I walked into a dark, cramped musical instrument shop beneath a shopping mall and was greeted by a slight, skinny man with braces on his teeth. After exchanging cordial greetings and making small talk, he offered me a seat on the drum beside him. Then, wordlessly, he reached for his satar, a four-stringed lute, which he started playing very gently.
Suddenly a powerful, resonant voice exploded from him, with tones so precise and clear that they sent shivers up and down my spine. The melodies he sang were deeply emotional and melancholy, and when he finished his song I could barely catch my breath to return to conversation. He explained the scales and the histories of the songs he sang, and the poetry he had chosen for the melodies. Upon discovering my enthusiasm for Persian classical music, in confidence he invited me to a small class where he secretly taught a ladies’ singing class.
Singing in the Basement
I had been studying and traveling in Iran, but hadn’t yet heard any live female singers, so I was intrigued. During my year of studying language, literature, and music at an Iranian university, I saw the effect of governmental control over music in ways that I had never imagined, having grown up in the American suburbs.
The next week I went to the class that my musician friend held in a stuffy basement apartment. His students were ladies of ages ranging from their teens to their sixties, from students to grandmothers. Sitting along the wall in scarves and overcoats, the ladies sang the lessons that they had carefully memorized to the slightest melodic nuance.
Each song expressed their individual characters, and simultaneously showed an enduring, age-old sentiment, characteristic of Persian classical music. The distinct modes in which they sang embodied this centuries-old tradition, interpreted and cultivated in modern times and in their own lives. As I observed these women staring quietly into the patterns of the carpets, studying the cracks on the wall, or tapping their fingers in rhythm, I was curious about their experience of this music, and what it meant to them to continue to study despite the risk of harassment.
After Iran’s revolution of 1978-79, governmental policy on the performance of music changed dramatically. Musicians suffered persecution, as did many high profile figures from the previous regime, and many immigrated to Europe or America.