Dance music scenes are often born in the shadows. Thriving in decaying cities, and industrial, disused and forgotten spaces, where cultural norms are cast aside in favour of often rebellious ideals and sounds.
In much of the world, these clandestine scenes are merely shunned by regular society — looked down upon perhaps, but not overtly banned. Though there are still places where dance music is completely outlawed, and throwing parties is punishable by the lash, or worse. But that didn’t stop Siamak Amidi from throwing some of Iran’s first raves.
After hearing house music at a party on the outskirts of Tehran, where Amidi lived until he was 23, his life turned upside down. “All the sudden, the whole world changed,” he says. The event was the catalyst that pushed him to throw his own parties, events where he and his friends would DJ all night long, dancing, drinking, and taking drugs despite the dangers. Even fraternising with the opposite sex was a punishable offence, though all his parties were mixed. Looking back, it’s clear Amidi takes pride in his bold actions.
"Farzan setting up our pop up event! While Moin is trying to cover the windows for privacy and a bit of sound (control)" in 2004. Photo courtesy of Siamak Amidi
“It was quite awesome, because it was very challenging,” he says. “The interests of the group of people I was hanging out with were all illegal and forbidden, so it was quite exciting.” However thrilling growing up in Iran seemed for Siamak Amidi, it’s a country still viewed by many in the west as an almost alien land. Dangerous, tyrannical, draconian, with terrifyingly strict views on cultural norms.
This reputation is not without some truth. In the wake of the 1979 revolution, in which the pro-Western, secular monarchy ruled by Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was overthrown, thousands of political dissidents were executed as the country radicalized under its new ruler Ayatollah Khomeini. Iran immediately began adopting a hardline cultural stance that embraced Islamic tradition, while expunging Gharbzadegi (“westoxification"), or western cultural influence through films, music, books and other works of art.
Before moderate reformists took power in 1997, popular music was outlawed, with the possibility of severe punishments if caught. But beneath the surface, Iran’s liberal past continued bubbling up. And with the moderate reformist movement led by Mohammad Khatami, who served as Iran’s president until 2005, music gradually became acceptable again.
“People were slowly becoming vocal about it and were listening to it in public,” Amidi says. “But that was the beginning. It was still quite dangerous at the time.”
Mohammad Khatami with his supporters in Tehran in 2009. Photo: Hasan Sarbakhshian/AP via
It was then, as moderates and hardliners clashed for power, that Amidi came into his own as a teenager, discovering new and exciting sounds from across the musical spectrum — rock, disco, and eventually acid trance and house — leading to him throwing some of Iran’s earliest and highly illegal electronic music events, becoming a DJ himself in the process.
“At the same time in Iran, it was the beginning of the psychedelics entering the youth society, like MDMA and ecstasy,” he says. “It was being used widely.” As MDMA flooded Iran, the rock music and heavy metal once popular under the more oppressive regime also began falling out of favour. “I guess all these things happening at the same time had a big role in turning this into a big thing. Because actually the Tehran party scene is quite wild and big.”
Big, but inherently dangerous. It was still completely illegal, and getting caught throwing parties could mean jail time or worse: “If you had this on your record a couple of times, you could end up in a very, very critical situation,” he says. In fact, Amidi was arrested several times for his actions, including when a party he’d organised was raided by the authorities in 2004. “It was full of ecstasy, like a hundred and fifty people, boys and girls. They all got arrested with the loudspeakers and DJ equipment.”
Amidi and his friends spent the entire weekend in jail, and were charged in court with drinking alcohol, taking drugs and playing loud music with a mixed group of people.
“We got lashes,” he says.
Looking back, Amidi’s attitude about the situation is shockingly accepting. He says that while lashes may sound harsh now, that’s not how he and his friends saw it at the time. They’d grown up with the dangers and understood them fully, and didn’t let fear get in the way of doing what they wanted. “What else can you do? You're gonna have to live your life the way you want it, or else you're gonna have to do whatever they say, and this is not an option.”
Amidi playing an underground house party on the last Wednesday of the year, traditionally celebrated by Iranians as festival of fire and lights (chahar shanbeh soori) in 2004. Courtesy of Siamak Amidi
Parties didn’t always wind up with such dire endings. Guests were kept to a limited 100 or so friends who’d be contacted with an invitation by phone, and later SMS, in order to maintain secrecy and security. But if things did get out of control, as usually happened when two or three hundred people showed up, Amidi had the occasional ace in the hole.
