Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Amir Nojan’s Persian Classical Concert Transcends the Romantic

[republished from Lucid Culture’s younger sister blog New York Music Daily]

Saturday night at Roulette was date night. Classical Persian music is romantic! There were a lot of couples in the crowd for California-based setarist Amir Nojan and the Nava Ensemble’s two dynamic sets of poems by Hafez, Rumi and others set to dynamic, often impassioned, artfully improvised themes. Taghi Amjadi sang affectingly and poignantly in an expressive, melismatically nuanced baritone, the brother percussion team of Sina and Samandar Dehghani propelling the songs with a hypnotically boomy groove.

The first part of the show was the soul set; the second half was the dark night of the soul. The concert followed a typical Persian classical trajectory, improvisations giving way to conversations – between voice and instruments, and among the instrumentalists themselves – followed by a long, lively drum break and then a couple of darkly bristling, concluding dance numbers. As the long opening crescendo peaked, Amjadi rose to an imploring intensity against a steadily marching, jangly groove that built agitatedly to match the vocals.

The early part of the concert illustrated an ancient poem by Hafez. Here’s a rough translation: “If the army of sadness invades to destroy the lovers, the bartender and I will take care of the troops with sweet wine.” Even the nation whose language was the lingua franca of the educated classes for centuries throughout the Middle East had to cope with invaders and fascist dictatorships. As with so much of classical Persian poetry, the subtext screams quietly.

When he wasn’t trading bars or verses with the other musicians, Nojan closed his eyes: he’s the rare musician whose command of the fretboard is so complete that he can play anything by touch. His flurrying, chord-chopping crescendos both built an riveting intensity, evoking both surf music and Sonic Youth noiserock, even if the melodies and the method he was using went back six centuries beforehand – that’s how evocative this music is. The second set built to an angst-fueled call-and-response with the vocals over a hypnotic, relentless dirge. The Roulette sound system had smartly been set up to catch all the nuances in the music, because when Nojan went down to the most whispery, delicate phrasing, the awestruck audience was still able to hear every note. A twin frame drum solo gave way to a couple of hauntingly fiery dance numbers at the end to send the crowd out into the street, literally singing along to the bitingly catchy four-chord hook of the night’s final number.

Promoters Robert Browning Associates’ next concert of global music is here at Roulette on May 3 at 8 PM with visionary Turkish multi-instrumentalist composer Omar Faruk Tekbilek and his hauntingly danceable ensemble; tix are $25 and worth it.

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April 28, 2014 Posted by | concert, Live Events, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Middle Eastern Jazz Alchemy at the Asia Society

Four brilliant and individualistic musicians brought a riveting confluence of very disparate traditions to the cutting edge of 21st century Middle Eastern music Saturday night at the Asia Society. The world premiere of Sound: The Encounter featured Iranian bagpiper/reedman Saeid Shanbehzadeh played wry extrovert to Syrian saxophonist Basel Rajoub‘s unwavering intensity while percussionist Nagib Shanbehzadeh (son of Saeid) served as linchpin for the project, supplying grooves that were alternately slinky, stately and downright funky. Eclectic Philadelphia-based oud virtuoso Kenan Adnawi also made intricately ornamented and sometimes haunting contributions throughout the show. The material was a fascinating and esoteric mix of traditional vamps, pulsing original jazz and a lively, intoxicatingly swirling blend of the two.

The backstory is that Rajoub and the elder Shanbehzadeh first encountered each other at the 2011 Shanghai World Music Festival, where each checked out the other’s show and realized that they should collaborate. Another random encounter on a Paris street jumpstarted a series of rehearsals, which followed over Skype. In developing their material, the bandleaders found considerable common ground, especially that each of their styles has a Bedouin influence, although that nomadic people’s music is sung in Farsi in Iran and in Arabic in Syria.

