Bahar Movahed: Renaissance Woman
Bahar Movahed is one of this era’s most extraordinary voices. But she isn’t just a virtuoso singer of classic Persian and Kurdish songs. She can also operate on your teeth (she’s presently at the school of dental surgery at UCSF) and draw very funny pictures of you (her caricatures have been exhibited worldwide). And she’s also a fashion model. She’s playing an intimate show at Symphony Space at 7:30 PM on April 17; tickets are still available as of today. If the poignant, emotionally rich music of Iran is your thing, this is a show not to miss. Movahed graciously took some time out of what must be a ridiculously hectic schedule to answer some questions:
Lucid Culture’s Correspondent: You have a fascinating story. You are a dental
surgeon, an award- winning visual artist and a musician. Is there a common link
between these interests for you?
Bahar Movahed: Well, at first glance, they seem to be completely unrelated with no
common link, but the fascinating fact is that creativity is an essential and
inseparable link between all of them. Art is dead without new
works, and also without the creative soul of an artist. On one hand, if
you want to become a successful dentist, you should have the courage to
develop your own method of treating patients. In fact, in dentistry, you are
always creating a new tooth structure, and the more creative you are the
more successful you become. Sometimes I think it is contradictory that I
am shaping a tooth from a deformed structure into a beautiful new tooth that
looks normal, while in caricature art I deform a normal face and exaggerate
its form in a way that I end up with something funny and abnormal! But I love
what I do and enjoy every second. For years I have lived three different
lives trying hard and managing to be a professional in dentistry, music and
caricature art at the same time. It has never been easy, but it was my endless
love and passion for these interests that guided me and helped me get
through all the hardship.
LCC: Can I ask you how you got to the US, and to UCSF where you are
now pursuing medicine as a postdoctoral student? Why there and not
BM: As I mentioned, my artistic work never lowered my enthusiasm for higher
education and success in my profession as a dentist. So, I always had
plans to pursue my studies at a world-class institute. When I was in Iran I
applied for an Advanced Implantology Preceptorship program at UCLA and
I was fortunate enough to get into the program, so I moved to the States.After
finishing the Implantology program I applied for an advanced standing dentistry
program which allows international dentists to work professionally in the US. I
was fortunate again to get accepted into some of the best dental schools in the US
and I chose to continue my education at UCSF School of Dentistry, which is truly
a dream come true for me. And I am hoping to pursue my postgraduate studies and
apply for a specialty program in the coming years.
LCC: You grew up in Iran after the fall of the Shah, and the Khomeini counter-
revolution. There was great repression there, and still is, especially for
women artists. What kind of music did you listen to as a young girl?
BM: The situation of those days may seem to be a bit strange for the people
that have not experienced such a social revolution or restrictions. I was
born a year after the revolution in Iran and my childhood was during the
Iran-Iraq war, a difficult time for my country with very limited time and
resources for anything beyond the absolute necessities of a household.
However, with my mother being a painter and my father an art enthusiast
I was very lucky to still be brought up in an art-loving environment. Even
growing up in post-revolution Iran, I was surrounded by cassette
tapes and LPs that my parents had treasured from earlier years. So, I
would mostly hear Iranian traditional music such as Banaan, Shajarian,
Parissa, etcetera as well as more pop-oriented Iranian songs by people such
as Googoosh, Farhad and Fereydoon Foroughi. Every now and then they
would also play western classical music such as Mozart or Bach and,
last but not least, the hit songs from bands like the Beatles! Another
unique and joyful experience from my childhood for me was the tapes
that my parents had recorded from a radio program from pre-revolution
years which played and talked about famous film scores of that time, from
movies such as Dr. Zhivago, West Side Story and Interlude. This all, I
believe, instilled the love of music in me from a young age despite the
difficult social conditions.
LCC: What came first for you, the tar or the voice? Have you always been a
BM: Actually, I began playing the playing the piano when I was nine
years old. My father taught me basic notes and some popular songs.
Later, after the end of Iran-Iraq war, I had a piano teacher who
taught me the basics of music and some popular western classical
pieces. I started to learn to play Persian instruments like the
tanbur and tar in the years after and finally started my vocal training
when I was 18, initially only singing the lyrics for the pieces that had
words while I was playing the instruments. So I started with playing
instruments, and I became more seriously focused on singing later
LCC: When did you realize that you had something special as a singer, that
you might be able to do this for a living?
BM: Whenever I was singing and playing, my family and
friends would usually encourage me and give me compliments. But
I decided to take professional vocal training when I listened to a
piece by Parissa accompanied by Hossein Alizadeh on tar. I’ll never
forget that piece, I got so intoxicated and mesmerized. And at that
moment, my soul was deeply touched by Parissa’s voice. It was at
that moment that I realized that I wanted to be a vocalist. I was not
too concerned with how good my voice was but I knew that I wanted
to create that feeling for an audience. I also want to add that I have not
chosen singing for a living because I wouldn’t be able to do so in
my country. It was not an option at all. I wanted to go for my passion
although I knew I wouldn’t be able to follow it as a career to make a
living from it..
