Girls Don’t Like Metal Interviews Bahar Banaei

Back in January, I spoke on a panel about music writing journalism at the 75th annual NASH conference hosted by Canadian University Press. After a great discussion about finding work, running magazines, pitching and hustling and ethics, a few students lingered behind to chat with my co-panelists (Exclaim! editor-in-chief James Keast, managing editor Nicole Villanueve and Toronto Star music critic Ben Rayner) and me. One of those students was Bahar Banaei, who expressed her enjoyment of Girls Don’t Like Metal, and also shared that she found the aggressive music scene in Canada very different than what she experienced growing up in Tehran. Her stories of being a metal fan in Iran as a young woman, and the culture shock she was experiencing now as a woman in Canada, were absolutely fascinating. I am so thrilled that she agreed to share her experiences with Girls Don’t Like Metal, and offer a rare glimpse into what it is like to be a woman and a fan of heavy metal during an extremely tumultuous time in the Middle East.

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Bahar Banaei

Bahar Banaei

What first drew you to heavy metal? What is your aggressive music love story?

I definitely owe my love of metal (and music in general) to the music scene and my experiences in Tehran after I moved there in elementary school. There were certain things, such as the process of listening to particular genres of music, I would have found strange and inconvenient if I was still living in Toronto that I had inevitably grown accustomed to in Tehran. There was a strict censorship process that was applied to the release of music, which meant production and distribution of western music or non-traditional Iranian music was banned. This was a law that has been in place for the past thirty years and also applies to other forms of media such as films, books and magazines. So, I didn’t get to listen to songs on the radio like I did before, but instead found out about new songs through the Eastern European music channels on illegal satellites. Channels like Viva Polska, would play a wide variety of tunes, from your average top 40 hits, Polish hip hop and of course, metal.

When I was really young, about nine or ten, I saw Linkin Park’s “In The End” and for some reason I was entranced by the image of Chester Bennington screaming in front of a computer generated flying whale. My interest in rock music grew and I finally heard In FlamesCome Clarity album and had no idea why I hadn’t heard something like this before. I was in love with the contrast between the thrash and the serenity of their lyrics that alluded to mythological stories. I was hooked. I found a close-knit group of people in the beginning that would circulate whatever music they could download or buy when they were abroad. I tried to get my hands on anything, but some of the bands that topped my list, just to name a few, were the Deftones, Lacuna Coil, My Dying Bride, Children of BodomApocalyptica and Sepultura. I loved how there was such a wide range of sub- genres and styles that all fell under metal, so I would fall asleep to “Into the Ghost Lake” and wake up to “Death Rattle.”

Getting our hands on the last albums that would come out was like a battle. I knew we all had to struggle to listen to what we wanted which made us try harder. Since nothing was legally being sold, we’d go online and attempt to download music through our dial-up Internet, and most of the time the government would block the downloading sites we would use, so we’d find proxy codes to get access to these pages. When that wouldn’t work, we’d have to go to various music and CD stores that would do under the counter sales. If they could download something for you, then you were gold, if not, then you’re back to square one. By the end of this mission we’d have our hands on this prized possession and it wasn’t just any album, but the album we fought to get and we weren’t going put it away until they were too worn out to play again.

How has your love of heavy music affected your life, your career and your choices?

One of the biggest ways it has affected my life was how it introduced me to classical music. I think a lot of people tend to forget how influential classical music is on metal. Some of the biggest metal bands out there, like Metallica and of course Apocalyptica, were classically trained.

When I decided to contribute to the metal scene, I picked up a musty classical guitar instead of the Gibson Flying V I had my eyes on. I’m really happy I made that decision because it opened me up to an entirely new world of music that I did not expose myself to enough. When I came back to Toronto I started studying with an Iranian classical guitarist and composer, which gave me a better understanding of how classical musicians and artists couldn’t openly perform or even walk down the street with their instruments during and shortly after the revolution. So, I began performing classical tunes at school performances and later would perform at the Freef’all Sundays at the Supermarket in Kensington market, which lead me to do band photography and short reviews and blog posts on their site. This later lead me to start up my own blog and work with bands on my own.

When writing about aggressive music, what do you find are the particular challenges when trying to describe or connect with the genre?

When I’m writing here, in Canada, I find it hard to know who it is I’m actually writing to and who my readers are. Since I came back to Toronto, my involvement in the heavy metal scene has dramatically gone down and I just didn’t know where to look. It’s strange how it was easier to find a more prominent scene in Tehran. Since I don’t exactly know whom I’m writing to, it’s hard for me to know how to reach out to my writers.

You were a heavy metal fan in Tehran before moving to Canada. What was it like participating in that scene and how is the Canadian scene different?

