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April 5, 2013 / zendani1

Reimagining Persia’s musical traditions

628x471 | Reimagining Persias musical traditions

Tahmoures Pournazeri (left), Mohammad Reza Shajarian and Sohrab Pournazeri. Photo: Masoud Harati

San Francisco Chronicle (Lee Hildebrand) – Mohammad Reza Shajarian, once dubbed “the Pavarotti of Persian classical music” by the Toronto Globe & Mail, had never been known as a particularly political person. That was before the widely disputed re-election in June 2009 of  Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. According to the Los Angeles Times, the Iranian singing star was photographed flashing a victory sign associated with the opposition. And he recorded a song titled “Language of Fire” that was seemingly addressed to plainclothes militiamen and security forces who were beating and killing protesters in the streets of Tehran.

“If it once happens that the pangs of conscience bother you, then lay down your gun,” he sang in multi-octave, distinctively melismatic tones.

He also demanded that state-run television stop using his music in propaganda films.

Although the vocalist was not arrested for his words and deeds, he has spent far less time at his home in Tehran and giving concerts in Iran than he did before the incidents. Shajarian, 72, lives in the United States much of the year, sometimes with Iranian friends near Sacramento.

Touring the country

He is touring the country with a 12-piece ensemble performing “Colors of Transcendence,” a new suite composed by multi-instrumentalist brothers Tahmoures and Sohrab Pournazeri that melds elements of bluegrass and flamenco with traditional Persian music. He sings lyrics drawn from Jalal-Uddin Rumi and other Persian poets with the Pournazeris’ New Instrument Orchestra, which includes six classical musicians from San Francisco who play string instruments created by Shajarian.

He seemed reluctant to discuss the incidents of 2009 as he sat on a couch at his friends’ home in Carmichael overlooking the American River. Seated to his left were Tahmoures Pournazeri, a Berkeley resident for the past five years, and translator Shala O’Neil, an Iranian exile married to an American.

“It is not possible to criticize the government,” O’Neil says.

Shajarian, who speaks only a handful of English words – including “one,” “two,” “three,” “four,” “hello,” “goodbye” and “Bill Clinton” – was more interested in talking music.

“I not only design instruments, I imagine these new strings and new ways for masters to play,” he says through O’Neil. “We needed that for my voice and certain other voices with very high notes, so I designed them to serve that purpose. I built them myself.”

Pursuing ‘more perfection’

Shajarian, who has recorded 80 albums since 1960, as a young man began experimenting with a santour, a dulcimer-like Persian instrument.

“He didn’t like the sound of it, so he tore it apart,” O’Neil explains. “With the experience of that, it made him think, ‘I can change other instruments to the point of more perfection.’ “

San Francisco classical and bluegrass violinist Philip Brezina helped organize the string section for the New Instrument Orchestra, in which he plays one of Shajarian’s designs called a del odel.

“It’s like bowing a banjo,” Brezina, 28, says later by phone. “It has a distinct Middle Eastern vocal quality that you hear when they do the prayers over the loudspeakers. It has like an in-your-throat sound. It doesn’t sound as open as a violin.” Besides del odel, other members of the string section play alto del odel, shahnavaz and shahbang, Shajarian-built instruments with ranges comparable, respectively, to viola, cello and double bass.

“It’s a very exciting, uncharacteristic opportunity in the musical world,” he adds. “We’re all having a blast.”

The Pournazeri brothers, best known for their work with their father’s internationally known Shamss Ensemble, play both traditional string instruments and some designed by Shajarian. Three Iranian percussionists – one from France, another from England and a third now studying at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music – complete the orchestra.

 

Getting the right notes

While all of “Colors of Transcendence” was written on paper by the Pournazeri brothers – utilizing backward flat signs (“d’s” instead of “b’s”) to notate the five quarter tones of the Persian scale – other selections being performed on the current tour, which stops at UC Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall next Sunday, involve improvisation.

“In this project, 40 percent is improvised,” says Tahmoures Pournazeri, 35. (His younger brother, a resident of Tehran, was performing in France with a different group at the time of the interview.)

Brezina first played with the Pournazeris in the Shamss Ensemble in 2009 at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C, and Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco. He sees some similarity between the blue notes found in bluegrass and Persian quarter tones but also finds a difference.

“I have yet to be as familiar with actually finding that pitch as they are,” he says of the quarter tones. “We (the string section) play it for them, and he (Tahmoures Pournazeri) says, ‘It’s too flat.’ You play it again, and he says, ‘It’s too sharp.’ We’ve all worked on it together to try to get the right notes in our ears.”

Shajarian is a friend of the brothers’ father and has known them since they were children. He began working with them only a year ago, however.

“Many years ago, I worked with very, very top artists, and I learned a lot from them,” the singer explains through O’Neil. “I decided to work with very talented young musicians and bring my experience and mix it with their creativity.”

Shajarian does not compose lyrics but rather sets poems about “humanity” and “love,” in O’Neil’s words, to music.

Avoiding religion

“He is not a religious person,” she says. “He always does this nice poetry. He avoids anything about religion because, in his opinion, it divides, not unites.”

“We’re created a new kind of Persian music based on classical and everything Persian, but we have more worldwide music,” Pournazeri states.

“They’ve tried really hard with the fusion of Persian and Western music, so when a Westerner sits there, he would enjoy it as much as an Iranian,” O’Neil adds.

“This gentleman,” she says of Shajarian, “causes East and West to come together as one.” {sbox}

 

Mohammad Reza Shajarian, the Pournazeri Brothers and the New Instrument Orchestra: 7 p.m. next Sunday. $13-$200. Zellerbach Hall, UC Berkeley. (510) 642-9988. www.calperformances.org.

Lee Hildebrand is a freelance writer. E-mail: sadolphson@sfchronicle.com

 

 Source: San Francisco Chronicle

Reimagining Persia’s musical traditions is a post from: Persian Icons – پرشین آیکانز and our Facebook page is FB.com/PersianIcons

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