As the coronavirus pandemic continues to spread, the devastation it leaves in its wake is, for the time being, incalculable. In addition to the rising deaths, there are overloaded medical facilities, widespread layoffs, and countless impacts on everyday life: weddings on hold, kids home from school, festivals postponed, nightclubs closed until further notice. The ultimate effects of the disease are likely to be as much cultural as they are economic.
Iran has been hit particularly hard, and not only in terms of its global share of the sick and the dead. The coronavirus has struck the Islamic Republic as it was already reeling from a succession of upheavals: massive protests and a violent government crackdown; the American government’s assassination of the Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Major General Qasem Soleimani; and, finally, the Iranian military’s downing of a Ukrainian civilian jetliner and subsequent coverup. As COVID-19 began tearing through the nation in February, a patchwork of lockdown measures went into place, but recent satellite images of mass graves in the city of Qom have reinforced many citizens’ distrust of the government.
If independent musicians around the world are struggling to maintain their footing under the pandemic, then Iran’s experimental music scene has been dealt a body blow. It has never been easy to be an independent musician in Iran. Government permission is required to put on concerts, and U.S. sanctions put in place by the Trump administration deny Iranians access to the international financial system—which means, for instance, no PayPal, and thus no Bandcamp or Discogs.
Nevertheless, Iran and the Iranian diaspora are home to a number of musicians doing amazing things right now. There’s Sote, aka Ata Ebtekar, an electro-acoustic composer of striking originality; in Paris, 9T Antiope are responsible for a growing body of deeply moving work. Among Iran’s most prolific artists is Siavash Amini, an ambient producer with a slew of albums on Western labels like Room40, Opal Tapes, and Umor Rex; he is also one of the co-founders of Tehran’s SET festival, founded in 2015, an experimental event series with links to Montreal’s MUTEK and Berlin’s CTM.
I spoke with Amini last Friday, on the first day of Nowruz, the Persian New Year, to ask how coronavirus is exacerbating the Iranian experimental music community’s already difficult circumstances.
Pitchfork: Where are you? How long have you been in lockdown?
Siavash Amini: I’m at home. I’ve been on lockdown since February 23 or 22, I think. My father is a physician, so as soon as they announced it, he called me and said, “Stay home, don’t go anywhere. Just go buy your prescriptions and stay home.” Before the government announced anything, I called my friends to tell them to stay home. And it got worse from day one, just minute by minute. I was commissioned to make music for a theatre company, and it got canceled. So my income for the next four months went, you know, pffft.
First it was the cultural centers, and then sports; we were expecting a more severe response from the government, but they were trying to seem less worried, so the economy wouldn’t be hit that bad. There’s background here, because sanctions hit the healthcare system really badly. A lot of medicines couldn’t be imported, they had trouble getting machines. The healthcare system was already in bad shape. And when you have sanctions, there’s corruption and smuggling. Because of all these protests, and the plane that they shot down, people lost all trust in the government. And different factions in government started to tell different stories about how this corona outbreak started and how you should proceed, so that added a layer of, OK, they’re bullshitting.
So you have a broken healthcare system, a corrupt government that nobody trusts, and an outbreak that was announced too late. You can imagine how bad it can be. And it’s getting worse. Yesterday they told us the rate of death is one person every 10 minutes.
With my artist friends, we ask, how can we recover from this? We cannot imagine a recovery. Even if the virus stops tomorrow, we’re fucked. We got so many cancellations, and everybody took such a financial hit, that just to reimburse that hit would be a huge task, let alone being back on your feet and doing new stuff. So there’s going to be a whole different outlook from now on.
Do you have an added perspective because your father is a doctor?
Not that much, because he is in the south, which wasn’t hit that bad. But he says the ICU and the hospitals are overcrowding. The overwhelming majority of people who have coronavirus are mostly from very poor neighborhoods, and they don’t have very good hospitals. They live in very crowded, claustrophobic neighborhoods. They’re going to be hit the worst. I think we’re going to hear some really horrifying stories when the healthcare system has time to breathe.
What’s your day-to-day life under lockdown? Are you able to make music?
