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Farah al-Zaman Shawki

When Iran went pop

Iran saw a resurgance in counter-culture during the 1990s [Hulton Archive]

Date of publication: 12 May, 2015

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Culture: It took an Islamic revolution to put the brakes on Iran's pop culture explosion. With the election of a 'liberal' administration, I-pop is back in the spotlight.
When pop music arrived in Iran following the Second World War, the songs were almost always US classics translated into Farsi.

By the 1970s, the situation had changed.

Iranian bands and singers were beginning to pen their own songs, and audiences were growing fast.

But when the Islamic Revolution came round in 1979, and war with Iraq broke out in 1980, the popularity and strength of pop music in Iran declined dramatically. 

Iranian pop stars who once enjoyed huge fame and support were forced to flee the country.

New era

The Islamic Revolution's fundamentalist outlook and ideological opposition to Western culture and values threw this new form of music into disrepute.  

When the reformist Mohammad Khatami won the presidential elections in 1997, the chains were beginning to loosen - even if a little.

Pop stars got permission from the authorities to record and license their albums, and perform in public. 

Among the bands to gain almost instant success during these years was Pallett - a folk-rock group made up five young Iranians.

Their debut album, Mr Violet, was the voice of Iran's younger generations and its success took them on an extensive tour outside Iran.

Today, they are working on a new album Smile, Tehran, which explores life in Tehran. 

What distinguishes Pallett from their rivals is the diverse musical backgrounds of its members.

Lead singer Omid Nemati has experience in traditional Persian folk music, for example.
     We experience far fewer problems today than we did before.
Omid Nemati, lead singer, Pallett 

Rouzbeh Esfandarmaz, meanwhile, plays clarinet, Dariush Azar performs on the upright bass, Mahyar Tahmasebi is the band's cellist, while Kaveh Salehi plays guitar.

Esfandarmaz told al-Araby al-Jadeed about his earliest memories with the band.

"Our first official performance as a group was when we were invited to perform in a special concert in aid of an organisation for cancer treatment," he said. "Then, after the concert, we decided to keep going and become a band."

Sounds of the street

The band agree that political changes in Iran have played a role in the evolution of what young people were listening to, as they attempt to fuse pop sounds with traditional Iranian music.

"We experience far fewer problems today than we did before," says Nemati. "The years under the rule of the conservative president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad created difficult circumstances for pop musicians." 

Pallett only had their new album and tour authorised recently, and they say that this shows how music and art in Iran is influenced by political changes in government

"We are guided today by a much more open-minded government," Nemati says. 

But Nemati believes that conventional pop does not represent Iranian culture - and this is why the establishment does not promote this form of music.

"Iranian television, for example, does not allow the filming or airing of any modern musical instruments from the West, and instead only broadcasts their sound," he said.

Guitarist Salehi wants legislation changed on this.

"Television shows war and weapons, and yet refuses to show different musical instruments, and is content only with traditional instruments," he explains.

However, they believe that Iran, and Tehran in particular, is experiencing dramatic changes. Here, you find young Tehranis playing pop music in the streets - something that would have been unimaginable not long ago.

It has inspired Pallett to take to the streets themselves to promote their music among the masses. Pop music is here in Tehran to stay.

This article is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.

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