Mehraab, the title of Iranian composer/multi-instrumentalist Loga Ramin Torkian’s new album, means “shrine” in Persian. It’s an enormously successful attempt to play classical Iranian instrumental music through the swirling, hypnotic prism of dreampop and shoegaze rock. Musically, this most closely resembles Copal’s haunting Middle Eastern string-band dancefloor instrumentals; sonically, it’s remarkably similar to Huun Huur Tu’s landmark 2008 electroacoustic Eternal collaboration with producer Carmen Rizzo. Torkian takes care to mention in the liner notes that the electronics here are limited to how the instruments are processed, without any computerized backing tracks. Since all the instruments here are acoustic, the efx add welcome layers of sustain and reverb. Sometimes a riff becomes a loop; occasionally, the timbres are processed to oscillate or change shape as they move through the mix, dub style. Torkian plays a museum’s worth of stringed instruments, including but not limited to guitar, sax, baglama, viola da gamba and rabab, accompanied by Khosro Ansari on vocals (singing in Farsi) and a small army of percussionists including Omer Avci, Zia Tabassian, Mohammed Mohsen Zadeh, Azam Ali and her bandmate Andre Harutounyan.
The songs are dreamy, windswept and often haunting. The opening instrumental, Gaven (The Wild Deer) works an apprehensive descending progression in the Arabic hijaz mode, lutes and strings over reverberating layers of percussion and an astringent viola da gamba passage. Az Pardeh (Through the Wall) contrasts a matter-of-fact lead vocal with a somewhat anguished, hypnotic drone playing tensely against a central note, in a stately 6/8 rhythm. Golzare Ashegh (Garden of Love) establishes a sense of longing with its austere arrangement and dreamlike ambience; Chashme Jadu (Your Bewitching Eyes) is absolutely bewitching, in a creepy way, ominous astringent atmospherics over echoey clip-clop percussion.
With its subtle oscillations working against a distant, reverberating loop, the title track brings to mind a Daniel Lanois production, a simple, memorable, ringing motif circling through the mix. It’s the first part of what’s essentially a suite, segueing into Parva (Compassion) with its dub echoes and trancelike flute. Souz-El-Del (The Burning Heart) is the most rhythmically tricky piece here, a forest of lutes and what sounds like a kamancheh (spiked fiddle) doubling the dark levantine melody – it’s an absolutely gorgeous, sweepingly majestic, haunting song. They go out with a tersely wary, cello-like string theme. Simply one of the year’s most captivating and haunting albums.
Galeet Dardashti’s new album The Naming celebrates women throughout history who broke the rules. Dardashti herself is both a pioneer and a traditionalist in Jewish music. She serves as cantor at her Brooklyn synagogue, a role traditionally reserved for men (such as her grandfather, a star in Iran whose popularity transcended his outsider status in a predominantly Muslim culture). With soaring vocals in Hebrew, she sets tales from the Talmud, Bible and Midrash to hypnotic Middle Eastern grooves blending elements of Persian, Jewish and Egyptian music. She’s assembled a first-rate cast of New York musicians around her: violinists Megan Gould and Lila Sklar, cellist Eleanor Norton, percussionist Matt Kilmer, bassist Yossi Fine and hammered dulcimer wiz Max ZT (of psychedelic instrumental combo House of Waters), who build alternately lush and austere textures behind her sometimes hushed, sometimes spectacular voice.
The first track connects the dots between Michal, wife of King David, who like her male counterparts would use tefillin prayer beads, just as Dardashti’s childless aunt Tovah did in Iran some millennia later. It opens with a ululating vocal taqsim over an ambient drone, building to an imploring, Fairouz-style ballad evocative of Natacha Atlas’ recent work, a feel echoed in the equally hypnotic title track. Hagar/Sarah is a slinky levantine dance number with staccato strings over Kilmer’s trance-inducing clip-clop percussion. Sheba celebrates the queen’s spirited seduction of Solomon with a rousing, dulcimer-driven groove. The dulcimer opens the terse, distantly Indian-inflected Dinah with a pensive improvisation; Vashti, a joyously syncopated dance number, commemorates the famously disobedient Persian queen. The album winds up on a high note with the impassioned, anguished Endora, a duet featuring Hazzan Farid Dardashti’s stern cantorial voice contrasting with all the Bjork-inflected swoops and wails. What’s not trance-inducing here is often exhilarating. Galeet Dardashti plays the cd release for the album on September 14 at 6:30 PM at le Poisson Rouge, including a performance by the Syren dance troupe.
