In Iran, a female polyphony who wants to make her voice heard

Bandar Abbas (Iran) (AFP)

The group finished singing and the hall was set ablaze: heavy applause from the men and youyous from the women for a standing ovation. The show might seem trivial if it weren’t for Iran with an all-female quartet on stage.

“I was really happy to be able to be there and to see you” playing and singing, Sassan Heydari will say to his wife Néguine, one of the four musicians acclaimed that evening at Bandar Abbas, after the performance.

Before this concert, Sassan, married to Néguine for ten years, had never been able to attend a singing tour of his wife on the stage because a religious ban considerably restricts the public exercise of female vocalizations in the Islamic Republic of Iran.

If the group Dingo was able to perform in front of a mixed audience, it is because the rules have been relaxed a little in recent years.

According to Sahar Taati, former director of the Music Department at the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance (Erchad), no Iranian law specifically prohibits women from singing in front of a mixed audience.

But a majority of mullahs believe that female singing is “haram” (“forbidden” for religious reasons) in that it would be able to stimulate a sensual arousal likely to throw men in a stupor, explains Ms. Taati to the ‘AFP.

In general, secular music is poorly judged by the Shiite clergy, who see it as an entertainment that distances the faithful from religious concerns.

Its ban, enacted soon after the victory of the 1979 Islamic revolution, has been gradually lifted, but not entirely. It was first of all the authorization of “revolutionary” music, which made it possible to galvanize the combatants, during the war between Iraq and Iran (1980-1988).

Then the emphasis was put on traditional Iranian music. Deemed “decadent” by a power in open war against “cultural invasion”, Western music remains ostracized or prohibited, depending on the era.

After the opening of President Mohammad Khatami (1999-2005), canceled by the ultraconservative turn of his successor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the promotion of musical events was for a time made easier after the accession to the presidency of the moderate Hassan Rohani in 2013.

– “Accompanied by a man” –

The restrictions are still legion; any concert must be approved by Erchad and it remains almost impossible for a singer to perform as a soloist – within a legal framework – other than in front of other women.

But “women can sing in front of a mixed audience if they sing together, more than two, or if a single woman sings accompanied by a man whose voice will always be at least as loud as hers,” Ms. Taati explains.

This is how an Iranian director was able to mount in the winter of 2018-2019 an adaptation in Persian of the musical “Les Misérables” in Tehran: the female solos were supported by the voice of another singer. appearing in the shade on the garden side.

In Bandar Abbas, a large port city in the South, the adventure of the Dingo group, in which Néguine Heydari, 36, took part, began at the end of 2016.

According to Malihé Chahinzadé, 34, and Faézé Mohseni, 31, it all started with a discussion on the beach. The two young women, already musicians, decide to “start playing traditional” instruments.

You have to set up a group. Quickly Néguine, who grew up in the same neighborhood, joined them. Via Instagram, Nouchine Youssefzadé, 26, is added to the trio.

– Dohol, pepper, cashier and oud –

“Goofy” – a word in Bandari dialect evoking the fragile first steps of an infant – was born.

At the start, it is Faézé, on the “dohol” (drum with two skins), who sings, alone, accompanied by Malihé on the “pipère”, a traditional drum which is played with the help of a curved stick, Néguine in “kassère”, another type of drum with two skins, and Nouchine with the oriental lute (oud).

But this configuration forced the four musicians to perform only in front of women. Until the day when they realize that by singing together, they could appear in front of mixed audiences.

The group tries its luck, but the bureaucratic complications are immense.

A recent documentary, “No Land’s Song”, describes the Kafkaesque journey of an Iranian composer, Sara Najafi, determined to organize a concert where several women will sing sometimes in chorus, sometimes solo in front of men and women.

It will take him a year and a half of efforts to come to the end of the “forget it, it is impossible” returned by the officials of Erchad. The concert ends up being held but the authorization is not obtained until the last moment.

Refusing to expand on the difficulties encountered by Dingo to perform in front of a mixed audience, Néguine Heydari simply confides: most of the time, “we gave up”.

They nevertheless manage to play and sing together in front of men and women during the Oud Festival in Shiraz (South) in July 2018.

And when they learn that an “International Persian Gulf Music Festival” – all that is more official – will be held in their city in April 2019, the four musicians of Goofy apply.

They do not obtain confirmation of their selection until a few days before the concert, which forces the quartet to days of frenzied rehearsals “to manage to sing in chorus”, tells Malihé Chahinzadé.

On stage that evening, the Goofs, in traditional costume, put all their energy at the service of the bandari music repertoire: frenzied rhythms supporting the lyrics of popular songs handed down from generation to generation. The public is easily won over and the jury awards them a prize.

– “Finally seen” –

“We have the feeling of having been finally seen (…) by a new section of society,” Nouchine told AFP after the performance.

“All of those rehearsals paid off,” she adds. The exhilaration of performing in front of a mixed audience – an opportunity that has not occurred since – makes you forget the moments of anguish of the previous days: fear of not being up to the task, fear, until the last minute, of ‘a cancellation.

The women of Dingo (two out of four working today) readily see themselves as “pioneers” and consider themselves happy to have been fully supported by their families, who are rather well off.

Since the April 2019 concert, Néguine left the group. We talk about “artistic disputes”. A guitarist, Mina Molaï, took her place. If it bans until further notice any concert, the Covid-19 epidemic is germinating new projects.

“Until now, we were only reworking pieces from the Bandari folk repertoire, but now we are thinking of creating original pieces,” says Malihé.

– Clefs USB –

Despite all the difficulties, Iranian singers continue to enchant not only female ears in the country and taxiing in Tehran can be a way to convince yourself of this.

You might come across this driver who is not shy to listen to full hits and open windows of Gougoush, the great pop diva before the Revolution who made her big comeback to song in 2000 in North America after 21 years of a silence – suffered – in his own country.

Or one or another who allows himself the melodies, stored on USB keys of Hayedeh or his sister, Mahasti, two other queens of the pop and traditional scene before 1979, buried in California.

You could also hear the voice of Gelareh Sheibani, a little-known representative of the young generation of the Persian variety active in Los Angeles and whose sound echoes the Internet even in her country of origin.

Unless your driver prefers the lyric singer Darya Dadvar, based in Paris. Equally at home in the baroque repertoire as in jazz or traditional Iranian music, this soprano is one of the very few women to have sung solo in front of a mixed audience since the Revolution at the start of the 2000s.

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