A small music band bent on bringing down the West-East barriers

Music on the street-shargh daily

Sharq, an Iranian daily, brings into focus street music, once a taboo topic, and looks carefully into what is waiting for musicians out there on the streets.

Sharq newspaper on December 8 ran a detailed report by Marjan Saebi on Amanj Band, and on street music and its challenges and prospects. The following is a partial translation of the report:

The crowd was bigger than those groups of viewers who usually circle street musicians. It looked as if many knew that the group would perform close to Azadi (Freedom) Multiplex [a newly-built complex in the capital]. I thought those in the crowd were their friends and acquaintances, but people who were there were different, appearance-wise. An old man wearing a tie and laborers with shabby garment were in the crowd. They were not moviegoers, though. […]

They started to play something like a lead guitar an eastern rocker plays. The Setar player was making a strange melody. The somber theme of the Persian music had been mingled with the melody of rock. Their instrumental music [music with no lyrics] attracted a 200-plus group of people. After a while the music drowned out the noise of passing cars honking their horns and the buzz of voices on the street.

Half an hour later a guitar’s string was broken. Except for a few, others remained where they were. A happily sad sound seemed to have mesmerized them. Everybody was waiting for the guitarist to fix the broken string.

Twenty minutes later the attractive sound started to ring in the air. Then a five or six-year-old girl went to the players and put a 5,000-toman bill on the cover of one of their instruments. Following her lead, others who had gotten over their shyness stepped forward. There were no complaints about the high ticket prices; nor was there any sign of music mafia or hidden hands. Everything was candid. The magic of music had worked and everybody felt well….

On the street  

They mostly played in Shahrak Gharb, somewhere close to Milad Noor Shopping Mall. Mohsen plays the Setar and Eiliya, his son, the Daf. They had long been looking for a guitarist. When they met Shahin, they liked his playing the guitar so much that they began to play together. Their band was unofficially formed right there. In Kurdish, Amanj means a mountain summit or a dream. It was there on the grass verge where they sat and shared their dreams. Shahin says, “What Mohsen played did not sound like the Setar. He was playing a sort of the Setar I’d not heard before. I told him if I could accompany him and he accepted. I played the minor scales on the guitar, Mohsen went solo and Eiliya played the Daf.

From where to where

It is not a common occurrence to see a person with an academic degree playing music out on the streets in Tehran. Shahin who holds a university degree is the composer of the Amanj Band. Mohsen has played music since childhood and Shahin first learnt about the rock music when he was a middle-school student. […]

Originality of music

The music Amanj Band plays comes from their feelings. They have intelligently mixed familiar melodies with western themes. The technicalities of their career have not barred them from mingling with people on the streets and their feelings. […]

That they stick to rhythm and emotionality of music could be the reason why a big crowd gathers around them. The originality of their works is another factor. How many bands can be found out there that compose what they play? Amanj is not after cover versions [cover song or version is a new performance or recording of a previously recorded, commercially released/unreleased song, by someone other than the original artist or composer]. They compose the pieces they play.

Street music and protest elements

Where does street music stand in society? Is it because of auditory pleasure that the artist resorts to criticism and protest, or it is a musical genre? Shahin says, “It is not protest. It’s a kind of change. It can be called protest music when it comes to the elements of protest, but our music is all emotion-filled.” […] Sometimes deconstruction could amount to protest, but Mohsen says, “We don’t consider it.”

Mohsen knows about the Persian classical music and listens to works of masters like Hossein Alizadeh. “[…] He lived with Turkmens for a year before he played Torkaman. I’ve raised an Iranian flag to say this music is the language of people all over the world, not simply that of Iranians. We have a general look at music in order to make our work appealing to everybody. […] If the music we play attracts people, it is because we have not drawn a line between Iranian and western music. For example this music is attractive to my religious dad who knows nothing about music, although to him it is what Motrebs do. Motreb [music performer] was added to the Persian language when music players started to perform in the streets. It has a derogatory meaning.

“Music shouldn’t be lasting like UHT milk which [has a shelf life of six to nine months and] does not go sour even out of the fridge. It should be made and expressed instantly. We do not claim that our music is something different from other kinds of music. Whatever we play has been adapted from the works of Iranian and foreign masters. In fact, we are gaining experience.”

One important point about Amanj Band is that they haven’t decided beforehand to produce fusion music. The togetherness of guitar, Setar and Daf has been accidental; it has been formed based on their experiences and the kick they get from music.

[…] Music should be produced and played in a way that is understandable to everybody. If we take into account a special group of people, our music turns specific, like ours which has a [special] background and philosophy. But we need western music to help our music meet people’s demands. I need to live among people to express their pains. To make the music attractive for passers-by who have their own problems, I need to learn about their pains.

Career or panhandling

Playing music out in the street and in the subway is an acceptable job in other countries where a musician rents part of a street for a month, but it is not so in Iran. At a time when the officially registered music is in a state of suspension, it seems all but impossible to establish street music as an acceptable career.

Shahin says, “[…] I had difficulty convincing my parents. My family had a cultural background. My mom was a school teacher and this helped her understand me better. But the Iranian families ask about the future of art and the occupation you will choose. When they saw me change my major out of interest, they helped me, although my dad’s view of music was a far cry from mine. […]”

[…]

Challenges of street music

It is hard to play music in authorized concert halls, let alone do it on the street. Rarely can you find a month in which a concert is not cancelled. But the music without lyrics the Amanj plays reduces the problems they may face.

They say they face three types of problems in the street. “First is the municipality. We talked with them and they said we are not street vendors to be dealt with. Second is the police and the third are people who file complaints about the noise. We try not to cause any trouble for anybody. […]”

Future of street music

They stress that demarcations between the western and eastern music should be removed. To do so, they say, street is the best place. They get the energy they need to play from people, and to hold concerts in big halls is not tantalizing for them. […]

Mohsen says, “We produce a sound which is heard with no analysis. It emits energy for us, something we take before giving it back to people. This exchange of energy is done through money which is just a symbol. We produce the sound, and the money people give to us is full of blessing. We live on street music and take money to earn our keep.

At times it seems streets are the place for them to be noticed. They wouldn’t have played there if they’d had a better place to go. But Shahin says, “No matter what, we will play in the street even for an hour. The pleasure associated with it can be found nowhere. […]

“We are thinking of releasing an album and holding a concert. But we want to play for people in the street once in a week, because it was the source of inspiration for us. We have risen [from the bottom] to the top thanks to playing in the streets. […]”

As the crowd grew bigger around the Amanj, a police officer pulled his bike to the curb and cast a policing look at them. Perhaps he was thinking about the unlawfulness of playing in the street, or maybe the music had aroused his interest too. But he tried to maintain a stiff face. Perhaps it was illegal, but he didn’t want to cut people’s emotional tie with music.

After a few seconds, he – as if he failed to make a convincing decision – turned around, got on his bike and disappeared down the street.

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