Music Belongs to the People

Mohammad Tangestani
Over the last year Iran’s hardliners have launched an assault on music, calling for bans on concerts and live performances. In recent months, the offensive has intensified.

Female singers have been banned from performing solo on stage since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, although they have been permitted to sing as part of a chorus or larger group. But now, in many cities across Iran, female musicians are not allowed to appear onstage at all. On March 9, Hamid Reza Nourbakhsh, the director of professional association Iran’s Music House, reported that women had been banned from performing music in 12 provinces.

But the attack on music is not confined to female performers. According to one prosecutor, the Ministry of Islamic Guidance and Culture has canceled all concerts in Khorasan, eastern Iran, “for the moment” — including those concerts that had initially been given permits. On March 10, a group of artists and musicians in Mashhad, Khorasan’s capital, wrote to the governor, asking him to stop silencing music. They have not received a reply.

Hossein Alizadeh is an Iranian composer, music teacher, string instrumentalist and researcher. According to AllMusic website, he is “one of Iran’s leading classical composers and musicians.” In 2007, he was nominated for a Grammy Award along with Armenian musician, Djivan Gasparyan, for their collaboration album, The Endless Vision. In November 2014, the French government  awarded him a Legion of Honor for arts, but he refused to accept it, saying that he did not desire such an honor.

In mid-March, Alizadeh toured Europe, giving IranWire the unique opportunity to speak to him about music in Iran, as well as the social restrictions on musicians and the sexual discrimination female musicians regularly face.

Considering the popularity of foreign music among the Iranian youth, what role do you think traditional Iranian music plays in Iranian society today?

We better not categorize music into traditional and non- traditional. “Traditional” music means that you have conventions from the past and you are repeating the same thing. In Europe, you listen to baroque and classical music without thinking that this music must change for the period in which you are living.

The role of our traditional music is like that of our literature. Our traditions are part of our history and have taken roots in our culture. So I don’t think that if I want to compose a work or play an instrument I have to remain faithful to traditions or have to repeat them. I am only faithful to tradition when I can derive my identity from it. But I express myself in the present.

The best thing about art is that it is never a slogan for today. It goes to the depth of human beings. Political questions and slogans disappear, but the most truthful thing in society is art. When you listen to a work from a certain period you hear that period, without an intermediary.

Unfortunately, in countries like ours, we always live in today. Every short period is only about that period. I am not talking about regime or government changes. Even when an official changes, the situation changes as well. But art is very enduring.

What do you think about the situation of music and music concerts in today’s Iran?

I have always tried to defend the dignity and honor of Iranian music in the country. We have to see what defines the identity of the people. In all cultures, music is a very important component of human identity.

Viewing music from the wrong angle is a historical problem for us. I do not mean just right now — this question has its own place there, of course — but I mean for centuries and centuries. The great religious thinkers have ignored the question because there is a taboo that music has no place in discussions of sharia. This has led to a knot that is very difficult to untie.

I believe that people who are really into art and play music with their whole being are very spiritual people. There are people who claim to be spiritual, but commit many offenses. [In Iran, the clergy are often addressed as the “spirituals”.]

I do not believe that we should meekly ask the establishment to pay attention to music. It is not very important for me whether this minister or that official pays attention or not. What is important for me is that people take it seriously. Fortunately, as you witnessed in this concert, not all the audience was Iranian. The world pays attention to Iranian music and Iranian culture when it is offered from the viewpoint of love, friendship and peace.

All these years people have supported the music. I do not agree with some artists who believe that the atmosphere is too suffocating. Yes, from the viewpoint of the government it is suffocating, but what does it matter?

They ask me what do I expect from the authorities and I say: “Nothing!” A government official who has never listened to music throughout his life and does not know what music is can easily insult music. But Iran does not belong to officials. It belongs to the people. When I mention music, I am talking about the music of Iran, not the music of the government. Iran, the land of Iran and its art, is eternal. I truly believe in these things.

In Iran you are known as a thinker. You have referred to music as something “sacred”. This word has religious overtones. Do you view music from a religious point of view?

For me, music is a sacred thing. It is not easy for people who are against music to understand what I say. “Sacred” means you are faithful to something with all your being. When you consider your country as something sacred, your land becomes sacred and you are ready to give up your life for it.

It is the same for art and music. Religion must not be separated from questions of life. I talk about sacred music because it makes every fiber in the human body vibrate and makes humans sacred too.

I have always objected that in my country people who believe in the sacred insult music. I believe this comes from ignorance because when an art form is exalted it touches human elements and brings human beings closer to each other, the same thing that religion does. I am a happy person because all throughout the years I have performed music with my colleagues, as difficult as the conditions have been.

About two decades ago you recorded the album New Secret. It featured Ms. Afsaneh Rasaei singing alongside Mr. Mohsen Karamati because she was not allowed to sing on her own. If you created music in a society without censorship, what would you have done differently?

The chorus was dictated by circumstances. I did not believe that taking out her [solo] voice was the right thing to do and I believe this is an insult to women. But you live in a society where people have various opinions and you are not the only person who decides what the law is. Before fighting each other we must come up with concepts that let society or even the authorities decide whether they are right or wrong. I am not in the business of deciding questions of sharia and I have no expertise in it. When I live in a society with legal limitations I have to come up with innovations and new forms.

When we have well-defined values in our society, then women will be able to make valuable contributions to the society. Then sexual segregation will become something ridiculous. We never say that because one doctor is a woman and the other one is a man then one’s work is better than the other. This is also true in politics and every field and every art.

I have a question. A lot of women take part in Iranian films. Why are they so strict about music? If they believe it is forbidden, then they should come out and declare that it is totally forbidden. Of course this would complicate divisions and increase confusion.

One day these problems in our society will be solved. In the meantime, we have to follow our own mission.