The players’ individuality rapidly emerged: Shanbehzadeh senior danced, cavorted, whirled and played his bagpipe (which looked like a headless, inflated sheep) on his head, Hendrix style. Rajoub’s steely focus and steady gravitas matched with the sometimes somberly booming, sometimes hypnotically undulating, sometimes rapidfire percussion. Rajoub spent much of the show in the moody low registers of his tenor sax, playing what were essentially baritone lines with a spare, sober clarity while his reedman partner switched from bagpipe, to double-reed flute, to goat’s horn on the last number in the set with a shivery, trilling microtonal approach that brough to mind Moroccan jajouka music. His instruments supplied the lion’s share of the microtones that typically define Middle Eastern music; Rajoub’s attack was typically limited to the occasional bluesy, jazzy melisma.

The Shanbehzadehs hail from the port city of Bushehr in southern Iran, so it made sense that they’d open with a traditional fisherman’s song, which they turned into a subdued go-go groove with the bagpipe keening over it. Rajoub brought an absolutely noir slink to a brooding Rumi love poem; a bit later, they juxtaposed cool tenor sax against ecstatic flutework for an even more stark contrast, to illustrate another Rumi poem that could loosely be translated as “drunk on god/drunk on love.” Rajoub and Adnawi teamed up for an intricate, lively, conversational duo improvisation for soprano sax and oud. After inspiring plenty of spontaneous clapping and singing along, the trio encored with a rather radically reanimated but no less swinging take on the opening number, encompassing what were doubtlessly centuries of music while adding their own devious wit and energy.

December 9, 2013 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Shattering Performance by Kayhan Kalhor and Ali Bahrami Fard at the Asia Society

“So many moments,” murmured one concertgoer to his friend after watching Kayhan Kalhor and Ali Bahrami Fard play a shattering version of their duo suite I Will Not Stand Alone to a sold-out audience at the Asia Society Saturday night.

“The Jimi Hendrix of kamancheh!” his friend exclaimed. Actually, the instrument that Kalhor, the iconic Iranian composer and string player, had been using was a custom-made “shah kaman,” which combines elements of the Turkish tanbur, Chinese erhu and the Persian kamancheh fiddle. Fard also played a modern instrument, a bass santoor, which is tuned an octave lower than the traditional Persian hammered dulcimer and delivered a spine-tingling, richly resonant sound akin to the lower midrange of the piano mingling with a distant meteor shower of microtones much further up the scale. And while Kalhor’s compositions draw deeply on Persian classical music, this work is completely in the here and now. The Asia Society has been celebrating the music of Iran this fall, with a final concert this coming December 7 at 8 PM with the prosaically titled but exciting, jazz-inclined Iranian/Syrian ensemble Sound: The Encounter.

I Will Not Stand Alone portrays profound sadness, but also profound resilience. The people of Iran have suffered greatly under brutal repression since the late 70s (and before then, life under the Shah was no picnic for a lot of people, either). Kalhor’s program notes spoke to how music gave him and his fellow citizens hope throughout the darkest hours of the Khomeini regime. But this enigmatic, dynamically-charged theme and variations resonates beyond any borders: as an account of suffering and transcendence, it ranks with the most powerful works of Shostakovich or any western composer. And while the two musicians followed the arc and movements of the recording of it they released last year, this was hardly a rote, note-for-note rendition, each player following the other’s improvisations closely as it went along. It began elegaically, Kalhor using the shah kaman’s cello-like low register for a misty, opaque tone as Fard played hypnotic, rhythmic ripples or gentle, austere accents. But the shah kaman, and the kamancheh, can also evoke weeping, and there was no absence of that once the work got rolling, Fard’s elegant volleys and understated, artful variations on a recurrent chromatic vamp propelling it until then.

The musicians’ cameraderie was so tightly aligned it was often as if they were one and the same instrument; despite the sonic differences between the two instruments, it was often hard to tell who was playing what, not that it really mattered. Once they reached about the midway point, Kalhor took centerstage, much more animatedly than he usually does, quite possibly because this work is so autobiographical and close to his heart. He swirled through a circular theme for Fard to ornament, threw off a handful of lightning, spiraling descending motives and angst-fueled, leaping cadenzas, then finally backed away. Fard then moved in with a glimmer that was as precise and sonically exquisite as it was distantly menacing. A lively, even wryly amusing country dance fueled by Kalhor’s rapidfire bowing quickly got twisted out of shape and took on a macabre, maimed character. Leaping flourishes from Kalhor on the way out ended the concert with an exhilarating display of chops that still left a lingering note of disquiet. It is hard to think of a composer or a soloist who so vividly captures the state of the world in 2013 as Kayhan Kalhor, and Fard matched that intensity as well: this was as state-of-the-art as music gets these days.

