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Tuesday, 11 December 2007

Silenced Nightingales: Women, Culture and Music in Modern Iran

Written by Ai Watanabe
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IranI 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.

IranEach 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.

Governmental regulation on the performance or recording of music was intolerant to all, but especially to women. New laws declared women singing solo in public to be illegal, and the recordings of female vocalists were banned. Female performance, even instrumentally, was frowned upon. Allowances were eventually made for women to sing in choral groups with more than two female voices, which apparently would be less likely than a solo female voice to incite irreligious sentiments.

Governmental reluctance to approve public musical performances and the prohibition of unofficial ones had forced many musicians to hold private or underground concerts, in the relative security of family homes and also abroad.

Additionally, the presence of female musicians’ recordings on record store shelves was officially non-existent, creating a conspicuous gap in the musical history of the country. However, these recordings could be heard on the car stereo of any given taxi driver, on the computer of a teenager, or on the music video stations of widely available, but illegal, satellite televisions. Despite official deterrents, a lively black market exchange of female vocalist recordings attests to the continued adoration of these artists.

When the music teacher stepped out for a moment and only ladies were in the room, several women whipped off their headscarves and shook their hair out just to take advantage of the break. The summer heat was cooking us in our black polyester scarves and long coats, but still we sat in a tiny basement room with all the windows and doors closed. I wondered if it was this hot for everyone, or if one adjusts to the heat and heavy clothing after twenty-some years.

The ladies explained to me just how dangerous meeting like this was for them, and that because the sound can be heard even from outside, their teacher was fortunate to have sympathetic neighbors who wouldn’t report him to the police. The city in which we lived had a reputation for being more conservative than other cities, and violations of government policy could be punished by harassment, fines and imprisonment. However, aware of the risk, they had a burning in their hearts for the music and for the opportunity to express their feelings and frustrations, while perpetuating their cultural traditions.


A Song for My Country, ‘Los Angeles’

Before I had to leave, a young woman sitting in the corner wearing a gold headscarf declared that she wanted to sing me a song, because she loves my country, ‘Los Angeles.’ She sang a sweet song - rich and emphatic - a sentimental piece made famous by a 1960s pop star. In the mood of the song, she gestured dramatically and touched her heart.

As we walked out the door she gushingly told me how much she loved my country, Los Angeles, and how badly she wanted to go there and marry someone to get out of Iran. I explained to her that life in America is not easy either. Work is hard, hours are long, and there are no four-hour lunch breaks. However, for her, my country Los Angeles was a paradisiacal golden land that she idealized, as do so many Iranian youths who have little understanding of American reality beyond satellite television shows like ‘Friends’ or ‘Baywatch.’

She would not be dissuaded, explaining that in Iran, the government is bad to women and controls them; they can do nothing. There is no allowance for women in music and they are heavily restricted. She kept saying, ‘I just want to sing, I just want to sing.’ In the car, she sang and sang, as if she were auditioning for a ticket out.

When we drove by police cars, she sang softly so that we would not to be stopped, and when she stopped the car in front of my music school, she finished her song. Kissing me and giving me a warm hug, she sent me off to my music lesson. After the singing lesson and the car ride, the normal hum of life on the street seemed conspicuously dull and silent.

Music Under the Bridge

In Iran, musical vivacity is not immediately perceptible. Musical expression, like many aspects of modern Iranian culture, takes place primarily behind closed doors, or less freely in officially-approved and proctored events. However, if one lingers a bit and looks around carefully, just below the surface a vibrant musical culture is alive and bubbling.

IranThe city of Esfahan is famed for the beautiful, clear-watered Zayende River which cuts through the city and is crossed by a number of historical bridges. In the late afternoon, when the sun was unbearably hot, my friends and I often took refuge in the shade while other families rested under trees in the grass or strolled by the water’s cool edge. On the breezeway below the bridge small groups would form, mostly men lingering and talking. Then slowly, slowly, the singing began. Each singer made his own choice of poetry from the rich body of Persian literature, singing verses of poets such as Rumi, Hafez or Sa’di. In the cavernous echoes of the bridge’s arches, one after another, the men sang classical songs, popular songs, folkloric songs, for each other and for themselves.Iran

The men’s voices were powerful and affected me emotionally. And just as I was about to be taken away by the experience of hearing live singing, the question percolated in my mind, ‘but where are the women’s voices?’ The question jarred my sentimental reverie, and persisted in the back of my mind.


