DUBAI – In the 10 months since his band was given official permission to perform, Iranian rock singer Ardavan Anzabipour has learned when to cool things down.
“People want to see some action on stage but we must be careful not to overdo it,” Anzabipour, the 40-year-old lead singer of Thunder, said in a Dubai hotel last month before its debut show in the United Arab Emirates. “It’s a challenge. We bring the excitement up but they’re not able to move” as dancing in public is banned, he says.
Since the election of moderate President Hassan Rouhani last year, the number of Iranian bands allowed to stage concerts has surged. The post-revolution era, during which live Western- style music was restricted to underground events or impossible to find, is fading. Yet all public performances still need to be sanctioned by guardians of the Islamic republic’s officially ordained values.
Sanam Pasha, Thunder’s 36-year-old female vocalist, is careful to style her image appropriately. She has to respect Iran’s dress code for women — a headscarf and loose-fitting coat — and appear, by local standards, neither too passionate nor sultry.
“Stepping right and left if it appears too rhythmic is no good. Sometimes it’s preferable to not even smile,” Pasha says. “Making sure my scarf isn’t sliding requires energy, too.”
And while her voice can be distinctly heard on stage, she must make sure it doesn’t rise above Anzabipour’s — or at least only very briefly.
Unlike rock bands around the world that have become focal points for teenage dissent or radical politics, Thunder’s songs, sung in English and infused with the twang of U.S. country music, don’t seek to challenge authorities.
“I don’t have an interest in putting my finger on topics that fuel tension, what’s the point of that?” Anzabipour says. “Our lyrics tease a bit but they respect the red lines. We don’t play around with matters that are sensitive, we are careful not to question people’s religious belief, not to question public convictions.”
Songs have to be approved by officials at the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance.
Given the likely tussles ahead, Anzabipour’s caution is understandable. In a sign that culture will be a battleground of his presidency, even the incremental loosening of restrictions under Rouhani is being fiercely opposed by conservatives. They see his concessions as a challenge to the moral and religious underpinnings of the 1979 revolution and clerical rule.
In August, the minister in charge of universities was impeached after he allowed the return of students and professors expelled, some for political activities, during the rule of Rouhani’s predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
Soon after, Culture Minister Ali Jannati was the target, with lawmakers seeking backing in parliament for his ouster. Jannati had irked conservatives with his support for the right of women to sing in public and a refusal to ban several films deemed objectionable by hardliners, local media reported.
“We should act as we see fit,” Jannati said on Oct. 26, according to the Mehr news agency. Rouhani “is leading the way and we will follow in his trail,” he said, adding that his ministry didn’t fear the “yellow cards” being brandished by lawmakers.
As a teenager in Rasht, the largest city on the shores of the Caspian Sea, Anzabipour already knew he wanted to be in a band.
“Back then telling people, ‘I want to be a professional rock musician’ was like saying you wanted to be an astronaut,” says Anzabipour, who wears his hair in a long ponytail. Following the revolution, authorities attempted to ban Western pop music, with wealthier Iranians smuggling in cassettes of their favorite bands. To listen to rock music sung in English under Ahmadinejad, fans had to attend an underground performance.
Thunder evolved from a four-member group playing instrumental music into one doing covers of “Ain’t Goin’ Down” by Garth Brooks or Joan Baez’s “Diamonds and Rust,” while also composing its own music.
For almost a decade it played little-publicized gigs at small, private venues in an effort to avoid too much attention from authorities. In January, all that changed when the culture ministry, which has appointed several musicians to official positions since Rouhani took office, granted permission for the band to stage public concerts.
Anzabipour says the songs the band writes are inspired by observations of Iranian society though they might have resonance abroad. “Mr. Morgen” describes an elderly Iranian who returns to his homeland to search for a young, chaste bride after decades overseas. “Enjoy the Press” tells of individuals propelled to power through privileged access to the media.
It steers clear of issues that could rile officials, especially regarding the prominence of female band members.
“After years, you start understanding the red lines,” Pasha says. “Chanting without words isn’t too much of a problem and singing together is also fine.”
There are no laws against women singing in public, though opposition from some religious and political officials means it remains contentious, says Dariush Pirniakan, the spokesman for the House of Music, an independent organization in Tehran that supports musicians.
Rouhani’s government “makes efforts and wants all genres of music in the country to develop, traditional Iranian music, classical or pop,” Pirniakan said in a phone interview from Tehran. “But there is another current from within the establishment that can put brakes on the process.”
Permits for concerts are now sometimes issued within a week, Pirniakan says. Amir Tehrani, a 34-year-old guitarist and a sound engineer in Tehran, says the government has also acknowledged the potential of music as a business.
“I’m hardly hearing about any bands playing underground these days,” Tehrani says. “There are special halls dedicated to live music in Tehran and they have become springboards for up-and-coming bands.”
Anzabipour says it’s too early to grow complacent.
“The only sad thing is that we don’t know how long it’ll last,” he says. “We don’t know how much freedom we’ll have and until when.”