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Before NY shooting, Iranian band thrived while another struggled

NEW YORK (Reuters) - When the Yellow Dogs were still playing secret gigs in their native Iran, even the unruly hairstyles of the four 20-something members of the indie-rock band were enough to get them in trouble with the police.
/ Source: Reuters

NEW YORK (Reuters) - When the Yellow Dogs were still playing secret gigs in their native Iran, even the unruly hairstyles of the four 20-something members of the indie-rock band were enough to get them in trouble with the police.

But on the streets of Williamsburg, a neighborhood in Brooklyn thick with young musicians, they blended in effortlessly after arriving in 2010 to seek asylum and the freedom to play the wiry, punk-inflected music they loved.

The murder-suicide early on Monday that left two of them dead plunged those in the Williamsburg music community, on which the Yellow Dogs had quickly left a mark, into shock.

"People loved them as a band," said Jify Shah, owner of the Cameo club where they often played. "When you saw them they had that intimidating rock-star quality as far as looks goes, but they're super humble and nice, and people like hanging around with them.

"They were a role model of a band," Shah said.

After fleeing oppression in the Islamic republic, they thrived in Brooklyn, booking repeat gigs at local venues and turning their three-story East Williamsburg house into a hub for artistic Iranian expats.

"This is our dream," Ali Salehezadeh, who managed the band and lived with them, said of the house's bohemian atmosphere and the frequent parties open to anyone who might be interesting.

The dream was violently smashed late on Sunday night by another Iranian musician who had arrived in the United States more recently and who police and others say was flailing after being kicked out of another band, the Free Keys, about a year ago.

Armed with a rifle, Ali Rafie, 29, sneaked down from the roof around midnight on Monday into the third floor of the house and shot dead Ali Eskandarian, a 35-year-old writer and a sometime guest vocalist with the Yellow Dogs, and the brothers Soroush, 27, and Arash Farazmand, 28, the Yellow Dogs' guitarist and drummer, according to the police account.

Rafie shot at two other Iranian brothers, both street artists, who also lived in the house and were trying to hide in a bedroom, wounding one of them in the elbow and shoulder.

He then moved to another bedroom and tried to shoot one of his former bandmates, who scuffled with him, knocked the clip from his gun and escaped. Rafie then headed to the roof, where he fatally shot himself in the head, police said.


The Yellow Dogs played their first U.S. gig at Cameo, a Williamsburg music venue, within days of arriving in the country in January 2010, said its owner Jify Shah. They rehearsed in the venue's basement with Hypernova, another Iranian band that had arrived in the country before them.

All four members at some point worked the door at Cameo, where they enjoyed mingling with other musicians, Shah said.

He thought they were a perfect face for his venue, adhering to his ideal of what a band should be: focused only on the music, and not distracted by the prospect of fame and its enticements.

Even members of the U.S. State Department seemed impressed by their attitude. An employee of the American consulate in Istanbul recounted eagerly picking the brains of these "astute, well-informed, and resourceful 20-somethings" for their insights into Iranian politics and culture during a successful visa application interview in 2009, according to a cable in one of the earlier Wikileaks releases.

The band members told the consulate about harassment by Iranian authorities for singing rock music in English in covert gigs in soundproofed basements or far-flung warehouses around Tehran, the cable said.

Police sometimes raided their concerts, where men and women freely mingled, the band said.

Once, one member was arrested and detained for two weeks, charged with "Satan worship," according to the cable. Police forced another to cut short his "afro-style" hair by confiscating his driver's license.


In Iran, the Yellow Dogs had played with and even at times shared a band member with the Free Keys. But when they followed the Yellow Dogs to the United States a couple of years later, they struggled to find the same success, according to Salehezadeh, who managed both bands.

"They kind of didn't make it," he said. "It was kind of hard for them to succeed."

Why the Free Keys kicked Rafie out of the band remains unclear.

"He did some things to his bandmates that they didn't respect," Salehezadeh said, declining to elaborate.

Police are investigating reports that he stole from them. Salehezadeh and the Yellow Dogs, who were friends with other members of the Free Keys and lived with one of them, barely saw him over the year that followed.

New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly told reporters on Tuesday that Rafie's relatives, worried, had "petitioned" the Free Keys to let him back in.

"His mother, in particular, was very much aware of his despondence over being kicked out of the band," Kelly said.

The entreaties apparently went nowhere, and, at some point - police say they are still investigating when and how - Rafie got hold of a rifle.

(Additional reporting by Chris Francescani; Editing by Edith Honan and Prudence Crowther)