November 19, 2013 Posted by | concert, Live Events, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Deep and Deviously Defiant Underground Persian Sounds from Mohsen Namjoo

Last night at the Asia Society Iranian crooner and songwriter Mohsen Namjoo played a show that was just as entertaining as it was cutting-edge. Namjoo has been compared to Bob Dylan, which makes sense to a degree: both draw on their respective nations’ folk traditions, have a sardonic lyrical side and have been a thorn in the side of the political status quo. Another comparison that came to mind strongly during the early part of Namjoo’s duo set with innovative drummer Yahya Alkhansa was Leonard Cohen, as Namjoo – a powerful, dynamic vocalist – aired out his ominous low range, giving voice to angst-ridden classical Persian poetry by Hafez.

There’s another American artist that Namjoo resembles, in spirit if not exactly musically, and that’s Tom Waits. Both have a vivid sense of the surreal, are purists in their own musical traditions and rely on dark wit to put a point across. Namjoo’s vocals and lyrics were often as funny as his playing, on setar lute and acoustic guitar, were plaintive. One of the most amusing moments was during the metaphorically-charged Sanama (“Idol,” or “Beloved,” in Farsi) where he abandoned his somber, classical intonation and began wailing, teasing, imploring and then simply goofing on this mystical woman. Persian poetry is rich with subtext, and Namjoo worked every angle and every nuance in this entreaty to “stop the pain,” before turning it into a sarcastically comedic soul song of sorts, Jimmy Castor or Cee-Lo Green taken back in time a thousand years.

Namjoo’s playing was as distinctive, individualistic and eclectic as his vocals. On the setar, he used droning, Velvet Underground-style vamps, dark, minor-key American blues riffs and during one of the evening’s most surrealisticallly amusing numbers, the shuffling melody of ZZ Top’s La Grange, over which he sang a brooding, lovestruck, metaphorical Hafez lyric. Alkhansa made it even more surreal by accenting not the two and the four, but the opposite of that beat, which turned out to be more disquieting than it was outright amusing. There can be times when one culture appropriating another’s tropes can be nails-down-the-blackboard grating or ridiculously awkward: this managed to avoid both of those traps even as it added a bizarrely comedic aspect. When Alkhansa wasn’t doing that, he was coloring the songs with a richly terse, counterintuitive verve, adding unexpected shades with the occasional tom-tom rumble, insistently pinging sequence at the top of the ride cymbal or flicker of brushes on his snare.

As the evening wore on, the two veered between dark severity and an almost punk humor: Namjoo, trained in the nuances of classical Persian singing, has an insider’s view of what that tradition takes too seriously, and doesn’t hesitate to hang it out to dry, which drew plenty of chuckles from the sold-out crowd. One of the most unselfconsciously intense moments came when Namjoo launched into the intro to David Bowie’s The Man Who Sold the World and then made Persian art-rock of it. Another was at the end of a skeletal setting of another Hafez poem, Namjoo murmuring “Damn this desert and this endless road” and all that implied. The evening’s biggest crowd-pleaser was the increasingly over-the-top, vaudevillian number that closed the show. And yet, when it came time for the big drum solo, Alkhansa responded with a lingering suspenseful “whoosh” from the drum heads, in keeping with unpredictability of the night. That trait can pay dividends for a nonconformist artist living under a repressive regime. The Asia Society’s celebration of the art and music of Iran is ongoing, with a very highly recommended show by Kayhan Kalhor and Ali Bahrami Fard coming up on November 16 at 8 PM.

September 8, 2013 Posted by | concert, Live Events, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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
somewhere else?

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
singer?

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
on.

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
to?

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.

