Nowruz Peruz! Or "Happy New Year," as Iranians around the world will be saying this weekend. The annual holiday celebrates the beginning of the Spring Equinox and the first day of the Persian calendar.
The L.A. County Museum Of Contemporary Art has partnered with the Farhang Foundation — a nonprofit that promotes Iranian art and culture in Southern California — for a whole day of Nowruz-related events on Sunday, March 22. Among the events taking place is free concert by the Iranian rock band Kiosk.
Musicians here in America take their freedom to perform, record and distribute their music for granted. But Arash Sobhani, founder of Kiosk, hasn't known the same freedoms in his hometown of Tehran. Sobhani formed Kiosk back in 2003, but he and his bandmates had to flee Iran to continue to pursue their art.
Sobhani stopped by the studio recently to talk about what access Iranians back home have to popular music, why he decided to leave Tehran and how he got his hands on rock music at a young age.
What access do your friends/family back in Iran have to popular culture, and specifically music?
Iranian musicians cannot perform or publish their recordings like others do in other countries, and that creates a lot of problems if you can't perform; if you can't sell your records then there's no way to generate money from your art, and then there's no way to keep going. That's very sad, because you see musicians who are very talented, they come to the scene, they start recording one or two albums out of their own pocket, and then they vanish because they can't keep up. That has been the trend in the last 30 years or so. We consider ourselves very lucky to be able to perform and record — and now through the Internet be in contact with our listeners. It's very difficult, but it's better than nothing.
What lead to your leaving Tehran?
It was a mixture of different conditions, it wasn't just for the music, but music played a big role in it. It was personal, it had to do with the political situation. I left when Mr. Ahmadinejad was elected as the president. We were hoping that this regime would find a way to hear the new generation's voice and let people decide about their future, but that all came to an end with the election of Ahmadinejad, and you know the rest of the story.
Can you talk about this song "All Asleep" from your latest album, "Call A Cab"?
This album has a theme in it; it kind of talks about the situation after 2009 in Iran. As an Iranian, I haven't been back since 2005, I can't go back. The general mood is a disappointment — it's been lost in suspension, not having a direction to move towards, and hopelessness. So this song talks about a society that's asleep. Everybody knows everybody's faking it; everybody's eyes are open, but I think their brains are shut down. It's a convenience for everyone just to ignore the problems.
Why can't you go back? Does that mean never?
I hope not, I hope that we'll see a change come about so that we can go back, but I'm concerned if I go back with the music that I've been doing and the other stuff, they won't welcome me.
What role do you think your music, and more broadly, artists can play in the conversation about that nation and what has to happen within its borders?
I think I'm singing mostly to myself; this is a way for me to vent out the anger and the frustration that I have because of the situation that my people are in. I don't see any solutions, I don't advise on any solutions or anything like that. But, at the same time, I think the role that art has played in similar situations throughout history is first of all to document what these people are going through. And to create a dialogue with people who are not living there, that there's something wrong going on in that region of the world, and to try to think how we can address that. I'm focused on the human rights aspects of it at the moment.
Can you talk a bit about your influences and what you listened to growing up?
We grew up listening to cassettes that were left from our friends, family members who left Iran after the revolution. There were all these old cassettes of Pink Floyd, Eric Clapton, Led Zeppelin, old-school rock bands. We were stuck in time for 10 or 15 years. Any Iranian my age probably knows all Pink Floyd's songs by heart. Our band in particular is really influenced by Dire Straits, Bob Dylan, Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen. Eventually as we evolved, Europe gypsy musicians, and we added violin to our sound.