THE BLOG
04/23/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Masters of Persian Music Again Evolve Iran

While I understand the plight of the Western classical world in trying to sustain its heritage, this type of music never really grabbed my attention. I could appreciate its beauty from a distance, but so much of it, not the least its presentation, never sat well with me. It wasn't until I found Indian and Persian classical music in the nineties that I really latched onto traditions that I could appreciate on an empathetic level.

There's something about watching musicians at the peak of their culture's folk song sit cross-legged on Persian rugs with their instruments across their laps or in front of their shins that brings the concert down to earth. Their dress is colorful and diverse, ranging in colors from red to green to blue and yellow. It's infinitely more inviting than the uniform black-and-white starched suit stuck in the middle of rows of chairs, formed in a semi-circle and closed off by the conductor, whose back faces the crowd. The sentiment splits the performers from the audience, whereas in Indian and Persian concerts, there is much more of an invitation to partake.

Perhaps this is why Masters of Persian Music can come to the US and fill concert halls, as the seven men did at New York's Skirball Center on Thursday, February 18th, while many of their Western counterparts have trouble filling home turf venues uptown. This is not to over-generalize: the recent Unsound Festival was a huge success, and outfits like Brooklyn Rider, and its excellent recent release Dominant Curve, are bringing a much needed fresh image to the Western classical world.

The key to the success of any music genre is evolution. Granted, Unsound is a futuristic attempt at many different styles of sound (some of which are nothing close to styles yet), and a few happen to lean on classical forebears. The festival represents a rapid acceleration of music forms. Pre-existing genres are generally much slower to react, though artists who push the boundaries even subtly can often find tremendous shifts in their culture's understanding of an appreciation in the tradition. When Ravi Shankar allowed Allah Rakha to perform a tabla solo in an Indian classical concert, it was akin to Bob Dylan wielding an electric guitar as a folk musician. Today the Indian world wouldn't dream of a performance without it.

Kayhan Kalhor is one man who has attempted to both evolve and bridge his Iranian heritage. He teamed with Brooklyn Rider for Silent City in 2008 in an exploration of Persian and Western music, and has recorded with Indian sitar player and vocalist Shujaat Khan as Ghazal for a gaze into the Indian-Persian common ground. During this recent Masters tour, he introduced an upgrade to his kamancheh by adding a fifth string, making it comparable to the viola. Likewise, his longtime partner in this project, Hossein Alizadeh, expanded upon his lute with the creation of his shour angiz.

Kalhor and Alizadeh are the Masters, integral components of the original recording and live project that emerged under that name in 2000. They broke through to American audiences in 2002 with Bi To Be Sar Nemishavad (Without You), and again in 2005 with the two album-set Faryad (The Cry), alongside vocalist MR Shajarian and tonbak player Homayoun Shajarian. For the new tour and decade, Kalhor and Alizadeh have introduced an entirely fresh crew, featuring Shajarian's vocal student, Hamid Reza Nourbakhsh.

If I'd had closed my eyes, I'd have sworn it was Shajarian taking flight on stage. Considering Nourbakhsh's teacher is considered the finest vocalist in the Persian world, that's not a bad thing. His inspired performance allowed the romance language and its accompanying lyrics--translated from Farsi, "As the instrument weeps/This smoke that the character of the cloud behind it/As the indigo of the sea's eye/Out of anger the fist strikes a face/From that late journey that left me/That gave the woman's flirtatious glance and the instrument's coquetry/I have on familiar pretexts/Captured an image of her"--to take flight amidst the instruments.

The most surprising addition was nay player Siamak Jahangiry, who floored the audience during his first solo a third of the way into the movement. One of the main instruments of Sufi ceremony, I'd previously been enamored with Turkish artist Kudsi Erguner's ritualistic career, not to mention Mercan Dede's Sufitronica. As Jahangiry climbed higher and higher, the tension created by Kalhor's subtle strums heightening the moment, you could envision the circling white robes and graceful pirouettes. You could literally feel the music from the inside out.

Kalhor and Alizdeh also took solos, with the kamancheh player reliving the feel of his exceptional album, The Wind. The support cast--santour player Hamidreza Maleki, bass tar player Fariborz Azizi, and tombak player Pezham Akhavass (who closed with a frame drum)--held the foundation down for their friends to take flight.

Dubbed Three Generations, this twelve-city American tour served as Kalhor and Alizadeh's chance to introduce the world to the next two waves of Persian masters. Given the pin-drop silence in the hall that evening, no one would argue that the mission was accomplished. The next wave of the Persian tradition has arrived.