Resist the inevitable urge to define Maral Afsharian’s sound. Everything about this 25-year-old electronic rocker from Tehran’s underground is an anomaly.
Afsharian, 25, was formerly lead singer of Plastic Wave, who split up shortly after they were lined up to play Austin, Texas’s prestigious SXSW festival in 2009, an opportunity that never materialized as their American visa applications were rejected.
In her funky Tehran flat that feels more East Village than Islamic Republic, home to a variety of animals, including two dogs, and a meter-long iguana that often roams freely, Afsharian explains the disappointment of not being able to perform in the U.S. “I really feel like it wasn’t supposed to be,” she says. “The guys I was working with were talented, but I wasn’t really happy working with them. We weren’t friends. We were just working together.”
Which led her to go solo, a decision that’s proved challenging yet fulfilling. “I had a lot of people talking badly about me, because I was the only girl in an Islamic country doing unusual things,” she explains. “I used to play computer games. That’s why I’m familiar with computers. I was the only girl in that community. Then I was the only girl in my music community. I wanted to be strong and independent and guys didn’t like it. This was the biggest problem I had when working with people.”
Although much of the work involved in creating electronic music is new terrain for her, she has learned to enjoy the pursuit of the knowledge needed. “I’m like a computer nerd,” she admits, “always searching on YouTube for tutorials.”
She chooses to sing exclusively in English as, “Farsi is very melodic. It doesn’t really fit the riffs and chords of rock music.”
Ultimately it is one of her music’s endearing qualities. A voice that’s at once angelic, but backed with a great emotional, often angry, force. Her accent alone signals to listeners that she’s singing of a life lived far away. Her lyrics possess a rhythm that sticks long after the song finishes, as in “Autonomous,” a track on Plastic Wave’s [Re]action album in which she sings: “I had to dress like a clown just to walk around/To have room to feel safe in this f***in’ town/I couldn’t run couldn’t hide couldn’t help myself/I had to not talk about the way I felt.”
A perfect messenger for Iran’s young women trying to get their frustrations out, although Afsharian herself knows she wouldn’t be the first choice as a representative of her generation, “I would really love to perform here, but at the moment I’m not sure I have enough of an audience. Even if I had the opportunity, I don’t know if many people here are really interested in my music.”
Contrary to homegrown musicians in most countries, who gain local notoriety before ever even dreaming of making it big, she says the great majority of her fans are outside of Iran, adding in her unavoidably contrarian fashion, “It’s not that strange. Most ordinary people here look at me like a weirdo. So it’s not really surprising.”
Constantly marginalized in her homeland, you might conclude that leaving Iran would be the best option for a young singer already accustomed to controversy and turmoil. Afsharian, though, has decided to stay in Iran, unlike so many of her contemporaries who have leapt at the first chance to flee the country. She has a clear understanding of the pros and cons of staying, and has made peace with her choice.
“I used to think if I left Iran and went to live in some other country, I’d be really successful and I would find a way to do what I want to do. But I changed my mind. You know, I found that I’m always inspired by Iran.”