|9T Antiope. Courtesy Bandcamp.|
“By the time I was a teenager living in Tehran, underground music was all rock, metal, and hip-hop,” says Siavash Amini from his home in the Iranian capital. “In the past [all] musicians wanted to be mainstream, but were forced to stay small and underground.” Speaking to Amini —freshly returned from his first European tour—the changes in both the climate and the mindset in present-day Iran become clear. “Right now,” Amini says, “being underground is not as much a limitation as it is a decision to disconnect from the mainstream.”
The existence of any kind of underground or electronic music scene in Iran is a relatively recent development, arguably part of a quiet and generally slow shift in the country’s post-revolution identity. Those changes came to a head with the election of reformist and relative centrist Hassan Rouhani as President in 2013, which opened up a doorway for Iranian relations with foreign countries, all but shut off after decades of international sanctions.
The Islamic Republic that emerged from the 1979 revolution quickly quashed the country’s burgeoning pop and rock music scene, in favor of state-approved folk and classical styles. Iranian pop and rock musicians stayed all but silent throughout the 1980s, but years later, after the arrival of globalized digital media and swappable MP3s, government repression isn’t enough to stop a new generation of musicians creating digital noise, heavy techno, and textured ambience.
With rock and pop music increasingly entering Iran’s opening mainstream, it’s hardly surprising that instrumental electronic music has become the touchstone for Iran’s underground musicians. For one thing, wordless music is often too subtle or oblique to be perceived as an ideological threat and censored. For another, as in the West, the means of production have been entirely handed back to the artists, who are able to record and distribute at home, even able to send files to foreign labels and journalists while they’re at it. Local experimental musicians can now perform live regularly in Tehran (in fact probably far more regularly than like-minded local musicians can muster in far costlier cities like London or New York), and they now also host their very own festival, called SET.
The election of an isolationist far right American President, along with the waning of liberal thinking in general, signifies no small threat to the development and progress of the young scene. Notably, Donald Trump’s infamous proposed—and briefly enacted— travel ban includes citizens from Iran, regardless of the fact not a single deadly attack has taken place on American soil at the hands of an Iranian citizen since 9/11.