Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, seemingly addicted to making inflammatory statements, today announced the banning of Western music from Iran's radio and television stations. "Blocking indecent and Western music from the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting is required," came a laconic statement from on the Supreme Cultural Revolutionary Council which he heads.
Various forms of Western music, from classical to rap, have appeared in Iran in recent years, so – should it be implemented – this will come as a wrenching cultural change. (And will it, I wonder, prohibit the sugary-sweet Western-music nasheeds such as "Gives Thanks to Allah" or those sung by Cat Stevens – previously, a favorite in Iran?) Not only does the decree hark back to the early days of Ayatollah Khomeini's Islamic revolution but it also touches a deep chord within Muslims, something I wrestled with in some detail in a 1998 article, "You Need Beethoven to Modernize," where I made two points: to many Muslims, Western music symbolizes the whole of Western culture; and therefore mastery of Western music serves as a proxy in for mastery of Western, i.e., modern, culture as a whole.
It's one of my more original articles and I commend it as background to Ahmadinejad's decree. (December 19, 2005)
Dec. 20, 2005 update: An immediate follow-up report finds Iranians less than impressed by the new edict. "Don't take this man seriously," said Pari Mahmoudi, 25, as she drove through Tehran with the Eagles' Hotel California blaring from her car speakers. Mohammed Reza Hosseinpour, while browsing through a music store in the Iranian capital, declared "This president speaks as if he is living in the Stone Age. This man has to understand that he can't tell the people what to listen to and what not to listen to." A guitarist, Babak Riahipour, predicted the ban would fail: "Mr. Ahmadinejad maybe doesn't know his society well enough ... especially among the youth. We can still get the music we would like to listen from somewhere else. We can get it from the Internet, we can get it on Tehran's big black market, anywhere."
Others worried that the ban, which affects only state-run television and radio, could be the first step toward the universal ban on all popular music, Western and Iranian alike, imposed right after the revolution. "We are concerned about the cultural policies of this government," says Hamid Vafaei, the director of a music school in Tehran. Akram Azizi, a housewife, fretted that music programs "were beginning to improve, and now the authorities are getting cold feet. If such a ban is in effect, state TV and radio will not have an audience anymore."
Dec. 28, 2005 update: Christopher Foley of the "The Collaborative Piano Blog" has this wry observation on the Ahmadinejad ban on Western music: "With the apathy that many classical musicians habitually bear in the course of their musical pursuits, it's almost comforting to hear that some people are genuinely offended by the music that we make."
Feb. 4, 2010 update: In an unusually critical piece about the Islamic Republic of Iran, "The Sour Notes of Iran's Art Diplomacy," Michael Kimmelman looks at Tehran's sponsoring the Tehran Symphony Orchestra on a tour across Europe. Reporting from Geneva, he writes:
It played the so-called Peace and Friendship Symphony, by Majid Entezami, a four-movement jeremiad of martial bombast and almost unfathomable incompetence and silliness, originally performed, according to Tehran Times, last February in Iran to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the revolution. It has been retitled for this occasion.
Kimmelman attended a concert in Geneva, where tickets were
distributed free by Iran's consulate to invited guests, no doubt to keep protesters and adverse publicity at a minimum. Geneva's tourist office handed out a few tickets on its own, as it turned out, padding the enormous Victoria Hall, which was mostly empty anyway.
I counted maybe 300 people in an auditorium built for well over a thousand. More than a few of those who came beat a hasty retreat after the music started, including a young Swiss composer and his German date, who, when I asked what they were doing there, said they had landed tickets at the last minute from the tourist office after pleading that they hadn't anything better to do with themselves that night. They knew nothing about the music or musicians. (Iranian organizers didn't distribute programs.) Less than a half-hour into the symphony the couple sheepishly snuck out. Who could blame them?
Then he goes after the music itself, reaching heights of eloquence:
Scored for orchestra, chorus and male solo singer, with an electric guitar, amplified piano and battalion of harpists thrown in to increase the racket, the symphony approximates brief melodies in between lengthy drum assaults by burgling hints of "Dr. Zhivago" and "Lord of the Rings" along with Vivaldi and "Fiddler on the Roof." Otherwise, for the better part of 75 minutes, a whole team of percussionists gravely beat the bejesus out of a variety of very loud drums, to unintentionally (and increasingly) comic effect. Occasionally the male soloist would slowly rise from his chair and sing a brief Persian pop riff.
An Iranian woman, a businesswoman based in Geneva who, like many other Iranians I spoke with at the concert, asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals by the regime, afterward compared the effect of the soloist to the sun trying to peek through the clouds during an endless thunderstorm. …
And a final word on the bedraggled Tehran Symphony Orchestra, which Kimmelman writes was once "an exemplar of Iranian cultural excellence":
The other night it was impossible not to look with pity on its players, who, having devoted their careers to mastering the classical idioms of European music, were reduced to performing this. Another Iranian audience member, a businessman living in Geneva who also asked to remain anonymous, told me after the concert that he kept "seeing Ahmadinejad's face in the music." It made him furious. "But my heart goes out to the musicians," he said. "They're victims like the rest of us."
Comment: Ahmadinejad came to power and banned Western-style music (see the Dec. 19, 2005 entry, above); what happened that his regime is now proffering its own version of Western music, however awful it might be? What happened that the TSO has become not just acceptable but an export item?
June 1, 2010 update: As ever, music is a political football in Iran, reports Ali Sheikholeslami for Bloomberg. Now the issue is music instruction at the country's 16,000 private schools, where 1.1 million students attend classes:
Iran has barred private schools from teaching music, saying it clashes with the establishment's Islamic values, following a push to enforce moral standards that may lead to a national dress code for university students. "The use of musical instruments is against the principles of our value system," Ali Bagherzadeh, head of the private- schools office in the Education Ministry. …
Teaching music in state schools has always been prohibited, Bagherzadeh said. A school that teaches music may be permanently closed and its director barred from opening another school, he said. The ban applies to the use of all instruments, including those played in traditional Iranian music, Bagherzadeh said.