LCC: What obstacles did you face as a young woman musician in Iran? Did
you experience opposition to what you were doing?
BM: There are no laws that prohibit women from studying music or
playing instruments in Iran as we have many prominent female
players on traditional instruments such as tar, khanun, santur, setar
as well as western instruments such as guitar and piano. There are,
however, specific regulations for female vocalists that make it quite a
difficult career for women to pursue music in Iran. For instance, as a female
vocalist you are completely prohibited from performing as a solo
singer. Technically, you can only perform alongside a male singer,
but your voice cannot be the main voice. That means that the man takes
the lead vocal, limiting women to backing vocals. The other option for women
is that they are allowed to perform in concert and sing as a solo
vocalist only for female audiences. As you can imagine, this
greatly limits their audience and the extent of a woman artist’s work.
Either way, they still can’t produce solo CDs. I personally didn’t experience
opposition because I never went against the rules. I only played one concert, an
academic project by a university professor, Hossein Mehrani, and I
was singing alongside him. I have also done background vocals
on several albums as well.
LCC: What obstacles remain for women musicians there now? What would
have to happen there for you to go back?
BM: For female vocalists specifically, like I said, the most difficult obstacle
is being unable to perform as a solo vocalist in public, and not being able
to produce meaningful and impactful works. Other than that, whenever a
female vocalist sings in a concert even as a harmony or backing vocalist,
the media does not cover her because they don’t have the permission
to do so. For instance, I had sung in a piece and among the crew of 40 I
was the only classical female singer. Under those circumstances, one would
think that I would get more attention than the male singers. But what happened
was that music magazines that covered the piece wrote about everyone’s
voice except mine.. I felt like I was invisible! It’s a sad story, unfortunately.
For other musicians, instrumental players, I would say there is less
of a systemwide problem. As I said, there are a handful of remarkable
female musicians active even inside of Iran. But then again, the general
atmosphere is not exactly ideal for female musicians, mostly due to the
unfriendliness of the laws and the lack of proper exposure .About going back,
I think my case is a bit specific. As for my music, asI said, female vocal performance
is by governmental and Islamic lawprohibited in public, so most probably I will
always have that issue to deal with. I am investing alot in my profession as a dentist
in the US, so I think the chance of me pursuing both these careers here is much better
than back home.
LCC: To what extent is there an expatriate Iranian artistic community that
supports you and artists like you?
BM: There is a sizeable community of Iranian artists, writers
and thinkers spread around the globe, especially in the US and western
Europe. The community in general is supportive of one another, yet I don’t
think there is a systematic approach to it. The biggest problem I think is
that we don’t have a unified Iranian media outlet – like national tv, for
all Iranians outside of Iran. However, more popular Persian tv channels
broadcast outside of Iran, such as BBC Persian and Voice of America,
have played a great part in introducing talented Iranians to our compatriots
in the recent years.
LCC: Here in the US, or elsewhere, how do you communicate your music to
an audience that doesn’t speak Kurdish or Persian?
BM: The only way to communicate with them is to translate the lyrics in English
and give the audience those translations, although we have some obstacles here too.
Iranian literature is very difficult to translate into other languages if you don’t want
to lose its mystical meanings. So, it usually requires a professional who knows
both Farsi and English, as well as the literature, extremely well. Honestly,
this does not happen often in concerts and and it’s rare that brochures
include the lyrics. Personally speaking, I used the Farsi and English translation of
the Kurdish lyrics of my debut album “Goblet of Eternal Light” fpr the cd booklet.
What I’m hoping for is that the sound of the music goes beyond the words and
reaches the audience regardless of their backgrounds. I believe that if a piece has a
theme of “eternal love”, the sound of the music and the feel and space of the piece
apart from the words) can bring the message home.
LCC: You could sing in English, or other languages as well, if you wanted.
Have you considered doing that? Maybe translating some of your songs?
BM: I can sing in Kurdish and Turkish as my parents’ roots go back to these
languages, and I am familiar with them. Also, I sang in Kurdish in
my first album released in the US, but I prefer to focus more on singing
in Farsi as it is my native language and I have been trained for Persian
classical singing. Non-native speakers often have strange, undesirable
accents.. That’s why, as of now,I don’t have much desire to sing in other
languages, but I will keep my options open.
LCC: What drove you to immerse yourself in Kurdish music? Did you end up
learning the language?
BM: I was familiar with the Kurdish language as my father is from a Kurdish
city but I was not considered a Kurdish speaker before singing on “Goblet
of Eternal Light”. I was so interested and passionate about learning
Kurdish maqams that I went to Maestro Ali Akbar Moradi to teach me
Kurdish songs and repertoire. I should mention that the Kurdish language
has different dialects itself and although I knew some Kurdish I couldn’t
understand many of the lyrics. Mr Moradi did a great job and taught me the
meaning of the poems and lyrics which later appeared on our album.
