An open-air concert for Nowruz, the Iranian New Year, was interrupted when a cleric jumped on stage and tried to stop the music, but the fans booed him offstage. Videos of the incident in Bushkan went viral across Iran, with many social networks users criticising hardliners’ intolerance of music.
In Iran, musical performances are legal, with the exception of solo female singing for a male audience. Local authorities are allowed to grant permits for male performers, or women singing backup or playing instruments. But they often come under pressure from religious hardliners not to allow concerts to proceed.
“People are proud of their reaction”
Asad, a business owner who lives in Bushkan and requested anonymity for this article, explains what happened when the imam came on stage :
The first night everything was cool. Everyone I know was there. There were even some tourists who visited the town specially for the concert . People normally don't stay in Bushkan – they just pass through. On the second night there were even more people. More than 1,500 people were there. But in the middle of the concert a mullah went on stage. At first, we thought he was a local official or a special guest. But then we saw him slash the banner behind the musicians with a knife and then try to stop the music. At this moment people understood what was going on. They booed him and shouted, “Get lost.” Some of the organisers came onto the stage and removed him.
The mullah started shouting something that we couldn’t hear. But when he was being escorted through the crowd, we heard him yell, “You’ve forgotten the martyrs”. (Editor’s note: “martyrs” in Iran is usually a reference to Iranians who died in the 1980-88 war between Iran and Iraq.) Some people even tried to beat the mullah. I think he got some slaps on his head on his way out.
The group’s reaction was excellent. They didn’t give in. They believe music is an inherent part of our culture. A few moments after the mullah’s interruption, they launched into an upbeat and popular folk tune and everything ended smoothly.
When I talk with my friends around the country, everyone is happy about what happened – even proud of the reaction of the crowd and the group. We stood our ground. Even some conservative Iranians didn’t agree with this zealot.
There’s also something weird about what happened: no one recognised the mullah. All we know is that he’s not from our town. He must have come from somewhere else. I don’t know what happened to him after the concert.
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A sudden power cut
The same evening, 30 kilometres away in Kalameh, power went out in the middle of another concert. An estimated 6,000 people had gathered in the small town (population: 1,937) to hear a concert by Lian, a group from Bushehr who play folk music typical of southern Iran, and are well-known across the country.
The concert got under way but suddenly the lights went dead and the sound died. A spokesman for the local power station said something had fallen on power lines leading to the town and they were trying to fix it. The power came back on after 30 minutes, but went out again a few minutes later. Again, “something fell on the local electricity network”, according to the power company. At that point, the Lian band members gave up and left the stage.
While the authorities have not identified the mullah who interrupted the Bushkan concert, nor who was responsible for twice cutting the power in Kalameh, fans suspect a connection to a sermon two days earlier by a powerful imam in Borazjan, a city 100km to the north. In his Friday sermon on March 30, the imam, Hasan Mosleh, had criticised local officials for allowing concerts to take place. He said that “revolutionary Iranians” would not tolerate these kind of “immoral festivals” in their towns. In an apparent reference to a member of Lian, he asked: “Why can someone who lives abroad be allowed to play in Iran?”
The incidents were widely shared on social media in Iran, with musicians expressing frustration at attempts to restrict performances. Maestro Kayhan Kalhor, one of the most famous classical Iranian musicians, in a post on Instagram called the apparent sabotage of the Lian concert a “wretched disaster” and an “attack on art”, and called on local authorities to find out who was responsible and make them accountable.