April 5, 2013 Posted by | Art, interview, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, world music | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Intense Paradigm-Shifting Sounds from Salim Ghazi Saeedi

One important rising composer who’s doing genuinely visionary work in microtonal music, helping to integrate sounds from the Middle East into jazz and rock, is Tehran-based multi-instrumentalist Salim Ghazi Saeedi. His latest album namoWoman is an often otherworldly creation. It’s considerably more raw and roughhewn than, say, recent albums by David Fiuczynski and Hafez Modirzadeh, both artists to which he compares favorably. Aside from the fact that Saeedi plays all the instruments on the album – guitars, keys, basses and drums – what’s most amazing about it is how through-composed it is. Thematic variations recur frequently but always change shape, melodically and dynamically. It’s a dark, bracing, uneasy roller-coaster ride.

Saeedi’s main axe is the guitar, which he multitracks using two basic tones: a ringing, watery timbre that he typically uses to deliver plaintive, judiciously picked microtonal phrases and ringing sustained lines, along with a gritty, crunchy, distorted tone that often takes centerstage with a sneering, occasionally comedic flair. That tone, and its bombastic allusions and head-on assaults, poses the question of whether this is heavy metal, or jazz, or Persian art-rock. Ultimately, the answer is all of the above.

Saeedi’s unorthodox use of both piano and bass is also extremely clever. Saeedi leans heavily on the piano’s lowest keys, whether to anchor the music in a murky, overtone-spiced ambience, or for basslines. By contrast, Saeedi utilizes the bass’s entire sonic spectrum, frequently bowing eerily elegant viola melodies in the upper registers. A few of the tracks have trebly-toned, judiciously played electric bass along with the occasional electronic keyboard motif. All this contrasts with the savage, distorted guitar lines: whether or not that dichotomy is deliberate or not (two sides of the same coin, maybe, one profound and the other profane?), it’s inescapable.

Throughout the nine-part suite, Saeedi establishes individual voices within the arrangements, with all kinds of melodic interweaving and conversations: piano ripples respond to bass bubbles, cello-flavored lines hand off to the guitar, or to the drums. Without knowing it, you wouldn’t necessarily guess that guitar is Saeedi’s primary axe, considering how graceful, dexterous and propulsive his bass work is; his piano lines are terse, imaginative and serve an important part of the musical backbone. If there’s any criticism of this, it’s that Saeedi swings on the guitar and especially the bass but not the drums: a percussionist with a proficiency equal to Saeedi’s on those two instruments could have been useful here. Then again, percussionists capable of playing such eclectic compositions are hard to find anywhere, let alone in traditional Persian music.

Bluesy allusions give way to suspenseful not-quite-minor, not-exactly major Persian intervals; rhythms tend to be straight-up but not always, one interlude bouncing along on a tricky groove that would be perfectly at home in Macedonia or Greece. Pensive, moody guitar echoes until it’s bludgeoned out of the picture as the distorted roar takes over, and then recedes, a constant game of good cop vs. bad cop with an occasional exchange of roles. There’s simple, insistent staccato guitar riffage straight out of the Pantera playbook, and also spacious, distantly anguished David Gilmour-inflected phrasing. The High Romantic, the gothic, the gypsy and the jazz – think Cecil Taylor in extreme deep space mode – mingle and echo and at their most cohesive, haunt the hell out of you. Little flourishes like a jaunty melodica vamp, hints of surf rock and Mediterranean psychedelia lighten the darkness while enhancing the surrealism of it all. Who is the audience for this? Middle Eastern metalheads; fans of Persian music who need a jolt of energy, and any fan of loud, dark sounds laced with fearless humor. There is no one in the world who sounds anything like Salim Ghazi Saeedi: where he takes these ideas in the future promises to be a pretty wild place.

January 10, 2013 Posted by | jazz, middle eastern music, Music, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

April 16, 2012 Posted by | concert, Live Events, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Trippy Persian and Global Grooves From SoSaLa

The new album Nu World Trash by SoSaLa a.k.a. Iranian-American saxophonist Sohrab Saadat Ladjevardi and his brilliantly assembled ensemble is so eclectic and trippy that it defies description, a woozy blend of dub, Middle Eastern music and American jazz. Producer Martin Bisi expands his own inimitable vision with dark, Lee “Scratch” Perry-inspired psychedelic sonics as the group slips and slinks through grooves with roots in Morocco, Ethiopia, Iran, Jamaica, Japan and the south side of Chicago circa 1963. That’s just for starters.

