Clad head-to-toe in black, the international uniform of heavy metal, Mahyar Dean looks the archetype hard rock guitar hero.
But along with the mandatory Marshall amplifier and out-sized drum kit, his group, Angband, also boasts a couple of goatskin percussion instruments that have been a familiar part of Persian music for centuries.
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In a country where western music is banned, Dean is part of Iran's booming underground scene, making rock, Iranian style.
"We are trying not to get far from our roots, by using Persian percussion," Dean said, pointing out the daf, a traditional hand-held drum which looks like a super-sized tambourine with metal chains on one side of the skin that add a scratchy, shimmering sound.
But as Iranian as Angband wants to be, it has had to look further afield
to get its music released, signing with a German label, Pure Steel
To be produced within Iran, music must be approved by the Ministry of
Culture and Guidance, which checks lyrics and music to ensure they
conform to the moral standards deemed acceptable in the Islamic
Classical Persian music and some forms of pop have prospered under the
system, but genres like rock and hip-hop have remained almost
Many Iranian bands do not bother asking for the mandatory government
permits to release their music and seek contracts with foreign companies
or put their music on websites blocked by the state but still
accessible to anyone with a modicum of technical nous.
The 37-year-old founder of Angband plays down the disadvantages of being a rocker in Iran.
"In addition to becoming internationally known, better CD quality is
another reason why we want to have our albums on foreign labels," he
said, playing with his long wavy hair.
HARD ROCK, SOFT WAR
Many Iranian clerics regard western music as haram, forbidden by Islam.
"Haram music has never been halal (religiously permissible) and it will
never be," influential cleric Ahmad Khatami said in July, according to
the ISNA news agency.
For the conservatives, western music, movies and television are seen as
part of a deliberate "soft war" waged by the West to corrupt Iran's
But access to the Internet and illegal satellite television mean western
culture is popular among young Iranians, in a country where 70 percent
of the population is under 30 and has no real memory of the 1979 Islamic
revolution which toppled the US-backed Shah and ushered in an Islamic
"Underground music is a mirror of our society's situation... We express
in our music the parts of reality that we are not allowed to say," said
Ali, a 28-year-old Tehrani who composes rap music.
"This honesty and sense of freedom are why young people are becoming more hungry for banned underground music."
In a home studio in central Tehran, its walls and ceiling covered with
insulators to avoid the music being heard outside the apartment, a
four-piece rock band "Wednesday Call" is rehearsing.
"Initially we thought that we would be able to obtain permits to release
our albums but after (political) conditions changed, it is not even
something that crosses our mind anymore," said the band's guitarist,
In the 1990s, particularly under the two terms of the reformist
President Mohammad Khatami, authorities began relaxing restrictions
imposed after the revolution. That trend was reversed by hard line
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who came to power in 2005.
Musicians' struggle against censorship was the subject of a 2009 movie
"No One Knows About Persian Cats," which won the Special Jury prize at
Cannes but, like the music it depicted, was banned by the Iranian
In the film, a young woman singer Negar (Negar Shaghaghi) and her
musician boyfriend, Ashkan (Ashkan Koshanejad), buy false passports and
visas and emigrate to London to pursue their ambitions.
In real life, too, many Iranian musicians have left the country in order to continue practicing their art.
Singer-songwriter Mohsen Namjoo, dubbed "Iran's Bob Dylan" by The New
due to his protest songs, was sentenced to five years' jail
in absentia for insulting religious sanctities. Namjoo lives in
California but his music is still heard in Iran.
"I love Namjoo's work and I dream that one day he can have a concert in
Iran," said Nahal, a 24-year-old private sector employee who downloads
all his works.
With 24-hour MTV-style Persian music channels beamed into Iranian homes
by satellite, mostly from Los Angeles, home to a huge Iranian émigré
community, the state has hit back, not only by cracking down on illegal
satellite dishes, but also, according to some media reports, by offering
Reformist daily Sharq
, quoting a local website, reported that a new
music channel, to be called "Iranian" would be launched in the next few
months, broadcasting exclusively Iranian music.
"I have heard that the channel will be run by the private sector and it will
broadcast authorized music of musicians inside the country," said
"So it will not help Iran's underground music to show itself."