A Rare Event - An All-Ladies Concert

After eight months living in Iran I had my first opportunity to attend a concert featuring a female singer who would be backed up by four female musicians. Events such as this are rarely organized due to the amount of red tape involved, the fickleness of government approval and the difficulties involved in timing a schedule outside of the many Shi’a religious holidays. When the chance came up, my friend and I jumped at the opportunity and set off on an interminable taxi ride through the abysmal traffic that is the bane of life in Iran, to arrive at the concert hall which was inconveniently located on the outskirts of town.

As we arrived at the hall, a line of cars formed outside, all driven by husbands and brothers dropping off their wives, mothers, and sisters. Naturally, the event could only be staffed by women, and on our way in, women wearing black chadors searched us. What they were searching for, we had no idea, but regardless they took it very seriously so we obliged. We were admitted to the hall, and our tickets were checked by ushers who were carefully stationed to guard against men that might want to encroach on the privacy of the ladies’ event.

The hall filled up quickly – not a seat was empty. The program began with a solemn observance of the national anthem, for which everyone dutifully stood, and then a video projector splashed an unexpected film on the wall. For me, it was a surprising and heart-wrenching way to start a concert and certainly not anything I was used to watching at a ‘leisure’ event.

The film was about disabled, crippled and comatose war veterans and the women, mothers and wives who love them. The subject itself was admittedly realistic and pertinent and characteristic of Shi’a ideology, the emphasized themes were grief, sacrifice, and martyrdom. What appeared to me to be a depressing and slightly disturbing introduction to a musical event was perhaps by other standards authentic and un-sugarcoated, and a respectful memorial to the very real life sacrifices of thousands of people who had lived through a brutal war.

With the footage of sobbing women and badly-injured sons fresh on our minds, the artists came on stage. First the quartet of musicians entered, solemn faced and wearing matching head scarves, and then the singer. She was around fifty, composed and meticulously groomed. We all applauded enthusiastically as she began her song.

Though the hall was all female, only a few dared to remove their headscarves – shyness, habit, or bad hair days, I didn’t know. After three or four songs of classical and pop music there was a five-minute intermission during which we were served apple juice and cookies (true to impeccable Iranian hospitality and love of sweets). Then like clockwork, the group returned to perform their final set. The group finished to a standing ovation, after which they were immediately hurried off the stage. We, the audience, were duly herded out of the hall and on our way. Absolutely no lingering or loitering was permitted. Surprisingly, while most schedules or timetables were worth little in Iran, events for public gathering were punctiliously maintained in their timing and duration.

The entire event was cloaked with a sense of restriction and control, even in the flavor of the music. Both the music’s intensity and the listener response was inhibited and almost strangled. Music has the potential to stir up emotions and express sentiments that are unvoiceable in explicit terms, but this quality seemed lost in this context. The power of music as a form of expression is perhaps attested to by the very governmental need to control it. Why be concerned to strictly regulate an art, if not for fear of its power and influence?

Gone, But Not Forgotten – Memories of a Great Female Vocalist

Cordoned by high stone walls in Tehran is a small, picturesque cemetery. Draping branches with shiny almond-shaped leaves shade the oblong memorial stones, each inscribed with names, dates and images. The cemetery is reserved for artists, musicians and poets, for the influential and noteworthy. The most adored and respected figures of the Persian artistic world are laid to rest here, and an eternal place in this memorial is a testament to lifetime achievement.

When I visited the cemetery, the sky was grey and heavy. The trees glistened with moisture and tiny drops cooled our skin. Despite the weather, a number of visitors wandered along the pathways, reading the headstones and the poetry inscribed on them, chatting, joking, remembering.

In one corner, a small group of women and men were standing in the rain. A couple held umbrellas, and the others stood, transfixed, not heeding the rain that began to soak them. They were gathered around the headstone of Qamar al-Moluk Vaziri, the famous female singer who was the first to perform unveiled in public in the 1920s; a voice of classical and popular music of her day and into the present.

Before Qamar’s tomb a middle-aged woman, head uncovered, sang a song of Qamar’s, her unwavering voice echoing off the marble and stonewalls. It occurred to me how surprising and how powerful this song feels, and with which intensity it cuts the silence. Then I remembered that I hadn’t heard a woman sing outdoors in many months, because, of course, a woman’s voice alone in public is dangerous, tempting, and illegal. As she concluded her song, I couldn’t tell if the water on her listener’s faces was raindrops or tears.



© Ai Watanabe

Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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