During the late 1970s in Iran, at the height of a revolution that would bring the Ayatollah Khomeini and other religious figures to power, a youngster named Arash Sobhani began listening to rock music. I mean really listening to it -- to groups like Pink Floyd and songs like "Time" that reverberate with heavy guitar licks and lyrics pronouncing, "And then one day you find ten years have got behind you. No one told you when to run, you missed the starting gun." The rebellious songs hooked Sobhani, and by 1986, he'd formed his own teenage rock band. By 2003, his new group, Kiosk, had become one of Iran's biggest underground rock acts. By 2006, Sobhani had exiled himself from Iran -- tired of the hurdles he endured as a guitar-playing rock 'n' roller in a country whose leaders consider rock music to be the epitome of decadent Western values. Sobhani now lives in San Francisco.
Kiosk's other members also left Iran around the same time as Sobhani did, with some members coming to the Bay Area and others going to Toronto. Last year, Kiosk recorded an album at Yoshi's, and the group performs regularly around the United States and Europe. This Thursday through Saturday, August 11-13, 2011, Sobhani is one of the featured artists at Take a Stand, an exhibition and fundraiser at SOMArts in San Francisco. Organized by Berkeley's Omid Advocates for Human Rights as a benefit for Iranian refugees, the exhibition also features musician Pezhham Akhavass and the work of New York photographer Serge Hamad.
Photo: Masoud Harati
In Iran's commercial marketplace, stores won't dare stock Kiosk's albums, effectively banning the group from traditional outlets. But like other expatriate Iranians, Sobhani continues to have a voice inside his country via the Internet, from where Kiosk's music is downloaded regularly by those in Tehran, Shiraz and other Iranian cities.
"When Kiosk was in Iran, we were definitely underground because we couldn't even practice," says Sobhani, sitting in a café in San Francisco's financial district. "We all left Iran because the situation was not good there. We want to change it so that, 10 years from now, some kid like me won't have to live through the same story. It's our duty to help in any way."
Using absurdity and exaggeration to great effect, Kiosk makes music in Persian with a humorous edge, as in "Love and Death in the Time of Facebook." In the song -- whose video incorporates funny split-screen images, including those of Mark Zuckerberg -- Sobhani sings as a guy who's consumed with impressing a potential paramour via social media. "I adore your every pixel!" he pleads. "Don't you click me away!" Dark humor has a long tradition in Iran's cultural history, Sobhani says, so it was natural to work it in to Kiosk's music -- especially because Sobhani himself is funny.
"Humor is a tradition in a country like Iran that has been oppressed for so many centuries," says Sobhani, who's now 40. "If you want to say something and you don't want to get in trouble, you have to make the other person laugh, not angry."
In Kiosk's songs, you can hear the influence of Dire Straits, Pink Floyd, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan and others. Roma music is a recent influence. When Sobhani began his first band in 1986, it was one of about three rock bands in Iran. Today, there are at least 80, says Sobhani, who knows this because 80 bands submitted entries to a recent underground Iranian rock competition that he helped judge.
Sobhani has always straddled the cultures of Iran and the United States. During his childhood, Sobhani lived for a few years in the Bay Area, where his parents had moved, but he decided to return to Iran in 1986. As he looks back at the changes that have happened in Iran -- especially the "Green Revolution" in 2009 that roiled Iran but was violently suppressed -- Sobhani says, "The whole nation of Iran has been taken hostage by a very hardline sect of Shiites. The middle class of Iran (which Sobhani considers himself a part of) is definitely not religious. Iran's middle classes are the least religious people in the Middle East compared to Egypt, Iraq and Syria. The youth are really educated and looking to the West."
Iranian rock music -- whether it's performed by Kiosk or other groups in and outside of Iran -- will continue to reflect Iran's political and cultural restiveness. More than 50 percent of Iran's population is under 30 years of age. Even in Mashhad, which is one of Iran's holiest cities, rock groups are thriving underground.
"You know how you have L.A. rock and, let's say, New York rock -- you have Mashhad rock that's competing with Tehran rock," Sobhani says. "A lot of musicians are from Mashhad. To some extent, I see them to be more daring and challenging with their lyrics. In Iran, they have to watch out what they say, but they really challenge the whole social class structure."
Kiosk can take at least partial credit for the evolution and popularity of rock in Iran since the group's early recordings pushed the boundaries of what Iranian music could say. Before Kiosk, young musicians in Iran would often write songs that referenced historic Persian texts or poems. "I realized the idea behind rock music is that a 16-year-old could grab a guitar and say whatever is on his mind without feeling he has to follow certain literature or some artistic level," says Sobhani. "It's about three chords. It's about your feelings. And that's what we did. We took what people would say on the streets -- what young people would say on a bus -- and (put it in our music and) that was very new. Before that, nobody did that. A lot of those things didn't have to do with social issues. It wasn't political in the beginning. But social issues are related to how the country is being run. And I think that opened the door to a lot of other music groups. After that, I saw a lot of other musicians writing songs as they speak."
Arash Sobhani is one of the featured artists at Take a Stand Thursday through Saturday, August 11-13, 2011, 7pm nightly, at SOMArts, 934 Brannan Street in San Francisco. For more information visit somarts.org.