When a state decides to assert supreme control over its people, the arts tend to be at the front-lines of the symbolic firing squad. This is especially true for music. There are few other art forms that can so quickly and easily hold a mirror up to society, for good or for bad. Music can unite in times of war, tear apart in times of revolution, heal in times of sorrow. It can further disenfranchise or bring you closer to God. All it takes is one person with an idea and a guitar.
This is the central theme illustrated repeatedly in Soundtrack of the Revolution: The Politics of Music in Iran, Nahid Siamdoust’s fascinating history of Iran’s music industry. From her bio, Siamdoust is a journalist by trade and currently a research scholar at New York University’s Hagop Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies. She writes about Persian music and culture with authority and obvious studied insight as she can lay claim to not just professional, but also personal information on the many facets of Iranian music and the stages it has gone through since before the Islamic Revolution of 1979. She has personally attended performances by many of the artists she details, and intersperses that with interviews of the artists, bureaucrats and leaders that have been part of Iran’s music industry.
The book is written in a matter-of-fact, historical, non-fiction style. There is drama and tension sure enough, but oftentimes the writing plods under the weight of facts and figures and in depth historical context. Still, the information and insights into Iranian culture and politics of music are riveting enough on their own merit. The book portrays a proud, independent and resilient culture that has stood on its own in spite of 50 years of war, isolation and instability.
A fascinating account of the history of Iranian music and its decline following 1979
Iran remains one of the few countries in the region that have not fallen victim to post-colonial trauma; it has remained Persian in essence throughout its modern history. Of course, it has been a victim of outside forces. Those events — such as the installation of the Shah prior to the revolution — still reverberate today, but culturally Iran has remained ‘Irani’ throughout. Against this tumultuous historical background, we are introduced to several well-known, and some not so well-known artists. This book is primarily about their story and their struggles.
Beginning with ‘The Politics of Music’ and ending with ‘The Music of Politics’, the chapters in between range from Western classical artists to pure Iranian classical, revolutionary acts segue into hip-hop oriented rappers and political rebels. Several themes play over and over, but the main — and most obvious one — is how the Islamic Revolution regulated and stifled Iran’s music industry.
Being a musician myself — one who has lived in the Middle East, the southern United States and the Islamic Republic of Pakistan — I see, all at once, striking similarities and stark differences in the stories of the musicians and artists. I remember the 1980s when anything remotely Western was pronounced anathema to the state of Pakistan. Only state-approved music was allowed to flourish. Odes to nationalism were encouraged. Vague romantic pop songs were tolerated. Things were not much different in Bahrain where I grew up. Interestingly, things were not all that different in the US either, at least in Texas where I lived. Granted, there was more freedom to spout political animosity or even satanic imagery, but these were generally relegated to the underground musical bylines.
Mainstream artists were expected to toe the line and basically sing praise or vague romantic ditties. When the all-female trio The Dixie Chicks, a mainstream country band, publicly denounced the then president George W. Bush for the Iraq invasion, they were ostracised and had their careers derailed. Still, the West affords much more freedom to artists in general and apart from the need to self-censor in order to feed oneself or cater to a certain demographic, the idea of state-controlled media is an alien one there.
In the decades leading up to the revolution, things were certainly not all roses, but this historically strong culture of Persia was constantly at play and evolving. Western musicians and art forms were given a higher priority (and a higher pay grade). And like our subcontinental traditions of Indian classical versus folk, a formal divide existed between the “higher” art forms of Avaz, a ghazal based style of singing and accompaniment, and the more “popular” form of Tasnif, a taraana style of song.
Of course, boundaries were constantly blurring in such a rich and diverse culture. There is so much subtlety and nuance in these art forms that the author can be found tripping over herself trying to put a thousand years of artistic development into a few paragraphs. The traditional lyrics she gives in the book tend to be highly symbolic and flowery, something anyone in the subcontinent would recognise as familiar and inherent. I found myself amazed at how much interchange and interdependence our cultures have seen, and yet we seem to be alien to each other.
Events take a darker turn as the revolution gets underway. This was where I found the book most interesting. At times it felt like I was reading an alternate timeline of the way Pakistan could have gone: Music, in general, is banned, with the minor exception of stark religious hymns (sorud) and nationalistic laments with sombre drums for accompaniment. Eventually, in the middle of unrelenting war, with most of the country’s youth fighting to the death at the front-lines, any expression of joy and playfulness is frowned upon. Many mainstream artists flee the country. Those who stay only perform small private shows, and are mostly critical of the way the revolution has turned out.
By the end of the decade and close to the end of the century, things begin to get better. The state starts to allow the sale of musical instruments. There is more musical freedom. As tape recorders and emerging technologies such as CDs take hold, pop culture — and with it newer, Western forms of music — takes root. Artists again begin pushing boundaries and openly questioning authority. Some take the old art forms and turn them upside down. Others forge new paths. Metal and rap begin showing up. And so it goes.
The book ends somewhat drearily with a comparison of two performances: one is a Persian music show in the United Kingdom and the other is a performance in Iran. This comparison suggests that the UK show seemed — to Siamdoust — genuine and authentic while the Iranian performance seemed joyful, but ultimately empty and vacuous.
For all the intimacy, care, and love Siamdoust shows for the vast and magnificent musical culture of her homeland, I cannot help but wonder about certain Western-centric approaches she takes towards political ideas that run counter to her own. However, I will always agree with her essential point: an open and free musical and artistic environment is essential for a healthy culture to thrive and grow.
The reviewer is a guitarist and music producer
Soundtrack Of The Revolution
By Nahid Siamdoust
Stanford University Press, US
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, November 19th, 2017