The opening track is characteristic. Titled Ja-Jou-Ka, it’s ostensibly Moroccan, but it could also be Ethiopian, right down to the biting, insistent, minor-key riff and galloping triplet rhythm that emerges from A swirling vortex of low tonalities right before the song winds out with echoey sheets of guitar noise, Ladjevardi’s elegantly nebulous tenor sax lines managing to be wary and hopeful at the same time. Ladell McLin’s guitar and Piruz Partow’s electric tar lute combine for a distant Dick Dale surf edge on Nu Persian Flamenco, a catchy, chromatically-charged surf rock vamp with echoey spoken word lyrics by Ladjevardi. Classical Persian music is inseparable from poetry, so it’s no surprise that he’d want to add his own stream-of-consciousness hip-hop style: “Work like a dog, what for? I need something to cheer me up,” this clearly being it.

With a rather cruel juxtaposition between gentle guitar/flute sonics and samples of agitated crowd noise (and a crushing assault by the gestapo a little later on), Welcome New Iran looks forward to the day when the Arab Spring comes to the Persian world (it’s only a matter of time before it comes to the U.S., too!). A traditional song, Kohrasan begins with a pensive taqsim (improvisation) on the tar and then launches into a bouncy modern gypsy-jazz vamp: it seems to be an illustration of a fable. Vatan Kojai (Where Is My Country) morphs from a swaying, soaring rai vamp into a wailing guitar dub interlude, while Happy April Fool’s Day veers from off-kilter jazz, to Ethiopiques, to biting contrasts between McLin’s abrasive noise and Sylvain Leroux’s fula flute.

The onomatopoeic (say that three times fast) NY’s Sa-Si-Su-Se-So sets Massamba Diop’s hypnotic talking drums agains swirling sax effects and wah funk guitar over a hypnotic Afrobeat groove driven by bassist Damon Banks and drummer Swiss Chris. Sad Sake makes atmospheric acid jazz out of a Japanese pop theme; the album ends with the swaying, funky Everyday Blues, a gritty workingman’s lament: the guy starts every day with a coffee and ends it with a “small bottle of beer,” and he’s had enough (although a bigger beer might help). Eclectic enough for you?

March 8, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Entrancing Persian Music at the Asia Society

Every year, it seems, the Asia Society casts a wider and wider net, bringing an astonishingly eclectic group of performers to New York. This spring’s concert series there is typical: on March 3 at 8 PM, Afghani rubab lute virtuoso Homayun Sakhi plays an adventurous program with sarodist Ken Zuckerman and percussionist Salar Nader. On March 16 at 8, there’s Javanese shadow puppet theatre by Ki Purbo Asmoro backed by a full gamelan orchestra, then on April 28, also at 8, Pakistani percussionist and pop star Arif Lohar leads an ensemble playing updated versions of centuries-old works. And while this past Friday night’s performance by Iranian multi-lute virtuoso Hossein Alizadeh with percussionist Pejman Hadadi was sold out, it was surprising that there weren’t more American kids in the crowd: what the duo played could easily be called psychedelia or trance music.

Since Iran is right in the center of the Silk Road, the melodies of classical Persian improvisation veer between the eerie microtonal modes of Arabic music and the hypnotic one-chord jamming of south Indian ragas. Alizadeh can be a very terse, direct player (especially when he plays in Masters of Persian Music with Kayhan Kalhor), but this was his expansive set. With Alizadeh playing the setar, the concert took awhile to get going but followed a deceptively intense upward trajectory and ended on a powerfully memorable, incisive note. In a lingering, warmly consonant, major-key mode, dynamics rose and fell, Alizadeh’s attack shifting from thoughtfully exploratory rivulets to explosive clusters of frenetic tremolo-picking, much in the style of an Indian raga, while Hadadi held the center gracefully, his fingers firing off intricate but steady flurries of beats from his frame drum. A martial beat appeared and then fell to the wayside as Alizadeh took the piece down, solo, to an almost minimalist sparseness and then back up again as Hadadi joined him. Throughout the concert, his approach was the opposite of rock music: rhythm following the melody rather than leading it.