A characteristically transcendent performance by one of the world’s greatest ensembles in any style of music. Classical music from Iran is almost inextricably linked to lyrics and poetry and for that reason its instrumentals are songs without words. Likewise, the voice serves as an instrument in the ensemble, joining the interplay as much as it leads it. Like any other established style of music, Persian music has its devices and tropes passed down through the ages: over there they call them gushehs. Over here we call them riffs.
Last night at NYU’s Skirball Center, the Masters of Persian Music played two riveting, practically hourlong suites full of them, the first an improvisation, the second composed pretty much all the way through. The jam, said kamancheh (spike fiddle) player and composer Kayhan Kalhor, was dedicated to a friend who’d just lost a family member. For this set he played a darkly resonant five-string kamancheh alongside his fellow luminary and longtime bandmate Hossein Alizadeh on jangly, clanging shourangiz lute. The two began slowly, mournfully, climbing to what became a funeral march, working the tension between two adjacent notes into an apprehensively memorable, interlocking four-note theme (a westerner might say that the whole thing, both sections of it, was a one-chord jam, and in a sense they’d be right). Kalhor alternated cello-like low-register ambience with rapidfire upper-register work, frequently tapping out percussion or notes high on the fingerboard and making the most of his signature echo effect, bowing with less and less pressure until the notes seemed to be coming back under their own power. Meanwhile, Alizadeh’s right hand was a whirlwind of ferocious fingerpicking. They finally built to a raga-inflected dance, Alizadeh firing off a series of descending progressions that would have been right at home in the Ravi Shankar songbook. And then it was over. The second part of the jam grew more hopeful, rising to a majestic, heroic anthem pulsing along on Kalhor’s insistent low notes. It had a happy ending.
The second part of the show segued between compositions by both Kalhor and Alizadeh (both of whom had switched to smaller, more rustic instruments, in the latter’s case a traditional tar lute) and brief solo passages for kamancheh, tar and the sonorous nay flute of Siamak Jahangiry. Hamid Reza Nourbakhsh, a star pupil of Persian vocal legend Mohammad Reza Shajarian, lent his alternately sepulchral and frenetically ornamented baritone to lyrics by several noteworthy poets: Nima Youshij, Shafi’i Kadkani, Abou Said Abou Kheyr, Akhavan-e Sales, Molavi and Salman Savoji. Here the interplay and the riffage took centerstage when the vocals didn’t, Alizadeh introducing many of them and then returning sometimes several minutes later with their variations. There was plenty of call-and-response, as well as everyone including Nourbakhsh echoing or working their own version of another’s phrasing. With the additional low end provided by Fariborz Azizi’s bass tar and Pezhham Akhavass’s tombak frame drum, it was as if Alizadeh had been freed from carrying the rhythm and could now, as one would say in rock vernacular, “play leads.” Seamlessly and spiritedly, they made their way through a stately tribute to hope against all odds – out of self-preservation, no doubt, the group steered clear of anything that could be construed as overtly political – to a cynical anthem about hypocrisy, a swaying drinking song and a couple of hypnotic, circular anthems, the second closing the show with the whole group singing and playing its series of hooks in perfect unanimity. The sold-out crowd wouldn’t settle for giving them just one standing ovation – after getting another relatively brief mesmerizingly catchy, swaying number as an encore, they wanted more. Kalhor, clearly game, raised his eyebrows and looked around at his bandmates. Then the house lights went up.
Masters of Persian Music’s Spring 2010 US tour continues on Feb 19 at the Sanders Theatre in Boston; 2/20 at the Hanna Theatre in Cleveland; 2/23 at Symphony Center in Chicago; 2/26 at the Ferst Center for the Arts in Atlanta and concluding on 2/28 at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC. Adventurous listeners in these cities would be crazy to miss them.
