On the rooftop terrace of her Tehran apartment building, 28-year-old Mojgan Hosseini’s fingers pluck the strings of her qanun, an ancient stringed instrument, bringing life to an Iranian capital stilled by the coronavirus.
With performance halls closed and many isolated in their homes as a result of the Mideast’s worst virus outbreak, Hosseini and other Iranian musicians now find performance spaces where they can. That includes rooftops dotted with water tanks and littered with debris, empty front porches and opened apartment windows. Their music floats down on others stuck in their homes, fearful of the COVID-19 illness the virus brings.
Their impromptu concerts draw applause and offer hope to their listeners, even as public performances still draw hard-line scrutiny in the Islamic Republic.
“We’re not front-line medical workers, hospital custodians, or grocery workers, but I think many musicians—myself included—have felt an obligation to offer our services of comfort and entertainment in these trying times,” said Arif Mirbaghi, who plays the double bass in his front yard.
Iran has been hard-hit by the virus with more than 76,000 confirmed cases, including more than 4,700 fatalities.
Musicians long have been a mainstay in Iranian life, dating back to the ancient Persian empires. Legend has it that King Jamshid, the fourth king of the Pishdadian dynasty, known as the “king of the world,” created music with a four-stringed lyra.
Over time, Western influence brought with it the symphonies of Europe. Initially after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, pop and Western-influenced music all but disappeared. Classical music slowly re-emerged in the 1990s and has become increasingly popular. But women still cannot sing before audiences that include men, and hard-liners have broken up concerts that pushed the cultural limits imposed by Iran’s Shiite theocracy. Outside of Tehran, officials increasingly break up performances.
But the coronavirus pandemic has loosened some mores, as doctors and nurses dance in social media videos that earlier could have served as grounds for arrest.
Among those taking to the rooftops are musicians like 36-year-old composer and tar player Midya Farajnejad. (A tar is a long-necked stringed instrument.)
“It is not easy for me to stay at home and not be on stage or in studio during quarantine, so I . . . play tar on the roof, to share my emotions with the neighbors,” Farajnejad said during a lull in one recent session.
Others, like 26-year-old accordion player Kaveh Ghafari, agree.
“During these quarantine days, the only place that I feel I can share my music is in my yard with my neighbors as my main audience,” he said. “These days I can feel the power of art more than ever.”
For Hosseini, the qanun player, the music gives her an outlet she’d otherwise have as a member of Iran’s National Orchestra. Only the occasional motorbike or bird’s chirp could be heard as she played one recent afternoon.
“Since COVID-19 hit Tehran, the rooftop terrace of my apartment has become my stage to perform, and my neighbors have became my main audience these days,” she said.