I’m trying to do research, reading, listening to stuff that I couldn’t listen to when I didn’t have much time. Because I work from home, my day-to-day life hasn’t changed radically. But it’s starting to get to my head because I don’t have any paying projects.
Are you allowed out to get groceries?
We actually have a really good delivery app for groceries. I just use that. But pharmacies are running low on disinfectant, and people are selling it at like three or four times the price. They say you have to disinfect your groceries, because according to the government’s statistics, grocery shops are the third biggest point for infections. So my biggest fear is running out of disinfectant.
Have you had internet access? I know it got shut down during the protests.
Yeah, it got shut down for more than a week during the protests. This time, because a lot of people are at home, and they were encouraging people to stream movies, they filled up their bandwidth and the internet started slowing down. We had a very slow connection until four or five days ago.
How did the approach of Nowruz impact the crisis? Did people resist quarantine because of it?
Absolutely. They couldn’t keep people in their houses. Younger people are more conscientious, at least in the urban, middle-class areas. But older people are more careless, like, “I have to go shopping, we’re going to have guests, nothing is going to happen to me.” I’m like, “There aren’t going to be any guests! At best it’s going to be Skype.”
It was really hard for some people to imagine not having New Year, because they have really hard lives and they wanted that time off, you know? I think it’s very stressful and depressing for a lot of people. I don’t know how much therapy people are going to need after this.
How is it affecting the musical community? Typically, is there a pretty active gig schedule there?
We had one, but this year four or five events in the experimental community had to be canceled. There were some issues with the government, it was hard to get licenses to perform. There were years that we had a double-bill concert every month. But since the SET x CTM festival that happened in summer of 2018, we weren’t able to do anything. Because of the economy, it was financially stupid to have a gig. You can’t afford to rent a good sound system anymore, because the exchange rate went skyrocketing. People are renting stuff from outside of Iran. They’re bringing it mostly from Dubai, by ship, to Bandar Abbas, the southern port, and then flying it to Tehran. For us, it wasn’t feasible, but we said OK, fuck it, we’re going to lose money and play.
All the cultural institutions have almost ceased their activities in Iran because of the sanctions. You can’t get funds like we did before. You can’t rely on mutual support and paying out of pocket, because it’s too expensive. And the government is more sensitive to gatherings like we had; it wasn’t like that before. And then the November riots and protests came. Everything shut down, and after that it was the protests about the airplane. And after that the corona hit. One of the things we have had in mind has been streaming the events, live performances and talks, and getting donations. We just haven't figured it out yet.
What’s it like releasing music and touring internationally as an Iranian musician?
When I was touring [outside of Iran], someone from the label would come to one of my gigs and give me the money in cash. We are not allowed to have any access to the international banking system. If the American government finds out that, like, a Swedish person is sending me cash, they can freeze their accounts. And they have been doing that to some of our friends.
Because of sanctions?
Yeah. So we can’t get paid directly and that’s why we’re feeling very helpless at times like these. There are all these solidarity things going on, people buying from each other’s Bandcamps, but if you can’t exit Iran you can’t get paid for what you are owed by international labels. It’s very hopeless. It’s like being in space and screaming.
Has there been a drain on talent? Have many creative people left Iran in recent years?
Less than before, because it’s really financially hard to do that. It’s a two-part thing. Sanctions have driven the rial down; our currency is worthless now, so most people are poorer than they were. That means less access to everything. And the government has become more corrupt and more oppressive because we’re in an emergency situation. That’s tearing communities apart, making it hard for people to be creative when they’re living under constant stress. You can’t squash people financially and culturally and mentally and then expect creativity. It’s not going to happen.
Looking toward the future, what are you hoping the outcome of all this might be?
Ten years ago, we had this idea of small collectives, mutual aid, DIY, stuff like that. We had a catastrophic time back in 2009-2010, in politics and in the Green Movement. Those ideas came from young people. The ideas that we are now implementing came from that. But I hope to see a younger generation come along with better ideas. Otherwise, we’re fucked.
Originally Appeared on Pitchfork