LCC: On Goblet of Eternal Light, you sing repertoire in various Kurdish dialects
that never would have been sung by the same person. Why is this? Why such a
difference in repertoire throughout the Kurdish world?
BM: Our album has a special focus which I think makes it quite unique: that is,
to act as a bridge to unite different Kurdish groups and tribes, which was
Maestro Moradi’s idea. The tanbur has been the original Kurdish instrument.
Tanbur songs accompanied Howrami poems; the tanbur has been mostly
associated with the Howrami dialect. This has kept non-Howrami
Kurds, particularly the Suran and Kormanj tribes, away from the tanbur. On this
album, we have used the work of other great poets such as Mahwi, Naali and
Guran with the hope of bring all Kurdish groups together, especially those
who were previously divided.
LCC: Do you still play the tanbur and the tar? How about in concert?
BM: I do not consider myself a professional tanbur or tar player. So, I do play
them every now and then, but not in public and never as a professional. I’d
rather focus on my work as a vocalist.
LCC: You have studied with some of the greatest artists in Persian music – Parissa,
who is thought by many to be the greatest singer in the Radif tradition, and
the great tanburist Seyed Amrollah Shah Ebrahimi. You’re on the Mandoo film
soundtrack, with the great oud virtuoso Negar Bouban, among others. This is
about as good as it gets in Persian music. Are there other achievements that you
have not yet reached, musically speaking? Any future plans we can look forward
BM: I have been fortunate to have been on this long exciting journey, and I do
not consider it anywhere near finished yet. Studying voice with icons like Parissa,
Shahram Nazeri, Nourbakhsh and the legendary Shajarian has always been a source of
pride for me and Iconsider myself very lucky, but there is still a lot for me to achieve. I
want to reach a level of excellence in this area and find a style of my own and work with
great musicians, and basically keep learning and build my experience.
Recently I have been working with a young tanbur virtuoso, Mehdi Khani, and we
are planning to record and perform together in the near future. Mehdi Khani is a
writer and movie director and he is a great tanbur player too. He has composed
songs with roots deep in the sacred tunes of ancient Iran; these new pieces celebrate
music in its purest and simplest form. The combination of a solo instrument plus voice
has always been one of the most powerful types of music – especially if your intent is to
put a message across,or, to be more specific, a universal message of peace and oneness
in the celebration of our true heavenly origins. As a vocalist, I’m so excited to work and
collaborate with him.
LCC: I’m curious – you don’t have to answer this if you don’t want to – how popular
is your music in Iran, or the Persian diaspora?
BM: I guess those people who follow classical music seriously are familiar with my
work despite the fact that I was not performing as a solo vocalist in Iran and my
previous work was as a harmony singer. It is totally a different situation
outside of Iran. Persian classical music draws a broader range of audiences in
Iran and I guess it is more appreciated there. The Iranian population
outside of Iran is more oriented to pop, jazz or rock
LCC: As a caricaturist, I understand your technique is pointillism. Are you
influenced by any of the western pointillists? Chuck Close?
BM: I was inspired by Norwegian illustrator Finn Graff’s technique when I was a teenager.
Although I was influenced by pointillism, I tried to find my own style
of exaggerating and drawing over the years and I think I’ve achieved it.
LCC: As intense as your music is, your portraiture is whimsical and funny. It’s not
what I expected at all. Is there a deliberate attempt on your part to keep the
drama and the fire in your music separate from the lighthearted wit and fun in
your visual art?
BM: This is exactly how you could describe me. I have been inspired by three
different interests and passions, which means living three different lives in parallel.
I intentionally keep these parts separate from each other, as I feel their nature
is different from one another. This is to give each of them their own character,
protecting their harmony from being affected by the other ones. On the
other hand, I can feel a mixture of drama and wit and fun inside me. Like anyone
else, I have many different feelings but as a professional I have to know when, where,
and how to use those feelings properly.
LCC: Tell us about the upcoming Symphony Space concert her in New York. You’re
playing with Ali Samadpour on tar. Just the two of you? What material can we
look forward to hearing?
BM: I will be performing with Ali Samadpour on tar and Navid Kandelousi on
tombak. Ali Samadpour is a very well-known musician and composer from Iran
and Navid Kandelousi is a great violinist and multi-instrumentalist from New York
who kindly agreed to play tombak with us. Ali has arranged classical songs from different
eras in Iran and I liked his ideas very much as they’re nothing like anything that has
previously been done with this repertoire. In western classical music, it’s
not unusual for a single performance to journey through different ages and
share the evolution of the music with the audience. I am thrilled that we will be
experimenting with this concept with our traditional music for the first time in
this concert, as it covers so many different eras. Afterward we will perform some
of Ali’s songs, which are more stylistically modern. We will also perform one or two pieces
from Goblet of Eternal Light.
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