The second piece picked up the pace and added melodic complexity, Alizadeh switching to the more resonant shourangiz lute. His variations on a falling four-note motif added intensity almost imperceptibly; finally, about halfway through, he began with allusions to bracing Arabic motifs which he drifted further toward as the duo went on, winding it up with a biting minor-key (or at least what would be considered minor-key to western ears) theme over which Hadadi took his one solo of the evening, a surprisingly suspenseful interlude that evoked distant thunder far more than fireworks. The concert wrapped up with a relatively short (less than ten-minute) piece, Alizadeh switching back to the setar and its more brittle, staccato tone that made a good fit with its the relentless, suspenseful insistence. Fingerpicking both chords and lead lines simultaneously, he built a bracing, apprehensive mood against Hadadi’s elegantly galloping beats, then took it up and out with a flurry of notes whose understatement fell just a hair short of outright anguish.

February 6, 2012 Posted by | concert, Live Events, middle eastern music, Music, New York City, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Yet Another Transcendent Album from Kayhan Kalhor

As a founding member of the Dastan Ensemble, Ghazal Ensemble and Masters of Persian Music, Iranian composer and kamancheh fiddle player Kayhan Kalhor is in considerable demand as a collaborator: his 2008 album Silent City with string quartet Brooklyn Rider is one of the the highwater marks in music this century. Most recently, he’s recorded a somewhat different album, a suite titled I Will Not Stand Alone with bass santoor (a slightly lower-register Iranian hammered dulcimer) virtuoso Ali Bahrami Fard, due out on World Village Music on February 14 and streaming here. Like its predecessor, it is a transcendentally beautiful album, one that fits this era particularly well, never quite letting its undercurrent of anxiety lift despite the melodies soaring overhead. It’s a vivid, rippling, nocturnal work.

The question of how much of this was improvised and how much was composed is really beside the point. For the most part, the suite blends Fard’s ringing, cascading phrases with Kalhor’s sometimes plaintive, sometimes warmly sailing, often haunting sustained lines, silvery glissandos and his trademark echo effect, letting a phrase trail off elegantly into silence at the end. Fard’s precision is breathtaking, as is Kalhor’s. Playing a new instrument that he calls the shah kaman, Kalhor gets an especially breathy, raw tone here. Recorded in a space with immense natural reverb, the instruments mingle seamlessly to the point where it is sometimes hard to keep track of who’s playing what. As with much of classical Persian music, the scales hover between East and West, blending bracingly distinct Persian modes but also the warm consonance of western classical music. To call this cutting-edge is a somewhat of an understatement.

The suite begins with a lushly gorgeous, distantly Mediterranean-flavored theme, Between the Heavens and Me, opening with solo santoor: the Godfather obscured by an olive grove, perhaps. Kalhor eventually winds his way in, fluttering, taking turns with the Fard as each player shadows the other and then a brief, subdued conversation follows. As the piece segues into its second interval, Where Are You, it takes on a dirgelike sway and then grows more aggressive. A somewhat bucolic, energetic dance theme playfully titled The Laziest Summer Afternoon is then introduced, followed by the warily crescendoing, rather brooding Dancing Under the Walnut Tree. If that’s a dance, it’s less celebration than elegy.

Kalhor’s shah kaman then picks up the pace with an energetic insistence in the next movement, Hear Me Cry, which reaches a spiraling, whirling crescendo with Pluck a Star from the Sky. Then they return to a variation on the opening theme, Here I Am Alone Again: Kalhor’s stately, steady pizzicato interspersed among the rivulets rushing from the santoor establishes the work’s most haunting ambience. They close the album on an unexpectedly triumphant note, Kalhor’s resolute, rhythmic staccato rising against Fard’s muted tones. A vividly provocative evocation of the state of the world today, whether Kalhor’s or anyone else’s, this piece transcends categorization. Whether you prefer to call this world music, Middle Eastern music, classical or even jazz, it’s captivating to the point of being impossible to pull away from until it’s over. You will see this on a lot of “best-of-2012” lists at the end of the year.

January 30, 2012 Posted by | middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment