A band playing music on the street in Tehran. Photo by Maliheh Farhadi  ©

Mehr News Agency

The music that was once known as underground and illegal and was performed for a selected audience in closets and basements is now dragging its demands and its art to a public sphere on the streets of Tehran. Soroush Saraei discusses the need for socio-cultural analyses of this phenomena. 

Soroush Saraee


In the past couple of years in Tehran, a tendency to hold concerts on the streets has been observed, which calls for special attention. It is among the socio-cultural phenomena that need to be looked at by cultural studies in order to analyse its cause and quiddity. Street performances (of music) have long been common, especially in Tehran; even organisations and institutions in Tehran’s municipality are said to be responsible for organising some of the street performances: usually accordion players who adorn neighbourhoods and alleys in ‘uptown’ Tehran with their amateur renditions of old and nostalgic songs. Organising these amateur musicians is said to be an urban management policy in the municipality, in order to curb or reduce street begging, and is done through providing basic music instruction to individuals who are exposed to this social harm.

However, street concerts are an entirely different story. Music bands made up of young musicians gather spontaneously and instantaneously in parks, squares, shopping mall entrances and pavements to perform Iranian and foreign pieces. Such concerts bring to the streets musical genres and forms which are generally categorised under such terms as underground and illegal music: imagine a group of youngsters who are into rock music –a group of players with a satisfactory, and sometimes astonishing, level of musicianship- setting up their instruments on the corner of the street, without any prior planning and public announcement. It is as if such dissident socio-cultural practice, that used to be performed for a selected and limited audience in closets and basements is now dragging its demands and its art to a public sphere which is still free of governmental and state control: to an unpredictable, untimely scene full of the hustle and bustle of an urban space. On the other hand, a random, accidental, unselected, open audience is presented with a warm, cosy and amateur-like performance, without any invitation, selection process or having to pay an entrance fee. The entirety of the cultural, social and artistic potential of such a performance is indeed this very spontaneity, boldness and amateur-like courage; the openness of a number of performers to the risk of facing the real and tense core of the street, performers who defy being subjected to observation and auditing of state organisations. Thus, addressing the manifestation of such phenomena notifies us of important points regarding the newly emerging musical, and of course on a larger scale social, culture. Yet, a distinction needs to be made between such street concerts in Tehran and their non-Iranian counterparts, namely holding street concerts as part of a city’s cultural programs; for instance, music festivals or street concerts that are held without any interruption, intervention or legal and regulatory monitoring in most major cities: an updated version of artistic and entertaining carnivals of old.

Playing music on the streets of Tehran. Photo by Maliheh Farhadi ©

Mehr News Agency

These new street performances are in the first place some sort of disregard for the neutered -and heavily controlled- official culture, especially in the field of music, which due to its nature, in comparison with other art forms, is more at odds with the dominant ideology, and is therefore, subject to extreme monitoring, forethought, caution and conservatism. Through marketing themselves as guardians of culture, the cultural authorities have no other aim than to exhaustively restrain and monitor all the potentials and capacities which arise only through direct contact with the public’s culture. Therefore, these protectors of culture prefer to spend billions of Tomans to feed ‘high’ art –a recently popular term in state arts and culture- to their audience in luxurious and freshly-glossed halls. Such a mode of thought, i.e. institutionalising music through monitoring, planning and calculation, is indeed at odds with the urgent hue of street concerts, in which some fortunately naïve and courageous youngsters conquer the street for several hours, gathering the passers-by, those otherwise estranged souls, and transform them into ‘people’ for a few hours. For a brief while, they enliven that atomised and gloomy crowd that is numbed from living a mundane life, through participation in this free admission concert. Therefore, the primary function of these street performances is the socialisation of the people. The body which is formed surrounding these performers possesses a social potency that can never be reached in any other program planned by the ‘guardians of culture’. This is the same acute and urgent side of art, which is of course in no fear of its technical flaws and mistakes. The flaws and mistakes in such performances are inherent in their formal characteristics and aesthetic properties: like the flaws and mistakes that are inherent to any partisan operation. The miracle in these spontaneous and partisan-like performances lies in their Dionysian ecstasy, in their constant mobility for instantly getting rid of police scrutiny and setting up their instruments in another spot; they re-define concert halls by removing the arbitrary walls that separate the artistic experience from the real experience of urban life. This is not merely music; it is also a performance art which simultaneously performs not only music, but also its surrounding socio-historical life. It is the embodiment of that ideal meeting point of art and people, and of course, historically speaking, it is transcending the historical disease that Iranian music has wrestled with, i.e. going into exile, into closets and basements–to a place away from people’s ears. Indeed, this historical fear has always been incorporated into and internalised by the fearful form and sound of a major part of this music.

Secondly, this phenomenon is indicative of a new phase in the historical process of the development of music in Iran. Many of these performers hold academic degrees and their choice of this practice is indicative of their regard for the always neglected spirit of music in Iran, i.e. communication with the outside. Music in its so-called ‘rich’ and national form has no inclination for communication with its outside. Music in its communal form chooses exile into basements, marginalises itself, and leaves the scene empty for the neutered form of music, which is approved by the authorities, and thus already accepts the existence of this gap and condones it. By going back up to the ground level, to the unmediated scene of the street, by accepting the partisan form of artistic performance under the present tough circumstances, by creating the experience of live music (an experience in which background noise mixes with music and the instruments are immediately displayed for the public*), the potential urgency of art now manifests itself in street performance in Iran. Under these circumstances that artistic production lends itself to state monitoring in Iran, the endeavours of these performers is probably the first of its kind that renders art urgent in Iran; its result will be emancipation of artistic production from the hurdles of organisations, institutions, monitoring and conventional cultural taste. Such music would become healthy, so to speak, and it would directly and accidentally face its audience, and embrace the city and the deep and fleeting urban experience. Such experience is essentially rare in the present historical circumstances of artistic production in Iran, and even rarer in the existence of social practices. Perhaps beyond the intentions of their performers, these concerts may initiate some sort of socio-cultural shedding of skin in this historical phase.

* Official media in Iran, like state TV channels are not allowed to display musical instruments, in accordance with the direct wording of the Islamic law.

The article solely reflects the opinions of the independent  journalist and not those of the British Council. Please send all feedback and opinion on the articles to underline@britishcouncil.org or our Facebook page.

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