This might be the best world music album of the year, a frequently haunting, unabashedly romantic collection of popular acoustic songs from Iran from the era before the mullahs took over after the fall of the Shah in 1979 (to call what happened there a revolution is revolting). New York-born Monika Jalili comes from a musical theatre background, which makes sense when you hear her clear, minutely nuanced soprano, to which she’s expertly added the trademark ornamentation of Iranian classical song, using a delicate vibrato which often trills off at the end of a phrase for emphasis. The songs, mostly dating from the 60s and 70s, combine the austere microtonality of traditional Iranian music with the vivid emotionality of French chanson and a lush Mediterranean romanticism. Jalali sings in Persian and Azeri as well as English and French on two songs. The musicianship is equally nuanced and haunting: for this album, her second collection of songs from Iran, she’s enlisted the extraordinary New York-based oudist/composer Mavrothi Kontanis as well as his bandmate Megan Gould on violin, Erik Friedlander on cello, Riaz Khabirpour on acoustic guitar, Marika Hughes on cello and Silk Road Project percussionist Shane Shanahan. To call their performance inspired is an understatement.
Jalili communicates an intense sense of longing on the opening track, Ghoghaye Setaregan (Dance of the Stars), a jangly cosmopolitan ballad in 6/8 with incisive violin. Arezooha (Wishes) evokes 60s French folk-pop with sparse violin and cello behind Jalili’s subtle vocals. Gonjeshgake Ashi Mashi (Little Sparrow) is not a Piaf tribute but an upbeat take of an old folksong, done anthemically with some stirring oud work by Kontanis and the string section.
Ay Rilikh (Separation) is masterfully evocative, Gould’s violin dark and distant with reverb, a chilling contrast with Jalili’s warm interpretation. The upbeat, happy medieval folk dance Evlari Vaar (To Bemaan) has an almost Britfolk feel; by contrast, Biya Bare Safar Bandim (Let’s Be on Our Way) has a slightly Asian tinge, especially on the vocals. Kontanis’ oud holds it to the ground as Gould’s violin soars skyward, Jalili following in turn and then adding some spectacularly flashy vocalese at the end.
Peyke Sahari (Messenger of Dawn) builds to a crescendo with a haunting three-chord descending progression at the end of the verse, illuminated by a beautiful string chart that grows more insistent. The mood turns in a considerably brighter direction with the coy, percussive, bolero-ish Bia Bia Benshin (Come Sit by Me), Kontanis and Gould again taking brief but memorable turns on the bridge. The cd ends with its best song, the darkly swaying, dramatic Ay Vatan (Oh, My Homeland):
Freedom’s here, not in the distance
Oh, my land…
You’re the hero, oh this madness
Oh, my land,
Jalili wails delicately over Kontanis’ eerily swooping oud riffs. The ensemble takes it out with an elegantly fluttering, understatedly chilling conclusion. With the people of Iran uniting against the repression of the past thirty years, there could not be a more auspicious time for this album to come out: the anthem for the next real Iranian revolution could be on it. Watch for this high on the list of the best albums of 2009 here at year’s end.
A frequently riveting juxtaposition of ancient and modern vocal music from the Muslim world, arguably the highlight of this year’s Muslim Voices festival. Persian classical singer Parissa is something of a feel-good story, having resurrected a promising career interrupted for almost two decades by the 1978-79 Iran counterrevolution. Accompanied by virtuoso tar (four-string lute) player Iman Vaziri and hand drummer Dara Afraz, she delivered musical settings of Rumi poems, essentially soul music with a distinctly antique flavor. In a vibratoless alto more bronze than brassy, seated somewhat inscrutably centerstage, she worked a style that typically allows room for emotional release at the end of a phrase, with melismas and ululations which she delivered with considerable passion yet restraint. From the point of view of a non-Farsi speaker, it was impossible to tell where one poem began and another ended, the segments being linked by the tar, occasionally tar and drum picking up the pace. They mixed the time signature up: among the songs (or segments) were what was essentially a stately waltz, several straight-up, seemingly four-on-the-floor numbers and several that that were much more tricky, timewise. Visibly absent was any dance beat, and for that matter any chord changes, resulting in a very hypnotic feel. The most musically compelling of them approximated a minor scale, Vaziri introducing a particularly anguished theme and then playing off the vocals gently. A couple others were distinctly anthemic, although in this music, the hooks are strictly musical: there are no choruses in the lyrics. The trio maintained a careful, deliberate pace throughout, determined by the meter of the verse – Persian poetry, like Latin poetry, is highly inflected.
