Inside Iran: Music Proliferates 'Underground'

ABC News reports from Iran this week.

ByABC News
November 5, 2013, 4:05 PM
Rana Farhan, an Iranian musician, left Iran in 1989 so she could fulfill her dream of performing.
Rana Farhan, an Iranian musician, left Iran in 1989 so she could fulfill her dream of performing.
Courtesy Rana Farhan

Nov. 5, 2013— -- ABC News reports from Iran this week, digging into a changing country few Americans understand.

To hear some of the newest and most exciting music in Iran, you have to go underground – literally.

In the basements of Tehran and other Iranian cities, young musicians practice and perform, flouting confusing and restrictive government regulations of who can make music and what, when and where they can perform it.


Western music is frowned upon, as are female lead vocalists. But that hasn't stopped many young Iranians from creating their own "underground" scene, practicing in private homes and holding shows away from the glare of religious officialdom.

ABC News correspondent Muhammad Lila met a young "underground" singer in Iran this week. She's one of many young men and women who perform everything from metal and rock to jazz and R&B, including covers of famous American artists.

ABC News spoke with Rana Farhan, a well-known Iranian singer based in New York. Our interview, conducted over e-mail, follows:

How has music in Iran come to be considered "underground"? How has the scene developed over the years?

Since the Iranian Islamic revolution [in 1979], all music is considered "underground" unless it is approved by the government. Very few are approved, so most young musicians find creative ways around these restrictions through distributing their music and videos over the Internet and playing secret concerts.

What musical genres are most popular among young Iranians?

Iranian young people are like most young people. Their taste ranges from rock to hip-hop and R&B to traditional Iranian music. Although they can't legally buy it, they find ways to grab songs from the Internet and share them. For instance, my website is blocked in Iran, but if any of my fans send me an email, I will send them my latest mp3s and encourage them to share.

What has your own experience been with music in Iran?

When I was a kid, there used to be this record store called Beethoven. Every week my girlfriend and I would save our lunch money and run down to see what were the latest records that had arrived from overseas. Things like Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix and B.B. King.

We really liked that blues stuff, and I would take those records home and play them over and over and try to learn them on my brother's guitar. My brother played in a local band, and they would play concerts and clubs. But of course, all that stopped when the religious right took over. After that we could only play and jam in our basements and in parties.

When did you leave Iran, and why?

I left Iran in 1989 when it became clear that I wouldn't be able to pursue my dream as a performer. I was always into blues and jazz and wanted to sing like Janis or Billie Holiday, and that was not allowed. Female singers are not allowed to perform in front of a band. They can only be part of a choir usually sanctioned by the government.

How do you think the underground music scene will change in the coming years?

I hope it keeps getting better and stronger. No government, no matter how powerful, can stop the liberating spirit of music.

Catch Rana Farhan on Nov. 16 at the Renee Weiler Recital Hall in New York. For more of ABC News' coverage of Iran, follow along on our live blog and with #InsideIran on Twitter.