In Iran, you didn’t have to be a political activist to be politically involved or be on the government’s “blacklist.” This list ranged from activists to musicians. Almost every aspect of one’s life is controlled to a certain extent, which means when you want to express yourself through a specific medium of art, you become that “wanted” individual. You didn’t have to do much to catch an official’s eyes, so when they see someone dressed in band shirts, or a man with long hair, or a girl wearing spikes and chains you’ll be stopped on the street and get questioned. This was common and could happen to anyone who didn’t follow the dress code, but I know from my own experiences that this was something that metalheads bore with pride. Personally, there were many things I was frustrated with and metal was a fairly safe way to protest. There was a lot people wanted to say, but I truly believe that not everyone was ready to unite and formally protest (I should clarify that I’m referring to the time I was there which was before the Green Movement), so everyone had his or her own little way of doing it.

There were still risks involved with being in the scene, there was a sense of unity amongst the metalheads of Tehran and it felt like a support system. I remember planning on going to underground shows that would just be canceled because the bands would get arrested for being involved in anti-Islamic or “Satanic” activity. This would make everyone furious, but we obviously didn’t stop and people would continue to organize illegal shows. Once in a blue moon there would be legal concerts that would be censored and controlled. This meant that the shows could only be instrumental and consist of a male-only lineup. The venue would be split into two sections dividing men and women, but by the end of the show we’d all be moshing or head banging and no one cared. It was a great sense of relief and the whole time we all knew we were running some sort of risk, but it was worth it.

When I came back to Toronto I didn’t feel that sense of unity or purpose that I felt back in Tehran. Metal was the vessel that drove us to let people know who we were and that we weren’t going to be quiet. We weren’t proving to our parents that we weren’t tame kids, but I suppose we really wanted to give the government the middle finger and show them that we were tired of how they screwed the lives of those around us.

You mentioned that you actually find that it is more rare in Canada/North America to find women who attend heavy metal shows and write about aggressive music that in Tehran. Why do you think that is?

I think many women back in Tehran were making a political statement by attending heavy metal shows and dressing a certain way that was against the dress code. From a young age I, and many other women felt victimized by the environment we were in. At school, we were told not to whistle because that’s what “boys did”. Our dress code was far stricter than those of our male friends. We were aware of the legal divides that existed between men and women. These were laws that affected our daily lives and we were obviously not happy about it.

I was pretty young when I became aware of this divide and felt directly victimized by my environment that, in my opinion, is not rare. Many of the metalhead girls I knew just wanted a safe haven or a place where they can thrash and do what the boys did without being judged as much. Of course, a divide still existed in the scene, as it does in most metal scenes around the world. Men would usually crowd the popular Game Nets, which were music exchange hubs for metalheads. But despite the circumstances, women still dominated a huge part of the scene and would let metal be a voice that we were not allowed to have.

When I came back I noticed how much more calm everyone was. This can definitely be seen through the indie scene that dominates in Toronto. I realized people weren’t as angry; I wasn’t as frustrated with my surroundings. I suppose that’s why I haven’t seen as many female metal fans here.

For metal fans who want to explore music from Tehran, what groups and artists would you recommend?

That’s really hard to say, because when I was there, Tehran metal bands would come and go. There were bands like the Cotalors and Aramuth, but I can’t be sure if they are still playing because these bands never really had an online presence. We would mainly hear about bands from word of mouth and since I am no longer there, unfortunately it’s hard for me to say who is creating a buzz in the tight knit scene.

What it is about metal that makes it suitable for expressions of anger and defiance?

Like any other genre, metal introduces certain themes and aesthetics that play a symbiotic relationship with the music. As I mentioned, in Iran, and even other countries around the world, metal has been associated with secular activities such as paganism or Satan worshipping, which is the main reason people were banned from performing or publicly listening to the music. Because fans know this, they will use it as a tool to rebel.

Also, metal is a very physical genre and you simply can’t be listening to a Children of Bodom album or be at a show without headbanging. Metal has a long history of breaking musical conventions whether it’s the arrangement of the music or simply just a shocking stage presence that the artists tend to have.

As more and more women become open fans of heavy metal, how do you think the genre and scene will change, if at all?

I think metal has typically been a “boys only” club and this is something many artists unfortunately embrace. I believe there are so many talented women metal musicians and fans and as more and more of them get involved it will become inevitable to avoid the contribution they are making to the scene. Sadly, this issue doesn’t only apply to metal, but as we can tell by simply listening to the radio. It’s taken decades for female rappers and hip hop artists to emerge and shine. This is a deep rooted, systematic issue that won’t change overnight, but I truly believe that it will be hard to shift the trajectory women metalheads are taking the scene to. From what I’ve seen, there are more and more women creating the music, listening to it and getting involved in and hopefully we’ll see more and more women who want to head bang, and will feel absolutely no shame in doing so.

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Bahar has written extensively about the Iranian heavy metal scene, including this article for The Strand.