While Parissa keeps the flame alive, Palestinian oud player/singer Kamilya Jubran - former frontwoman of the courageous Palestinian new-music group Sabreen – breaks new ground. To call her performance cutting-edge would be an understatement. An extraordinarily innovative musician, she displayed a dazzling melodic sensibility on the oud, employing at times equal parts American soul, funk and avante-garde music as well as classical Levantine motifs, with hypnotic tinges possibly evocative of Moroccan gnawa. Playing original settings of contemporary Palestinian poems, she sang with a high, youthful delivery, clear and direct, minutely jeweled with the subtlest shades of angst, regret and longing. For the considerable benefit of English speakers, translations of the poems were included in the program notes, and without exception they were intensely moving. Here’s just the first stanza of the most intense of all of them – if this isn’t well worth the $25 ticket price (tickets still available for tonight’s show), you decide what is:
Birds have their homes in the shadows
Echo has longings for hills that she knows
Dew has the dying color of sunset
Nights have their secret to cover the sorrows
Drinkers have wine, and I have the rest
She began that one with a touch of the blues, added a little quiet scatting in the middle and then it got haunting and serious. The deeply metaphorical Words (“I wish I were a language on a lip/That is creased with cares/It would neither conceal nor reveal) began with a dexterous series of high harmonics on the oud and a funky feel, further enhanced as the sound engineer brought up the reverb on the vocals. Quietly and determinedly haunting, Hands stayed just this side of macabre as Jubran added pointed passing tones to drive home the frustration and anguish of captivity. The saddest of the poems, Scenes – a bitter concession to wartime defeat – was driven by darkly ringing chords, terse yet heavy with grief and loss. She ended the set with a love song, Hammock, its long outro skipping somewhat skeletally yet soulfully warm, like a vintage Richie Havens song. Considering the quality of all this, one could forgive her for doing karaoke on a couple of numbers, backed by a tape with layers of oud and backing vocals – as complex as the songs were, there are without a doubt plenty of other oudists and singers here who would have welcomed the opportunity to work with such a compelling musician as Jubran.
Both Parissa and Kamilya Jubran are playing tonight at the Asia Society, 725 Park Ave. at 70th St. Parissa goes on at 7:30, Jubran at 9:30 and tickets are still available as of this writing (morning of 6/12/09).
This was the drums-and-cello set: that Bronx-born Persian-American rocker Haale Gafori and her band could still be as rivertingly powerful as they were under the circumstances speaks volumes. Drom is typically one of New York’s best-sounding rooms, and throughout their Saturday night show, Haale’s vocals, Brent Arnold’s cello and Matt Kilmer’s percussion were crystal-clear in the mix. Trouble was, her guitar was almost totally inaudible. Haale’s music makes frequent use of open tunings and big washes of sound that ring out for what feels like minutes on end, with many of the songs building to ecstatic crescendos. Good thing the cello was so high in the mix, in fact so loud that there were overtones flying from the strings, otherwise this would have been for all intents and purposes a hip-hop show.
But the material and Haale’s voice simply refused to be denied. The sound was dark, saturnine and all-enveloping, something akin to an amalgam of smoldering, early PJ Harvey, fiery electric Randi Russo, and Iranian traditional song. “We just spent a week in Brazil,” she told the crowd. “It was like silk…I’ve never heard such a tapestry of birds and insects.” Beginning in Persian, switching to English and then back again, she was a fearless force, her soulful alto soaring over Arnold’s dark, atmospheric washes as Kilmer played a neat three-on-four beat. The band came out swinging with two big anthems from their new, aptly titled cd No Ceiling, eventually bringing it down a bit with the tongue-in-cheek yet similarly eerie Off-Duty Fortune Teller. Haale then introduced the trance-rocker Paratrooper by explaining that when Jimi Hendrix was in the Army, he’d listen to the drone of the airplane engine, vowing to figure out how to get that same sound out of his guitar.
Of the other songs in the set, Home Again and the title track to the new cd had the most straightforward rock feel, by contrast to the hypnotic slow burn of the rest of the material. The trio closed with the fiery epic Ay Dar Shekasteh, Kilmer capping the crescendos with a massive splash on the gong that coiled serpent-like above his kit.
It would have been nice to stick around to hear Iranian hip-hop artist Yas and then Brooklyn reggae/dancehall outfit Jah Dan & Noble Society, but they had a hard act to follow, and there was another stop on the night’s agenda.
