I Made Music in Iran, Defying Laws

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Tooka Zokaie and members of Barobax

Credit: Toorak Zokaie

Tooka Zokaie and members of Barobax

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (WOMENSENEWS)–I have broken the law. It was not my intention to go against the government; in fact, I did not realize my crime was serious enough for jail time or even expulsion from the country. (I have been paid for committing such behavior in the past.) My bookshelf has certificates and trophies for participating in this enterprise. Alas, I must confess my offense. I, a female, have played piano for a mixed gender audience, and yes, they clapped and danced to my music.

As a pianist, I value the ability to create, share and celebrate music. Yet, when I went to Iran this summer, everything I participated in related to music was illegal. I played piano to male audiences, participated in underground concerts and danced without my headscarf to Persian pop music. From young girls in Iran being arrested for posting their dance video on YouTube to public memorials being shut down for the recent death of underground Persian pop artist Morteza Pashai, we have seen that the rights for musicians are extremely weak in Iran.

The people in Iran hold celebrations in the street with delicious honey cookies, tea, and prayer music when remembering the 25th anniversary of Ayatollah Khomeini’s death. The officers did not stop the citizens who covered the streets on this holy day. Yet, one day after the death of Morteza Pashai, the mourning city of Tehran tried to make a memorial in the streets by playing his music and holding up pictures of his face. The officers quickly shut these down, for the government already banned his passionate music.

With lyrics such as "cuddle me . . .  reduce my sorrows and tears with your restless glance . . .  make me in love again" men and women may be inclined to dance together intimately; dangerous in a country where holding hands in public with someone who is not your immediate family could result in jail time.

While in Tehran, I was playing with maestro Anoushirvan Rohani, but only ever in private residences. Playing in mix gender groups is illegal in public halls, especially without headscarves and montohs, a long covering that prevents the expression of a womanly body.

It was personally disheartening to see fellow female music teachers who could not perform for audiences because of their fear to be caught. What are the rights exactly for female musicians in Iran then? Here goes.

It is not only female musicians who are oppressed. Men cannot perform either if their lyrics are too enticing or can promote "scandalous behavior."

I had a chance to personally interview Tehran’s male underground pop band Barobax in the comfort of their burger shop.

Their music is internationally recognized, and their famous video among Iranians "Soosan Khanoom" has more than 2.5 million hits online. Yet, the group has never put on a formal concert.

They explained that if they were to tour outside of Iran, it could potentially get them banned from the country. Furthermore, their music is too upbeat to be allowed in Iranian music venues. The band continues to produce their own music and play underground, but one could never buy a ticket to a Barobax show in their country.

Despite all the different rules, there is one thing you can do in Iran that is not allowed in America.

There are no copyright laws for music in Iran–thus no need for YouTube to MP3 hacks. It is completely legal to walk down the street and purchase an entire collection of music for less than a dollar (if the songs are government approved, of course).

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