Kamyar Sheykh’s dream was to start an independent record label to support musicians in his native Iran. The dream began to take shape in 2014, starting off in a humble cafe serving coffee from an espresso machine Kamyar took from his home, blossoming in time into a thriving hub of musicians and music-lovers in a city not often thought of for its performing arts scene.
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His label, Tehran Sessions, became the focal point of a burgeoning movement in Iran, but the dream was not to last.
The authorities caught wind of the revelry, which involved women mixing with men, not wearing hijabs, and patrons sneaking in bottles of alcohol and illicit drugs.
In early 2019, police descended on Kamyar’s Tech Café after female singers were seen performing, and the promoter was arrested for the charge of ‘creating an atmosphere of prostitution.
He spent six nights in jail, alongside a murderer, and had to post 3,500,000,000 rials ($83,000) bail. He was then sentenced to six months in prison, eventually acquitted after a long legal battle.
The ordeal left Kamyar depressed, financially destitute, and unable and unwilling to work in the music business in Iran again.
Here he tells Al Arabiya English his story.
Local music scene
“I thought if I said to men: ‘you can sing,’ and to women ‘you can’t sing,’ it would not be fair,” he said.
“There is nothing like that in the Quran, even – there is nothing saying that women singing is bad. And when I saw the talents that were arising there and the communication and the communities that were being made, I was really happy about it.
“I paid the cost for it. But I am happy that there are so many singers that were allowed to perform on stage.”
Female performers and mixed-gender crowds are rare in Iran, Kamyar says, as licensing is usually restricted to big-name acts who perform in theaters.
Many of the musicians who played at Tech Café had never taken to the stage before, and since the cafe shut down, they have been reduced to performing only for their followers on social media.
The idea to create a live music venue first came when Kamyar was a university student in Vienna, Austria.
He returned home to Iran one summer holiday and invited local bands to play at a house in Tehran over two nights, advertising the shows on social media. To his surprise, more than 400 people showed up.
“It clicked in that time, that I could do this here, I could do this in Iran – and we have to do this.”
In 2014, returning home after finishing his studies, he opened a cafe with his business partner in Sayé Gallery, in Tehran’s northern Niavaran neighborhood. At the weekends, he would invite local bands to play, take the artwork off the gallery walls to replace paintings with acoustic paneling for live shows, and serve coffee to audience members as the musicians played.
The success of Sayé Gallery allowed Tehran Sessions to move to Tech Café in the city centre's Yusuf Abad district. The new venue hosted a medley of events: techno nights, acoustic sessions, karaoke, lip sync battles, pantomimes, and movie screenings. Kamyar and his wife built the business from the ground up, acting as managers, sound engineers and chefs.
“It was a good community for musicians, because musicians were getting paid for what they were doing, and we made so many good connections,” he said.
Performers would play mostly Western songs. Kamyar is adamant that one of the more popular female singers sounded just like Whitney Houston.
He said that he had all the legal permits required to run the café except one, which would have given the green light for female singers to perform.
“Depressed, financially destitute”
The Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance contacted Kamyar and warned him to stop organizing the events, but he continued.
After the warnings went unheeded, in early 2019, police descended on Tech Café and arrested the then 25-year-old promoter for the charge of “creating an atmosphere of prostitution,” after women were seen mixing with men without wearing the hijab.
After he posted bail and was released, he found that Tech Café had been boarded up with signs proclaiming that the venue was a hotbed of prostitution. He had to sell the business to recover the bail money.
Now, nearly two years on, Kamyar is unwilling to try his hand again at the music business in his home country out of fear of having everything taken away for a second time.
He is looking overseas, hoping to use his events management skills to forge his way through the entertainment industry in a country that is more accommodating of live music.
“The things that everyone in the world is doing – we can do it here. We have the potential to do it here, and I wanted to do that, but they didn’t let me and I don’t have the energy to get in trouble again.”