“I remember once, a bunch of guests were coming into my house holding whisky bottles. The patrol on the street got them, and they actually rang my door and said, ‘We want to talk to the owner.’ I went there, and the police guy was like ‘What the fuck?! You guys are stupid! You couldn't be more obvious than this!’ We were in deep shit. So we were like, ‘You know what dude, what are we gonna do? Tell me. What's the deal?’ He's like, ‘You know, give me some money and the bottle." So we gave him the whisky, some money, and we had a party.”
Now 31-years-old and living in Dubai, Amidi says neither of his parents were particularly musical when he was growing up. Though his grandfather, who “was a bit of a party person,” rubbed shoulders with many of Iran’s great traditional musicians — “like the greatest in their own category,” he says. “He was always having these parties with traditional live Iranian music.” Parties where “drinking a lot of wine,” listening to music, and dancing were commonplace; as was opium, a traditional drug with the older generations in Iranian culture. “Especially because we're from Isfahan,” Amidi says. “In that city, that's quite popular.”
The seed planted, Amidi’s older sister further nurtured his musical curiosity, introducing him to then modern and alternative sounds like Michael Jackson and disco. Though it was his parents’ summer holiday in France that ultimately became the catalyst for what lay ahead.
Unable to leave the country due to his mandatory military service, Amidi wrote down a list of records — “mostly rock, not electronic” —- for his mother to pick up. She did, also bringing back a few chance recommendations the clerk had given her.
“I remember it was some kind of acid — it was trance, but it was acid, because it was called Acid Save Your Soul,” he says. “Kai Tracid, this kind of stuff. That was the first time I heard that kind of music. Afterwards, everything changed.”
By New Year’s Eve of 1999 or 2000, he can’t quite remember, Amidi was invited to an illegal house party at a ski resort outside of Tehran. Many of his older sister’s friends were there — expats who’d returned for the holidays to see friends and family, including the DJ, who’d just returned from France. “He was playing house music,” Amidi says. The experience left an indelible impression on him. “I could not get over that experience for, well, I guess I still didn't get over it.”
Amidi playing an underground after-hours house party, "Saturday night fever," 2006. Courtesy of Siamak Amidi
Amidi immediately knew he wanted to be a DJ. And that summer, he and a friend had “a serious chat” about what needed to be done, which involved a trip to Germany. “I told him, ‘You remember? It was like this thing in front of him? That was a mixer. You're gonna have to go and bring one to Iran.’ He brought back a Gemini 606 DJ mixer. Right away we were on it.” Once they’d acquired the mixer, equipment too niche to find in Iran, they set to work with everything they had. Though what they had amounted to little more than “tape machines and Discmans.”
“To beatmatch, we had to calculate the seconds on each track that would fit and go well with the other one. We had a paper with all these tracks and their numbers and minutes.” Extreme lengths, but exactly the kind of measures Amidi was willing to take to see his vision become a reality — a reality that would test him more than once.
Inspired by that first New Year’s Eve party, and armed with his new DJ setup, Amidi set to work organising some of the first house and techno events in Iran. So new were these events that nobody really even understood what was going on. “At the beginning, people were just like, looking at the booth, with the mixer that we had,” he remembers. “They could not really move at all. They didn't know what they were doing there.”
But it didn’t take long for everyone to adjust. “You know, it comes naturally for a group of people to gather in a dark room and listen to repetitive music,” Amidi says.
Amidi today. Via Siamak Amidi Facebook
Though after six years of arrests, bribes, close calls and near misses, Amidi decided it was time to move on. He’d reached the limit of how far he could take his passions in Iran, leaving to study audio engineering at SAE institute in 2007. These days he splits his time between Dubai and Berlin, throwing the weekly techno-focused Analog Room series events with partner Mehdi Ansari at Dubai’s The Q for the last four years, while running his imprint Volt Music out of the German capital.
As for the Raving Iran documentary that stirred up the web recently, he seems somewhat ambivalent. “I lived that in real life.”
But he admits it’s good for the world to see exactly what is happening there, because while it might shock the west, it certainly isn’t a secret in Iran.
“Literally everyone's doing it. The authorities in Iran definitely know it. They can't stop it, they can't do anything about it.”
If you're in Dubai on May 19th, be sure to check out Analog Room with Mike Huckaby and Nasrawi.
Chandler Shortlidge is the UK and European editor of Pulse. Follow him on Twitter