Kayhan Kalhor is having a hard time doing anything wrong right now: pretty much everything the renowned Iranian kamancheh (spike fiddle) player touches turns into something magical. Like most of his contemporaries, Kalhor delights in cross-cultural collaboration, and this latest cd, created with inventive string quartet Brooklyn Rider is typical. Brisk, bracing, exhilarating and often wrenchingly haunting, it’s a spectacularly successful achievement. It’s less an attempt to blend East and West than simply a collaboration between friends. Kalhor – founder of the Dastan Ensemble, Ghazal Ensemble and Masters of Persian Music - has two lengthy compositions here, playing kamancheh and also santur (a four-string lute) on his own darkly rustling retelling of the Persian flight myth, Parvaz. Fascinatingly arranged by maverick violist/composer Ljova, its recurrent refrains slowly builds, inexorably gaining intensity..
The cd opens with a vividly evocative traditional piece, Ascending Bird, an imaginative musical rendition of the same myth that Kalhor explores in Parvaz. The piece begins with the strings bristling with anticipation and urgency before taking flight over the rapidfire strumming of guest setarist Siamak Aghaei. At this point, for all intents and purposes, it becomes a rapidly, fascinatingly shapeshifting acoustic rock song. The album’s centerpiece is its title track, a Kalhor composition, perhaps the most intense and emotionally wrenching work he’s written to date. It’s a dead-accurate portrayal of the aftereffects of shock on the human psyche. An evocation of Saddam Hussein’s poison gas attack on the Kurdish city of Hallabjah, it begins almost inaudible with a faint hum that only gradually grows into a wash of numb atmospherics. Slowly, the city’s residents make their way back, piecing together whatever may be left of their families, their lives and their memories. Running their instruments through a delay effect, both individually and in unison, the group create a hypnotic, echoey, otherworldly ambience that goes on for minutes on end: this is a long piece, clocking in at around thirty minutes. Only at the end does the melody erupt in raw outrage, and when it does, it ranks with Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony, Julius Reubke’s Sonata on the 49th Psalm or Elvis Costello at his most excoriating as a potent expression of despair followed by fury. Even if it is much quieter.
The cd’s final piece Beloved, Do Not Let Me Be Discouraged begins stately and atmospherically before growing to a lively dance with what could be an attractively major-key pre-baroque English folk melody rearranged for strings: Henry Purcell, anyone? Based on a 16th century verse by the Turkish poet Fuzuli, its theme is crazy love: interestingly, while the players attack the melody with considerable abandon, it never gets completely out of control.
Perhaps because of the diversity of the performers’ backgrounds, this cd sounds neither particularly Middle Eastern nor American. Kalhor and Brooklyn Rider just might have created a a new genre here: dark ambient modernist Persian-American classical, for lack of a better term. It’s accessible enough to appeal to mainstream classical fans, although more adventurous listeners will undoubtedly spin this over and over. To completely appreciate it, headphones are an absolute necessity. Without a doubt, one of the most enjoyably pioneering cds of the decade.
A mesmerizing, passionate, intoxicatingly good performance by the Bronx-born, second-generation Iranian-American psychedelic rocker and her four-piece band. Haale – as in jalapeno – treated the crowd to a hypnotic, pulsing blend of indie rock and classical Persian music. Her backing unit featured violin, cello and two percussionists, one of whom had a spiral gong that he waited til almost the end of the show to make a massive, magnificent splash with. Most of the solos were taken by the violinist, who showed off a spectacularly eerie, gypsy side; the cellist often played dark chords low on the register, frequently evoking another superb New York band, Rasputina. Haale frequently utilizes open guitar tunings that lend themselves especially well to the trancelike feel of much of her music. Vocally, she goes for a drawling, soul-inflected style, but somehow she manages to make it sound completely unaffected, perhaps because it fits her lyrics and her vision so well: this artist is all about adrenaline, exhilaration and transcendence, the soaring exuberance of her voice contrasting with the frequently haunting chromatics of the music.
Speaking in Persian, she rattled off a poem with an obviously impressive, intricate rhythm and rhyme scheme. “That was written eight hundred years ago, in Iran,” she told the audience. “That’s hip-hop!” she exclaimed. And the beat her band was using was pure trip-hop, even if it dates back centuries. Much of the set was new songs from her just-released full-length debut cd, No Ceiling, including the tongue-in-cheek yet plaintive Off Duty Fortune Teller. She told the audience of how Jimi Hendrix, during his brief time as an Army paratrooper, resolved to find a way to make his guitar produce the droning rumble of an airplane engine, then played an evocative new song inspired by that revelation. The set built a crescendo to a wild, swirling finish; Haale saved her best songs for last. The crowd – an impressively diverse crew – wanted more, but it was almost closing time. If this show is any indication, the new album is amazing.
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