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The Yellow Dogs: the dissident rockers who made history in Tehran

Five years ago this is what the Yellow Dogs became known for in Iran and around the world. They defied the Iranian government, which considers punk rock music like theirs to be satanic. In basements around Tehran, the Yellow Dogs and other young musicians slowly fought back, often at great personal risk.

They survived Iran. But what destroyed them in the end appears to be what was described as a “petty dispute” with another young musician in the East Williamsburg neighbourhood of Brooklyn, where they lived after fleeing Iran in 2009. That musician, Ali Akbar Mohammed Rafie, clambered over neighbouring buildings, shot dead two brothers who were members of the Yellow Dogs, Arash Farazmand and Soroush Farazmand. Also killed in the rampage was their friend and fellow musician Ali Eskandarian. Rafie, a member of another Iranian band, Free Keys, then shot and killed himself.

In December 2010 I spent time with the Yellow Dogs and went to one of the band’s many gigs in Bushwick. The venue was an old mechanics garage, surrounded by warehouses and a smattering of local shops. The bare concrete floor was icy cold, but the crowded room kept everyone warm.

The lead singer Siavash "Obash" Karampour is a tall, dreadlocked figure that stalked through the room as he set up his equipment. He was impatient, and wanted to play. There was an urgency for him to be on stage that can only come from understanding what it's like to live in a country where that one step onto a stage can cost a person their freedom.

“We wanted to leave Iran to come and play here and play in front of a bigger audience. A musician wants to play concerts,“ Obash told me after the gig. "If you're a painter and they told you, you can't show your paintings, you just have to lock them in the back room of your house then what the fuck is the reason for painting?”

Yellow Dogs

Both Ali Eskandarian (left) and Yellow Dogs drummer Arash Farazmand were killed by Rafie, before he turned the gun on himself. Photograph: Danny Krug/AP

He would never rush the previous act though. Ali Eskandarian, one of the men who was killed on Monday and a close friend of the band, had played just before the Yellow Dogs at the Bushwick gig – but for Obash playing gigs like this would always bring back memories of the underground gigs he used to play.

“When you play a gig even want to play a gig in front of five people you still feel the adrenaline and the stress – imagine playing in front of a hundred people in an illegal place that anytime cops could come in and arrest you," he said.

"We used to call and say ok we got a concert and everybody was saying yeah definitely we are coming because nothing like this was ever happening in Tehran – even in Iran.”

The punishments for playing illegal gigs in Iran are harsh, and range from passport confiscation to jail. The Yellow Dogs formed because they didn't want to be censored by the regime.

“In Iran there's a law that you have to go to the ministry of culture for permission to release an album and there’s a lot of bands that adapt their music and their lyrics with those norms. And we didn’t want to do that, our music is the music that you have to dance and you have to feel the energy and feel the mood, and that’s why we decided to stay underground," Obash said.

Siavash "Obash" Karampour talks to Paul Farrell in early 2011

More details about the shooting in East Williamsburg have emerged. Obash and Koory Mirz, the band's bassist, were not in the apartment and survived. According to a police account reported by the Associated Press, the gunman, Ali Akbar Mahammadi Rafie, 29, climbed over an adjoining roof to the home, then down to a third-floor terrace where he opened fire through a window, killing 35-year-old Eskandarian. He then killed Arash Farazmand, 28, in a third-floor bedroom and Soroush Farazmand, 27, in a second-floor bedroom while he was on a bed using his laptop computer.

Rafie, 29, killed himself on the roof after struggling with a survivor of his former band. Investigators believe a guitar case found on an adjoining roof may have been used to carry the assault rifle used in the attack.

The row house in the industrial neighborhood of East Williamsburg where the victims lived had been a hangout for artists who attended parties there. The musicians all knew one another, Yellow Dogs manager Ali Salehezadeh told the AP.

While the band will never be able to play again with all of their original members, they leave behind a burgeoning Iranian music scene, inspired in no small part by their actions. There are now metal bands, hip hop artists, solo pop singers and a plethora of indie rock bands.

In Obash's own words: "a lot of good bands will start playing music in Iran, Tehran. Because it totally fits this kind of music. It's got a lot of place to grow and build up and make a lot of good art."

Paul Farrell


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