By Kristen McTighe, The New York Times
At the same time, with international media coverage of Iran regularly dominated by the country’s violent repression of internal dissent, its nuclear ambitions and the consequent international sanctions and confrontations, the sisters are part of a different Iranian world that struggles for visibility behind the headlines: a flourishing underground music scene, both at home and abroad, which has remained resilient despite rigid theocratic restrictions on musical expression.
They face another challenges, too, in the scattered lifestyles of their band: Safroua lives in Stockholm and travels frequently to Spain; Melody lives in New York; other band members live in cities across Sweden.
“In the beginning it was a family project, something that my sister and I did for fun,” Melody Safavi, 36, said by telephone, referring to their band Abjeez, which is Persian slang for “sisters.” “Then, when we started getting all this positive feedback from people in Iran, we realized we could really touch people with our music.”
The sisters fled Iran with their family in 1986 during the Iran-Iraq war, fearing for their safety after their father was temporarily jailed for his political activism. Revisiting the country in 2003, they found a society deprived of exposure to musical diversity. Determined to challenge the barriers, they began Abjeez in 2005.
“We wanted to show people they could experiment with new sounds, with different types of music,” said Safoura Safavi. “Iranians didn’t have to be afraid.” Melody began writing lyrics in Farsi and Safoura wrote the music. In Stockholm, they found a diverse group of backing musicians from Sweden, Norway, Scotland and Chile. Their brother, Sufi Safavi, helped them to develop their sound and took charge of management.
Together they began creating, performing, and touring across Europe. To reach Iran, they used the Internet, posting videos to YouTube and elsewhere. The video of their song “Eddeaa,” or “Pretention,” from their break-out album “Hameh,” poking fun at the clash of modern and conservative cultures, was entered in the short film competition of the 2007 Tribeca Film Festival in New York.
“The way Melody writes, it’s very easy to understand and it uses a lot of humor,” Safoura Safavi said. “We like to enlighten people to difficult issues in our culture with humor.”
Now they say they want to use their music as a platform to show support for the gay and lesbian community, an issue Melody Safavi says few Iranians are bold enough to address, because of taboos.
“Gay people are getting executed because of their sexual orientation. Their families and loved ones are left alone with no social or psychological support whatsoever,” said Melody Safavi.
Though Safoura Safavi said they did not want to be merely a political band, she acknowledged that their activism was an important part of their music.
“Being an Iranian, you have no choice but to be political,” she said. “And being outside Iran, it’s our duty to speak up.”
In 2009, as violence erupted in the streets of Tehran after the disputed presidential elections, the band used their music to support the protesters.
During the protests, Melody dashed off the lyrics and Safoura the music for “Biyaa,” or “Come,” a reggae-style song urging the police to end violent attacks on demonstrators. While a video posted to Youtube showed black-clad, baton-toting police officers driving motorbikes into crowds of protesters and beating any who came within reach, the sisters say it was the song’s message of love that struck a chord with Iranians.
“Lay down your weapons, open your hearts, no more fighting, we are one,” the sisters sang. The video was posted on June 20th, the day that Neda went to the protests with her music teacher but became a symbol of the protest movement when a bullet pierced her chest. Her dying moments were recorded by a cellphone camera and uploaded to the Internet.
The song’s video clip went viral and has since received more than 97,000 views on YouTube. But while the Safavis have been able to experience musical freedom and speak out against the regime from abroad, they remain aware that their ability to perform would be challenged had they remained in Iran and have sought to help artists at home.
“We are helping artists in and out of Iran through our contacts, mentioning them to festivals and people in the business,” Sufi Safavi, the brother, said last week. “We have to help each other to become stronger.”
In the years since the Islamic revolution, Western music has been tightly restricted and women are banned from singing solo in front of mixed crowds in public.
But despite the harsh realities for artists, many say an active music scene still flourishes.
“It’s an incredibly inhospitable environment for music, so it’s all the more exciting to discover that there is a vibrant underground music scene centered in Tehran that includes rock, hip-hop, heavy metal, jazz, funk,” Austin Dacey, an adviser to Freemuse, the World Forum on Music and Censorship, said by telephone last month.
“There are thousands of really high quality groups that exist in an alternative universe of private parties, mp3s, of CDs traded by hand,” Mr. Dacey said.
Saeed Kamali Dehghan, an Iranian journalist who wrote from the capital for The Guardian during the aftermath of the 2009 elections, also said an active music scene existed, with many artists harnessing the Internet to evade government control.
“Many music clips are produced on YouTube and watched by millions of people, and many of them are very amazing,” Mr. Dehghan said. “They don’t have access to expensive equipment or studios and it’s impressive how successful they have been just on the internet. When they post on Youtube, they are forgetting about the money, they are just doing it for the sake of art.”
Earning any money from this has proven a challenge. But Iranians abroad have begun to help.
Babak Khiavchi, an Iranian software engineer living in Seattle, founded one of the first Persian Internet radio stations and started an independent record label for Iranian artists.
“I first started the Internet radio station. Then I realized nobody was getting any payments,” Mr. Khiavchi said. So he helped their put music on iTunes, Amazon, and other Internet sites for profitable digital distribution.
“Basically, it was creating a channel from Iran’s underground music scene to the Internet with the help of digitalization,” Mr.Khiavchi said. “There isn’t really any money in it for these musicians, so this just gives them hope.”
Other Iranian musicians are finding alternative ways to perform. Mahsa Vahdat, a traditional Persian singer is one of numerous Iranian women who have chosen to tour abroad in order to continue singing.
“If women sing, it’s a power. They afraid that they can influence people,” Ms. Vahdat said recently by telephone from Iran. She says she refuses to sing inside Iran, where she must be accompanied by men or sing in a choir, because it would limit her art.
“Of course in Iran, all of this banning music and of women singing has a religious excuse, but it is something different,” she added. “The leaders are fearful of this power.”
While Ms. Vahdat says her music isn’t political, other female performers see music as a force of political change.
“I look at my rap more of a means for bringing change than a type of music,” said Salome MC, one of the first female rappers in Iran who has become an outspoken political voice.
“You have to sacrifice, no one hands freedom to you. If they do, that is another type of oppression,” she added, making clear her belief that change will come through artists and activists like herself, as opposed to foreign military intervention.
And while artists like Salome MC continue to use their music for change, others hope the world will be able to see the culture that exists despite strict control.
Iran “is a country that is producing music, poetry, and art even with oppression,” Ms. Vahdat said. “We have a lot of beautiful things that we can present to the world, and I hope this wall that is trying to stop Iranians from showing our culture to the world is broken.”
Photograph via Flickr