Unsilencing sanctions: Iranian musicians launch album in Germany

A Hamburg-based record label aims to help Iranian artists hampered by US sanctions and the pandemic.

Bamdad Afshar, furthest left, with Otagh [Courtesy: Kimia Mahdavi]

Tehran, Iran – Even as international politics drive Iran further into isolation, a music record label in Germany is more determined to introduce Iranian artists and their music to international audiences.

Hamburg-based 30M Records, founded earlier this year by Matthias Koch, will later this week release its first album by two Iranian artists, offering a mix of traditional Iranian music and modern sounds.

“I have a deep fascination of Iranian cultural traditions and history. I love traditional instruments like kamancheh, tar, setar, and daf,” the 49-year-old Koch told Al Jazeera.

He first travelled to Iran in 2016 shortly after a landmark nuclear deal signed between Tehran and world powers was implemented. The deal lifted multilateral sanctions on Iran, promising to open it up to the world.

Bamdad Ashar in a jam session with his band Otagh [Courtesy: Hesam Garshasbi]

New prospects opened up to Iranian artists and audiences. A slew of concerts by internationally recognised artists was held in Tehran and several other cities, often extending their original scheduled performances amid overwhelming demand.

German electronic band Schiller, Italian pianist and composer Ludovico Einaudi, and Ecuadorian musician Leo Rojas were among artists who performed packed shows at some of Tehran’s most iconic venues, including Milad Tower.

Koch was among the organisers of performances by German composer Martin Kohlstedt and Icelandic multi-instrumentalist Olafur Arnalds in 2017.

But in May 2018, US President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from the nuclear deal and promised to impose sanctions on Iran.

Days after the announcement, a series of much-anticipated performances by Grammy-winning Japanese artist Kitaro was cancelled, reportedly because of concerns around American members of his band.

The Trump administration has since imposed waves of harsh economic sanctions on Iran, effectively blacklisting the entire Iranian financial sector.

US travel restrictions, which impact citizens of a number of Muslim-majority countries as well as other nationals who have visited Iran, Iraq, Sudan or Syria, also pose challenges for travellers who wish to visit Iran.

Making Iranian artists international

Koch says US sanctions were one of the reasons that prompted him to establish 30M Records.

“I want to make it possible for Iranian musicians to release their music, especially in times of the US economic sanctions, and give them access to international networks,” he said.

“I think Iran has a fascinating music scene which deserves a worldwide audience.”

Koch explained that at the moment, Iranian artists may face unfavourable conditions, including higher than usual fees, if they manage to find foreign labels willing to work with them.

“So I want to offer them fair contracts, good payment, and wide consulting for cooperation with concert agencies, publishers and media in Europe and the rest of the world,” he said.

As its first project, 30M Records will release RAAZ – “secret” in Farsi – on November 20.

In the run-up to the album’s release, two singles were published on major international platforms, including Spotify, and physical vinyl and CD editions are out soon, which Koch said will “give the music the value it deserves”.

The album is focused on the music of Sistan and Balochistan, a large province located in southeastern Iran, bordering Pakistan and Afghanistan.

It also incorporates Gwati, a form of “healing music” in Iran, combining it with elements of modern electronic music and traditional vocals by two men and one woman.

Hooshyar Khayam (left) listens as Khodadad Shakkal Zehi, one of the vocalists on the RAAZ album, plays traditional instruments [Courtesy: Dariush Gorgvand]

‘No outside links’

The album is a collaboration between composer and pianist Hooshyar Khayam, and Bamdad Afshar, a musician and award-winning cinema and theatre composer.

Afshar, who founded the band Otagh in Tehran in 2015, says a notable benefit of working with a foreign label under the current circumstances is that it opens pathways to communicate with international peers and publish works where they will be seen.

“Sanctions cut off communications. If we want to be an international group, it will be very difficult to gain some exposure for works when there are no outside links,” he told Al Jazeera.

Afshar said the twofold blow of economic sanctions and the COVID-19 pandemic has made all aspects of his professional life significantly more challenging.

“Expenses are up to eight times what they were a couple of years ago, and a number of the trips and performances that I had lined up have all been cancelled,” he said.

Afshar said he was eager to accept Khayam’s proposal to collaborate on RAAZ since he had focused on traditional Iranian music in his previous solo works and in music for Otagh.

For Iranian movie, Skin, which won best music score at this year’s Fajr International Film Festival, Afshar combined a mix of shaman-style Turkmen and Mongol music with electronic trance music. He and Otagh have also used music from southern Bushehr in their latest album, which is due for release soon.

Afshar says sanctions and the COVID-19 pandemic have made his professional life more challenging [Courtesy: Gata Ziatabari]

‘Conference of the Birds’

The German label’s name, 30M Records, is short for Simorgh (30 is pronounced “si” in Farsi and “morgh” means bird), a mythical Persian bird.

The name is inspired by the story of the Conference of the Birds, a famous 12th-century poem by the renowned Persian poet and Sufi, Attar of Nishapur.

In the story, a large flock of birds set off to find the bird king, Simorgh. At the end of a long and arduous journey, 30 birds reach the destination only to find the king does not exist, but they themselves have become kings.

In this vein, 30M Records aims to celebrate Iranian art and musicians, who are rich by virtue of their traditions, Koch said.

Koch, who for years worked with German and European labels and music managers before founding 30M, said he plans to follow RAAZ with a wide variety of releases from Iran.

The label is planning to release a compilation album called: This is Tehran? containing a dozen tracks from various Iranian artists in January 2021. Artists on the record include electronic musician Ata Ebtekar and composer Pedram Babaei among others.

A third release, which Koch described as “kamancheh meets electronic music” composed by electronic musician Saba Alizadeh, is planned for later in 2021.

“The melancholic beauty of the harmonics and the beats are perfect for an international audience, and the stories behind them make the music even more powerful,” Koch said.

Koch says US sanctions were among the reasons prompting him to establish 30M [Courtesy: Lena Dann]
Source: Al Jazeera