By Oscar Allan
If the recent barrage of disquieting media coverage is to be believed, Iran is currently a writhing hotbed of nuclear arms, smouldering flags and nervy, missile-happy defence chiefs. The streets are filled with angry citizens and the air is thick with impassioned threats. Surely there’s no joy or creativity buried amid all this tragic chaos? Surely no one’s actually having any fun?
Azim Fathi, founder of record label and event series Paraffin Tehran, doesn’t quite fit with that narrative: “The first artist I booked was Unbroken Dub from Moscow. The gallery I had hired for him to play in was packed and he played a beautiful set, then when he finished playing there I took him to an underground party that I was putting on. He played there until morning and it was magical.”
Maybe it’s the quarter-life crisis talking, but that all sounds like good old fashioned fun to me.
Over the last few years, Paraffin Tehran has brought worldwide techno talent like Anthony Linell, HVL and Grad_U to Iran’s capital. No mean feat, given that these cats are used to helming propulsive, early morning club sets, and Tehran operates under strict live performance laws and a midnight bedtime policy. “It’s really hard, you need to get so many permissions to put on shows here,” Azim explains. “Like you have to submit a recording of the entire set you’re planning to put on. The authorities don’t really like events with vocals - they’ll go through every single lyric and check it - but if I focus on ambient and dub techno, things without too much of an obvious rhythm, then they give me permission.”
With the government’s (presumably rather wary) backing, Azim is free to host his daytime shows in galleries, warehouses and other receptive locations. The artists are drawn in by the prospect of exploring lesser-showcased areas of their palette in a fascinating and truly foreign context. Unbroken Dub’s live gallery set provides an example of the compelling results that can arise from being channeled through this seemingly restrictive prism; the Russian made his name producing the sort of soft, slow-burning techno that might not actually sound too heretical to an Iranian bureaucrat, but the threat of official intervention leads him into even more nuanced territory, blanketed by hollowed out bass and introspective modular twirls.
For the crowd, meanwhile, a Paraffin Tehran gig is a chance to hear rhythms and textures borne from a culture that should really be inconceivable in their country. Dance music is fundamentally a dark art; something to be conducted when the sun has set and the grown-ups are in bed. This - along with other, more overtly dissident aspects - puts it slightly out of kilter with the Iranian government’s moral compass, which has been calibrated by a strict theocratic constitution since the Islamic revolution of 1979.
Many better-informed people have written many better-informed words on Iran’s frighteningly complex political situation than I could ever hope to, so I’d rather not make a lame (or offensive) attempt at tackling the subject here. However, I think it’s fair to say that a night spent gyrating to forceful, repetitive music probably doesn’t fit perfectly into the regime’s vision of ideal Iranian life.
But then, mere rules and regulations have never been great at repressing the kind of creative and hedonistic freedom embodied by the dance music subculture. Azim first experienced its allure when he moved to Kuala Lumpur aged 16. “When I had listened to electronic music in Iran, I didn’t really understand it and it sounded boring to me,” he tells me, “but after my first night in a club I immediately knew that this was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life: I wanted to be a DJ.”
After establishing himself within the intimate KL scene, Azim returned to Iran with the echoes of the club still lapping at his eardrums. The question was how to amplify those echoes into the intoxicating pulses that had enthralled him in the Far East. With nightclubs a no-no, his gaze drifted downward, to the underground: “Private parties are big in Iran. They’re like nightclubs except that everything is free, you just need to be trusted to be invited. Some people will get the music setup, some people buy the booze, some people take care of the drugs, and it all comes together into a party. That's how we have to do it here. You can’t charge people because then there are even more risks if you get arrested.”
Azim once felt the sharp end of said risks when he and 30 friends were plucked from their sybaritic haze and slung in jail for a week after a raid on one of their parties. The grim thought of having your buzz savagely snuffed out like that is perhaps one of the reasons why Azim so passionately pursues his legitimate activities with Paraffin Tehran. But the main source of his dedication is something more heartfelt and benevolent: a desire to bring the music that moves him to the country that raised him.
Azim’s words and actions indicate a deep respect for the powers that be and their intentions, and it would be wrong to see him as a rebel desperately fighting against a brutal, backward regime. He’s simply providing a space for the art form that he loves, in the hope that it will let people feel the same way he does.