Monday, August 31, 2015

Award-winning Kurdish musician in Iran persists with career despite hurdles and harassment

Photo courtesy of Roham Sobhani
Photo courtesy of Roham Sobhani
LOS ANGELES, USA - Three hours before the start of his concert in Sina (Sanandaj), Roham Sobhani was called into the office of the Etela’at, the Iranian intelligence agency. Having official permission from the culture ministry in Tehran and Sanandaj, he confidently showed up at the intimidating building in Khasrawa Blvd and presented the documents.
“You have to cancel the concert,” he was told by the secret police. 
The show was a tribute to Mazhar Khaleghi, the prominent Kurdish singer, and authorities had decided that “Khaleghi was a royalist” and a concert in his honor would be an insult to “the pure blood of the Islamic Republic’s martyrs.”
Sobhani explained that the concert posters had been given to the officials two months in advance and the objection could have been raised then, not after hundreds of tickets had been sold. 
“We will let you go on with your plans if you change the banners and brochures and instead hold the concert in honor of Imam Ali’s birthday,” was the compromise solution he was presented.  
Sobhani and his musicians had been rehearsing for months and had travelled long distances to hold the event. “Besides, the advertisements were everywhere already,” he explained. “I said I would agree to that if they thought it was not too late to change the occasion,” Sobhani told Rudaw in a phone interview.
The secret police sent out its men to change all the posters and banners from Mazhar Khaleghi to Imam Ali.
Ironically, the move only motivated more Kurds to attend the concert, curious to see what the big deal was and what had caused the big last-minute change.
When Jwan group members, founded and organized by Sobhani, appeared on stage, they were surprised by the large attendance, among them many looking like they were from the Basij, the regime’s volunteer militia.
“The theatre was packed. At least 40 big men with long beards or stubbles and in black shirts and formal pants had surrounded the crowd to stop people from having a revolution while listening to music!” smirked Sobhani.
The event went well that night, but the two remaining shows were cancelled without any logical reasons and despite Sobhani’s government-issued permits. 
“That was a hard blow to musicians who had devoted their lives to art. Naturally, musicians lose hope,” Sobhani said.
Sobhani is from Saqez, in Iran’s Kurdistan Province, but he was raised in Tehran. He was six when he started playing the Tonbakand, and at age nine he realized that the stringed Tar was his favorite instrument, which he has been playing ever since.
Sobhani is an award-winning composer and musician with formal training from the Fine Arts University in Tehran. 
To showcase innovative Kurdish and Iranian music, Sobhani founded “Jwan” in 2004, a group that went on to win the 2008 Fajr Music Award, which celebrates the anniversary of the 1979 Islamic revolution.
“As part of our award, we were supposed to be given permission to hold concerts for three years in Iran without having to ask for new permits every single time.” Sobhani said. “But that was a lie.”
Sobhani’s next scheduled concert was in Bokan, another city in Iran’s Kurdistan Province.  “We are not like Sina,” the governor of Bokan reassured Sobhani. But the promise was an empty one.
“Again our concert was cancelled a few hours before the start of the program, even though this time our show was a tribute to Hasan Zirak and not Khaleghi,” Sobhani said. “My whole life I have faced discrimination and prejudice, partly because of my ethnic background and partly because of my career as a musician who strives to be a voice for his society,” Sobhani explained.
“But, at the same time, being socially engaged and sympathizing with my nation has been the reason for my success,” he confessed.
Sobhani has composed for singers Haleh Seifizade, Hasan Sharghi, Hosein Safaimanesh, Hosein Alishapour and Maryam Khalaf, among others.
Working with female singers in Islamic Iran, where women are not allowed to sing in a male audience, has been another reason for Sobhani’s condemnation by the Iranian government.
Sobhani has produced four albums, including Pir Meikhane and Magham Atash. But none is available because the Ministry of Culture decided after publication and distribution that the recordings were illegal. Sobhani is also banned from holding concerts for four years.
“I am tired of Tehran, this busy, polluted city which is always full of tension. I look forward to being able to go back to Kurdistan, even though I have never felt too far away from it,” said Sobhani.
The type of music he is interested in is neither traditional Iranian music nor folklore: it is modern academic music and Iran’s national music.
For the past 12 years, Sobhani has been working on improvising Kurdish music, away from the repeated patterns heard everywhere. 
“I want to reproduce music from all parts of Kurdistan. The diversity is really necessary and people are tired of hearing the same old melodies over and over again. We should keep our fans thirsty for more and fresh Kurdish music,” he said.
“In Rojhalat (Iranian Kurdistan) alone, there are 300 to 400 unknown amazing songs that have not been introduced yet. In their obsession with repeating fashionable songs, Kurdish musicians have failed to showcase the magnificence and diversity in Kurdish music of the four parts,” he complained. 
“Bakur and Rojava music, for example, are quite fascinating, progressive and authentic. But to achieve this goal, I can’t really work in Iran.”
Sobhani believes that musicians who want to work in Iran have to make compromises, such as avoiding politics, which to him means a disinterest in what people want and need. He complains that, in order to work, artists must just bow their heads and say “yes, sir” every time the culture ministry orders them to ruin lyrics by deleting phrases. The officials, he believes, do not appreciate art; they kill the spirit of music and musicians.
“According to the censor board officials, 80 percent of Kurdish poetry is made up of banned words. If I replace them with meaningless words I kill the nostalgia in them. Also, Kurds will understand right away that the lyrics have been modified,” he explained.
Yet, Sobhani is not giving up. Although he finds it impossible to continue working in Iran, he is busy composing new music and doing research for planned concerts in Germany, France and Holland in spring 2016.
Despite all the hurdles, Sobhani is not discouraged. And he does not discourage other young Kurds from following their passions.
“Music is a painstaking profession and financially not so rewarding. It is a labor of love that requires patience, persistence, honesty and awareness of social matters. Yet, I recommend it to anyone who wishes to live a fulfilled life.”

The article was originally published in Rudaw

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