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Acclaimed Iranian Musician Denied Tehran Concert In Brewing Culture Row

Kayhan Kalhor plays in Wahdat Hall in Tehran in July 2010.
Kayhan Kalhor plays in Wahdat Hall in Tehran in July 2010.

An iconic U.S.-based Iranian musician was set to delight music lovers in Tehran this week in what reportedly would have been his first concert in the country of his birth for several years.

For fans of Kayhan Kalhor, it sounded too good to be true. And unfortunately for them, it was.

The planned June 9 concert by Kalhor, a Grammy-winning virtuoso of the kamancheh, a traditional Iranian bowed string instrument, was called off after police tasked with overseeing public events failed to issue a permit.

The news broke two days before the planned concert, in which Kalhor was to be joined by the New York-based string quartet Brooklyn Rider.

The website, dedicated to news about Iran's music scene, reported on June 7 that police decided not to sanction the event due to "security considerations."

Kalhor, meanwhile, was quoted by the website as saying that as long as Iran's "culture and art" was hijacked in a power struggle between different political factions, he would refrain from engaging in any cultural activities in the Islamic republic.

A day later, on June 8, the head of the music department at Iran's Culture Ministry criticized the decision not to issue a permit for Kalhor's concert.

"Not giving a license to an Iranian musician who has worked hard to promote Iranian music in the world is not right in our view," Pirooz Arjomand said in an interview published by the hard-line Tasnim news agency.

Arjomand said that the necessary consultations had been made with Iran's Foreign Ministry, and that the visa issues for the musicians had been taken care of.

He added that the police should explain the decision, and that the move runs counter to the policies of President Hassan Rohani's government aimed at encouraging cultural diplomacy.

"With this approach by the police, we have to close the doors of cultural interactions with the world," Arjomand was quoted as saying.

The incident is the latest in a series of concert cancelations in Tehran and other Iranian cities that appear to be related to pressure from hard-liners who criticize the government's cultural policies as too liberal.

Iranian media have reported that more than a dozen concerts have been called off in recent months.

On June 10, a concert by well-known Iranian musician Parvaz Homay was canceled, Iranian news sites reported. It would have been Homay's first performance in eight years.

The website reported that those who purchased tickets for Homay's concert received a text message a few hours before it was to begin informing them that the event was called off until further notice following an order by Iran's judiciary.

The pressure is seen as an attempt by hard-liners to hurt Rohani, who has promised greater cultural and social openness and less censorship.

A Tehran-based journalist with a reformist daily told RFE/RL in February that like the Iranian government's negotiations with world powers over its nuclear program, the cultural sphere had become an "Achilles heel" for Rohani.

"When concerts are canceled, musicians face problems, books don't get published, and so on, Rohani is being blamed and accused of being incompetent," the journalist said.

Arjomand of the Culture Ministry told the Tasnim news agency that police had also failed to issue a permit for a concert by the popular French band Gipsy Kings.

He added that there were other similar cases that have not been publicized, though he did not provide details.

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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is managing editor of RFE/RL's Radio Farda, which breaks through government censorship to deliver accurate news and provide a platform for informed discussion and debate to audiences in Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is one of the authors of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.

About This Blog

Persian Letters is a blog that offers a window into Iranian politics and society. Written primarily by Golnaz Esfandiari, Persian Letters brings you under-reported stories, insight and analysis, as well as guest Iranian bloggers -- from clerics, anarchists, feminists, Basij members, to bus drivers.


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