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Art amid the din of war: Ancient and contemporary music from the Iranian world and beyond

Sornai Ensemble performers for 14 May 2016, Ismaili Centre, London
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Sornai Ensemble performers for 14 May 2016, Ismaili Centre, London

A welcome earful of rare traditional and contemporary music from the Iranian world is offered in a London event that brings together European and Middle Eastern artists and enthusiasts performing in a fusion of eastern and western traditions, writes Sajid Rizvi.

Golazin Ardestani, an internationally renowned musicologist, vocalist and actor [actress, to be more precise, for those who don’t know her yet or can’t tell her gender from her name], will be joined on various instruments by widely recognised performers and experts in their fields. They are: Veria Amiri, on setar and tar (and on the podium for a lecture earlier in the day); Mohammad Jaberi on daf; Narges Torshizi on tonbak; Karen Sabaghi on setar; Paulina Mikolajczyk on ghaychak and Franceso Iannuzzelli on oud.

The one-day event is organised by Ladak Gallery (curated by its director Amin Abdulla Pardhan) in conjunction with the Ismaili Centre, near the Victoria and Albert Museum, and is part of a World Music Series of events at the centre.

Of all the instruments to be appearing at the event, nothing reminds us more starkly than oud of the ongoing tragedies of the Middle East, notably of Syria and Iraq because both Baghdad and Damascus excel in producing contemporary oud. The histories that oud invokes remind us how the culture of that whole region is one long scream, a silent victim of the turmoil and mayhem in those two countries, their distressed neighbourhood and in north and sub-Saharan Africa.

Rarely has a musical instrument been recorded so comprehensively as oud across cultures of its blessed and influential reach. National claims and counter-claims abound about the very first oud ever made and played. Most academics, however, agree that happened at Susa around the eighth century BCE. Not for nothing is Susa, still thriving as an Iranian town below the Zagros Mountains, some 160 miles due east of the Tigris river in Iraq, is credited as the source of oud.  For centuries on end Susa was a pre-eminent hub for a succession of cultures and empires. If oud began there it would have been called a barbat, before it became an oud, lute or zither in Mediterranean Europe and northern Africa, guqin along its Silk Road migration to China, further changing names as variations found their way into the Korean peninsula and Japan.

Oud and by some accounts the basic lute prevalent in Europe at the time is widely believed to be the basis for the guitar, arguably an innovation born of Spain’s indolent culture. The hot days and nights and the need for frequent siestas may well have accentuated the need for a flat instrument replacing the time-consuming process of hand-crafting the stripped wood-and-glue soundbox of the Arab Spain oud, and the guitar’s illogical tuning may also have been by accident rather than design. But it’s not the intention here to trigger musicological warfare or an academic free-for-all.

There’s no doubt, though, that oud has connections with a vast array of other instruments, from the pipa in China, bipa in Korea and various instruments in Japan and elsewhere. A popular early shape recalling a magnified pear is usually a dead give-away that it has some connection with oud no matter how far from the Iranian world such an instrument is found. The Russian balalaika and even bandoura, the Greek buzuki and the Romanian cobza are also cited as sly copycats. Ardent Iranologists would tell you the American banjo may have the Ethiopian lyre lurking within but its guitar-playing concept is traceable to oud.

As for the other instruments to feature in the upcoming concert, the setar and tar (Veria Amiri and Karen Sabaghi) are better known in Europe’s wider Asian and Middle Eastern communities in their reincarnation as the corpulent and sumptuous Mughal versions, the sitar and the tanpura, though the latter has no frets. Each poses a different challenge to the performer, in most cases the tar being the more daunting of the two. In a tar one needs to know how to manipulate the string frets to get the desired sound, and it may be years before the performer gets it right. But then that’s true of most musical instruments and their interaction with humans.

Thanks to the Beatles, George Harrison in particular, the Indian child of the ancient Iranian setar=sitar is a global agent of myriad musical phenomena that isn’t likely to go away, even as its virtuoso master and protagonist Ravi Shankar (George Harrison’s teacher) is no longer with us. Thanks to the Beatles and to more recent Asian migration, commuters in Tokyo can often be treated to sitar buskers.

Like the oud across places and times, the contemporary percussive daf, whether used in ancient or contemporary music, is at the centre of a never ending controversy over who or which nation or race it actually ‘belongs’ to. But most serious scholarship homes in on the ancient Pahlavi term dap, which changed to daf as one of the numerous cultural and linguistic effects of Arab influence on Iran. But it’s not the only word for what is basically a metal or wooden ring covered by goatskin or other materials. A dayereh is smaller, and a defi much larger. Much mirthful mileage can be gained out of  an encounter where Greek and Iranian musicologists argue over their pet theory about the origins of the instrument which is also close to the musical culture of northwestern Greece. Away from both Iran and Greece, however, the daf is celebrated in money—both banknotes and coins—in Azerbaijan.

Add a goblet, well, sort of, to a daf of your choice and you get a tonbak, tombak or zarb (to be performed by Narges Torshizi). And that’s putting it very, very simply! Levity aside, although it is one of the star percussion instruments from ancient Middle East to date, solo performances of the hand-held tonbak are a recent phenomenon, apparently first recorded at the turn of the last century. But now, in Iran and elsewhere, tonbak virtuosi draw huge attention and can go for tens of minutes. Because a tonbak is handheld or rather cuddled, in contrast to the larger two-headed dholak, playing a tonbak requires a lot more stamina than performing with the floor-based tabla, whether single or in pair. Most of the earliest tonbak were carved out of a single block or knot of wood but the range of materials used in manufacturing a modern tonbak is varied if not vast. The sound of tonbak has moved out of the grand bazaars of Cairo (Khan El Khalili), Istanbul and Tehran and is much prized in compositions and performances of ancient, classical, folk, contemporary and modern music and film scores.

The ghaychak, chosen by Polish cellist Paulina Mikolajczyk for the event, is easily confused or identified with the better known kamancheh and, although claimed as Iranian, is also part of the national musical inventories of Afghanistan, northeastern China, northern Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Turkey and various other nationalities of the Russian Federation. The double-chambered bowl lute usually comes with four or or more metal strings and a short fretless neck.

Across the spectrum of both music and musical instruments from the Middle East, innovation seems unstoppable. But it is evidently inhibited by current events, especially the debilitating and destructive cacophony and dissonance of war.

Sajid Rizvi is the commissioning editor and editor-in-chief of a history of Korean music, forthcoming, from Saffron Books.

© Sajid Rizvi.

An Evening of Iranian traditional and folk music by the Sornai Ensemble. World Music Series 2016 at The Ismaili Centre.
14 May 2016. 7.45pm for 8.15pm. Ticket GBP 15, Concession (under 12) GBP 10, including refreshments.
Extra booking is required for a pre-concert Lecture [3.00pm for 3.30pm, GBP 5.00] by Veria Amiri and other musicians and teachers.

To book:
Venue address: The Ismaili Centre, 1-7 Cromwell Gardens, London SW7 2SL
Nearest  Underground: South Kensington


Author: Editor

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