Tehran’s Streetcorner Public Sphere Bahman, rhythm guitarist for Tarantist, explained that in Iran the idea of a unique Iranian identity is so strong that “anything that looks like a foreign culture is frowned upon. Especially if it comes from the U.S.” Yet hip-hop, which even more than heavy metal is identifiable as a product of the “Great Satan,” has had an easier time of it in Iran than its hard-rock counterpart (the baggy clothing preferred by rappers does have the advantage of being more Islamically acceptable than the tight leather pants, T-shirts, and menacing-looking jewelry
that define metal style). Indeed, rap has played a central role in creating a broad sense of community against the grain of the regime’s wished-for Shi’i utopia, very often without arousing the suspicion that it’s doing just that.
[…] One of Iran’s rising female rappers, Salome, explained: “The true meaning of hip-hop culture [is] a lot deeper than it looks on the surface. It’s become much more eclectic than it was previously, and much more out in the open. As important, it’s become Persianized instead of just copying the West. For example, I only use natural instruments, without samples [the digitally recorded bits of instruments or other songs that has long been the foundation of hip-hop production] in my songs.”MEANING.ORG
Iranian Metalheads in Tehran
AN INTERVIEW WHERE THE GERMAN METAL GROUP EMPYRIUM IS MENTIONED!
[…] Drugs are in fact a huge problem among Iran’s youth. According to a 2005 UN report, the country has the highest addiction rate in the world, especially for heroin and related drugs. “Natural and synthetic heroin, even synthetic crack; we got it all in Iran,” a member of the metal band Ahoora admitted. “Yeah, we have an abundance of everything here—drugs, oil, money—everything except freedom,” another band member chimed in. MEANING.ORG
Metal in Iran, Soul of metal reach the East
[…] I understood why rap was spreading so quickly and deeply in Iran: rappers have succeeded in reclaiming public space for themselves in a way that metalheads can only dream of. “There’s around 1,000 rappers just in Tehran,” Peyman explained, “and we constantly meet and have battles in the parks. One of the most important is [the appropriately named] ‘Joint Park,’ or ‘Cigari Park’ in Persian. Basically, when we want to meet and have a battle, the word goes out through SMS messages or announcements on Persian-language rap sites. At least two times a month we have these gatherings, and up to 200 rappers and fans show up. Once we have a critical mass of people”—MEANING.ORG
Khepri – Oriental Metal (Best Compilation)
Needing Each Other, or
Needing to Defeat the Other?
[…] The public sphere was neither absent nor deep underground: “It’s just developing in less noticeable ways, outside of mainstream popular culture. Just look at the large increase in the number of NGOs in Iran in the last last four to five years.” But at an even more basic level, the universities are where much of the most interesting developments are taking place, according to Abid. He sees this especially in how students in seminaries and “secular” universities are combining religious and nonreligious courses of study. “Seminary students are taking courses in human rights or sociological theory, more women than ever are enrolled in universities; you can see the change in the personality of students, as the focus on politics of the post-Revolution generation has also given way to more of a focus on personal issues,” he explained. Abid believes that most Iranians want better relations with the West. “We have to do two things: first, get rid of this conflict between Islam and the West; and, second, learn how to understand the West for both good and bad. The changing position of the religious establishment toward music is a good indication of the possibilities for such a rapprochement.
The hope is that as Iran’s overwhelmingly young population expands the horizons of what is a legitimate part of Iranian culture, that too will change. Indeed, Abid expressed confidence that a rapprochement with the United States, and with the West more broadly, would ultimately occur. In the end, he told me as I got up to leave, “the two sides need each other a lot more than they need to defeat the other.”
Iran’s Unplugged Heavy Metal Heroes
During my last few days in Iran, I was lucky to meet up with two of the bravest and heaviest musicians in the country. The first was Mahsa Vahdat, one of the best young singers of traditional Persian music in Iran, who gained international notice with her beautiful duet with British singer Sarah Jane Morris on the celebrated 2004 album Lullabies from the Axis of Evil. […] MEANING.ORG