Major Historical Moment: Mohammad-Reza Lotfi Returns to New York After 19 Years
An important moment in New York music history: iconic Iranian multi-instrumentalist and singer Mohammad-Reza Lotfi played his first New York show in nineteen years at Symphony Space last night. In his native land, he’ll typically play to ten thousand people in a stadium. Here, a sold-out, remarkably mixed audience of both expats and Persian music fans from across the demographic spectrum greeted him with a standing ovation and followed with several more throughout a rivetingly terse, meticulously and matter-of-factly improvised show that lasted for about an hour and a half. Renowned as an innovator who fuses folk and classical idioms, as well as being one of the world’s great improvisers, Lotfi also founded the Shayda Women’s Ensemble choir. In case that might not seem like a big deal, consider the potential consequences of promoting women in music in an extremist Muslim theocracy. That group was originally on the bill, said a representative from the World Music Institute (who get credit for the coup of staging this concert) beforehand, but it wasn’t possible to obtain the necessary visas. As a result, Lotfi sang (in Persian) and played both tar and setar lutes alongside masterful, intuitive percussionist Mohammad Ghavihelm, who alternated between tombak (goblet drum) and a boomier frame drum.
The two took the concept of a one-chord jam to the next level. In classical Iranian music, these improvisations usually begin slowly and work their way up almost imperceptibly, to sometimes ecstatic heights. This one was often more allusive, yet also insistently intense and imbued with an unexpected humor toward the end. Lotfi led the way early on with his tar, adroitly and spaciously assembling a series of riffs (known as gushehs) that would become a theme and a springboard for variations throughout its roughly 45 minutes. Lotfi gave a clinic in dynamics, nimble filigrees alternating with rapidfire, incisively staccato hammer-on licks, taking the music down to practically silence in places before building back up with the next movement. As the piece went on, Lotfi would artfully leave a riff behind and then suddenly resurrect it fifteen minutes later, the recurrences growing closer and closer together as it gathered steam. Ghavihelm maintained a steady gallop while Lotfi built to a long, hypnotically clanging passage where he pedaled what would be called a major chord in western music: with natural overtones and just a hint of natural distortion penetrating the PA system, it sounded like the Velvet Underground but with infinitely more interesting (and more accurate) rhythm.
For the second part of the concert, Lotfi switched to the smaller setar. His vocals on the first piece had a gravelly gravitas, but by now he was warmed up, his nuanced baritone soaring over and then dipping below the rivulets and waves ringing from the strings. Ghavihelm soon put down the tombak and picked up the tar, leaning the drum over on its side just enough to produce a ghostly echo effect. The connection between poetry and music in classical Iranian culture is intrinsic, the intention often being to connect with the divine, and Lotfi’s slow, steady, hypnotically marching theme reached toward a rapt, rather optimistic ambience. The similarity between the classical music of Iran and India became most striking here. Lotfi eventually began a brief fugue of sorts, then a brief conversation with the drums, his voice taking on a resonantly imploring tone. And then, as if to surprise everyone, he suddenly put down the setar, picked up the frame drum and wound the piece out with a rather wry, playful processional.
By the way, the WMI has several other intriguing upcoming programs similar to this one, for fans of music from Cuba, Central Asia, the Middle East and more, extending into June; their calendar is here.