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Nostalgia as medicine: Music and resilience during COVID-19 in Iran

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Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Guest blog by Siavash Rokni, a teacher, researcher, musician and doctoral candidate in communication at UQAM.

I am an Iranian-Canadian-Quebecois doctoral candidate in Communication and lecturer in History of Communication at Université de Québec à Montréal (UQAM). I am also a musician: I play classical flute and jazz saxophone and compose ensemble music. My thesis focuses on how Talfighi (fusion) music in Iran has navigated its place in the Iranian musical panorama since the post-Khatami era.

A couple of weeks ago, I spoke to a friend in southern Italy who is currently in quarantine due to the Covid-19 pandemic. She told me about the role of music in keeping the morale in the neighbourhood where she is staying. For them, every neighbour on the street is designated a time slot to play music for the rest of the neighbours.
They have morning, afternoon and evening shifts, she told me.

The news about how people from across Europe have used music to battle the harsh realities of this pandemic has already been discussed. As I was speaking with my friend, I thought about looking at the ways Iranians have been using music during these harsh times too. As a communication scholar who concentrates on fusion music in Iran, I see music as a vehicle to create solidarity and promote resilience during traumatic societal events. I found Iran and Italy connect through their love for music and their understanding of its power as a vehicle of resilience.

After the 1979 revolution, music was almost banned by the Islamic regime. As time went by, with the creation of the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, the regime began to systematically control and censor all cultural products, including music, that were distributed to the public. While the restrictions on music were gradually removed in the 1990’s after the Iran-Iraq war, what shaped the new generation of Iranian musicians was the first decade of the 21st century.

By the early 2000’s, with the advancements in recording technology, accessibility to more instruments and the popularity of the Internet in the country, the 60’s babies of Iran, those who were born during the 1360-1370 of Iranian calendar year (1980-1990), began to create makeshift studios in their home, form bands and produce and distribute music online.

The back and forth between musicians and the government in the past 20-odd years has resulted in the development of vibrant music communities, of which some are officially accepted by the government while others are not. The common thread between all these musicians is the usage of the Internet as a communication tool.

These musicians are technologically savvy and are present in all major platforms including Facebook (which is censored in Iran), Instagram (which is not censored in Iran), Spotify, Apple Music, Bandcamp, etc. Just like other musicians around the world, they use these tools in creative ways in order to share their music, inform their audience of tours and release dates, and sometimes share their perspectives on different issues that concern them and their public. 

Just like everywhere else in the world, Iranian musicians were hit hard by the pandemic. We see how the band Damahi, a fusion band that mixes the music of southern Iran with rock and jazz, for instance, informed their audience of the cancellation of their March 1st show through an Instagram post of their concert poster with masks on their face and the message “cancelled” in the middle. Chaartaar also sent a message of cancellation of one of their shows on Instagram. 

Other musicians used this time to entertain their audience online for free. The band Bomrani, for example, performed their whole album live on Instagram the day after Norooz (the Persian new year and the first day of spring). They also posted their cover of a famous Iranian song about spring called Baad-e Bahari (Spring wind) on their Instagram. At the beginning of the song, the lead singer of the band says that “I hope that you are happy, I don’t know how exactly, but I hope that you at least try”.

For me, this message is so powerful since there is an honesty embedded in its sadness. This honesty comes from a place of acknowledging that things are not great, but that music can provide a glimpse of hope to someone who is listening. Ali Ghamsari, the avant garde player of Tar (a Persian classical instrument), known for his unique performance techniques and his fusion of flamenco with traditional Iranian music, also released a cover of a famous revolutionary song by Farhad Mehrdad called Bahar (spring) for the new year. The song uses powerful metaphors from nostalgic childhood experiences of springtime and the New Year to remind its audience to be resilient and that hard times will pass. In the video clip, he is featured sitting by himself in the middle of a street and playing the main melody of the song, a strong imagery that converses directly with its audience. The fact that one can sit alone in the middle of a street in Tehran, a city of eight million habitants, is the sheer proof of how empty the streets are.

Some musicians are using the Internet to find ways of playing music together, supporting those on the frontlines and promoting social distancing. Pallett band, for instance, recorded a cover song from the musician Abbas Mehrpouya following the social distancing protocol with each musician recording the audio and video live at their own home. Their message on their Facebook reads the following: ‘’This was the least that we could do by staying at home, playing music and singing Mehrpouya and dedicating it to all those who sacrifice their lives to save the lives of others. We hope that these days end soon and we would sing together in a concert.’’

Here, Pallett is reminding its audience of the hard work that those who care for the sick are doing by dedicating the song to them. At the same time, they are showing how the Internet can be used to perform tasks that are normally reserved for in-person interactions.

Another musician who has been using the Internet to promote social distancing is the accordionist Farzad Milani. Milani’s idea was to release different versions of the song Bahar Bahareh by the singer Hayedeh by collaborating with as many musicians as possible during the 13 days of the Persian new year holiday.

To date, he has collaborated with a cellist, two singers, a clarinetist, a santoor player and violinist. Milani finishes the description of each video with the hashtag #بهار_کرونایی (Coronaified spring), reiterating the reality of living through a pandemic during one of the most social times of the year for Iranians across the country.

What is very interesting is that all these musicians chose to cover songs from before the 1979 revolution. One way to look at this commonality is the power of evoking nostalgia as a societal medicine. The type of nostalgia that is evoked with these songs gives comfort to many who are dealing with trauma in the country. The famous Talfiqi singer, Mohsen Namjoo, in his four journals, talks extensively of the relationship of Iranians to nostalgia. One of his points is that nostalgia is something that the Iranian society desires. 

It is very common to associate music in Iran with the notion of resistance. Two of the major scholars in the field of Iranian Popular Music studies, Laudan Nooshin and Nahid Siamdoust, have critiqued this frame of understanding that jumps to conclusion too quickly about the complexities of music in post-revolution Iran. Musicians in Iran don’t wake up everyday thinking how they will resist the system. Instead, they find creative ways of persisting within the system. 

In other words, using Leonard Cohen’s metaphor, they are light and they find the crack in everything. That is why they use music as a tool of resilience. I learned this from listening to these musicians and their music. And I invite you, the reader, to do the same. 

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