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Tehran rockers 127 make it to America at last

Sohrab Mohebbi is the guitarist and vocalist for 127, Iranís most popular underground band. But "underground" has a rather different connotation in Tehran than it does here. With rock music only semi-legal, the septet practice in a soundproof bunker on the outskirts of the city.

"We have no other choice but being Ďunderground,í " Mohebbi writes in an e-mail from a stop on their first American tour, which brings 127 to ZuZu in Cambridge on Tuesday. "We havenít put out any records yet, since we havenít got the permissions from authorities."

After the 1979 Islamic revolution, most Western music was banned in Iran. In recent years, religious authorities have eased restrictions on this "corrupting" influence a little, but not much. Nightclubs are illegal. Musical performances are tightly circumscribed. 127 have been allowed to play exactly four gigs in the past four years, and audiences arenít allowed to dance.

Nonetheless, the band, who sing in English, melding indie-rock idioms with jazz influences and traditional Iranian melodies, have developed a strong following in the countryís teeming youth culture over the last five years. This despite the fact that thereís no music scene to speak of in Iran. "There are bands playing in their basements," Mohebbi writes. "But no one knows about them but themselves." Forbidden from playing live, groups find audiences instead through the Internet. 127ís Web site (www.127band.com) doubles as "our very own club."

The group, who chose their numerical name because it works in both English and Persian, got an unprecedented chance for wider recognition when they were invited to Austinís mammoth South by Southwest music fest in March. So they saved their money and traveled to Dubai, where they stayed for three weeks being searched repeatedly and interrogated about their reasons for coming to the States. Their visas were finally approved ó two weeks after SXSW ended.

But 127 are here now, and Mohebbi is suitably impressed. "Touring America is a wonderful adventure," he writes. "The music scene is huge." He never dreamed, for instance, that heíd have to miss a Jethro Tull concert because he had a gig of his own to play. And having the chance to see both Paul McCartney and Beck play the same city on the same night seems too good to be true.

The chasm between cultures is not so wide. Which is why, as much as the repression at home, itís false perceptions and artificial barriers that depress Mohebbi. The "Axis of Evil" he ainít.

In "My Sweet Little Terrorist Song," singing in a nasally Bob Dylan voice over a spare electric guitar, Mohebbi laments the fact that "when I cross the border, Iím somebody mean."

"I just wanna watch Dylan playiní live / I wonít fly into the Pentagon alive / And if they catch me on a plane from Amsterdam / Believe me itís not for any political crime."

Mohebbi insists that 127 are not a political band. For one thing, that wouldnít be allowed back home. Heís singing more generally, about the frustrations he and his friends share. "We talk about our lives and there are lots of issues making impacts on our daily lives," he writes. "Some of them are political."

There are 48 million Iranians under the age of 30 ó more than two-thirds of the population. While the mullahs still crush political dissent, their loosening of social restrictions is meant as a sop to the countryís youth. In response, despairing of their inability to effect real change, many young people embrace this controlled pop culture as the best thing theyíve got going.

The hope, of course, is that when this keyed-in generation is finally in charge, things will be much different. In the meantime, Mohebbi will keep playing music. "I have no idea what the country will look like in 20 years," he writes. "All I can do is wish for the best."

127 play ZuZu, 474 Mass Ave in Central Square, Cambridge, on Tuesday, October 11. Call 617. 864.3278.

Issue Date: October 7 - 13, 2005
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