Music

Sounds of Persia

the chang (Persian harp), barbat (lute), sorna (oboe), tanbour (long-necked lute), tonbak (goblet drum) and the deep, basal daf (Persian frame drum) belong to pere-islamic era.  

“The beats of the goblet drum were as rugged as the earth under my feet, the taar strings offering solace to the soul, like a date palm from the scorching sun, the high-pitch kamamcheh glides serenading hope,” smiled Jenaab e Bahman Kuhenoor, a living legend in India’s Iranian diaspora. The nonagenarian is transported to the labyrinths of his hometown Yazd in Iran’s hinterland within a split second through his memories of her ancient music. Truly like the legendary mystic Persian poet Rumi said “in the sound of the Rebaab is Fat’h e Baab (opening of the doors),” Iran is where music and the spirit tango blissfully.

Indeed the Sufis discovered a pathway to enlightenment through the mysticism of sound, like Hafez once wrote “Man ke shab’ha, rah e taqwa, zade’am ba, daf o chang” (for nights did I tread the path of purity, through the music of the daf and the harp). Even in present-day Iran, this spiritual ecstasy resounds in the core of its musical traditions. With diverse styles enriching its cultural treasure house, Iran’s music often sounds like a dialect of the sonorous Persian language.

Dating back to the pre-Islamic Zoroastrian era, it is believed that while many documents were destroyed, many not investigated in detail; many have been recently translated for research. Interestingly, the oldest-known musical manuscript of Persian music is believed to be a postage stamp representing a harpist and a drummer. Iranian melodic music comprises of the ‘dastgaah’ system that constitutes the ancient ‘radif’ repertoire. Dastgaahs are modal configurations of small melodic pieces gusheh. Big dastgaahs, totally seven, include shur, mahour, homayoun, nava, rastpanjgah, chargah and segah and the smaller ones, also known as avaz, are bayat-e-tork, bayat-e-esfahan, abuata, dashti and afshari. In every dastgaah, many traditional and some recently composed rhythmic renditions are performed.

Singing being a part of almost all musical traditions, rhythmical masterpieces called ‘tasneef’ and ‘taraaneh’ are a part of Iran’s rich vocal repertoire. Rhythm instrumentals ‘zarbi’, namely in three forms, pishdaraamad, chaharmezraab and the lighter, catchier reng have their very unique beauty.

While the history of Iran’s musical instruments is unclear, the chang (Persian harp), barbat (lute), sorna (oboe), tanbour (long-necked lute), tonbak (goblet drum) and the deep, basal daf (Persian frame drum) belong to pre-Islamic era. The soulful ney (reed flute), santoor (hammered dulcimer), taar (long-necked lute), and the ethereal kamancheh (spike fiddle) to name a few are among other popular classical instruments.

Traditional zoorkhaaneh or Persian gymnasiums where the goblet-shaped tonbak drums accompany grueling wrestling matches, are an equally rich musical treat, the tonbak also being one of the most prominent classical drums of Iran. Legends like Ostad Hossein Tehrani and Ostad Nasser Farhangfar are regarded as the pillars of the tonbak. Traditional Persian ghaaveh khaaneh or coffee houses too, host traditional musicians and storytellers, a uniquely charming experience.

With several diverse ethnic groups residing within its boundaries, Iran’s folk music is rich and colorful in its diversity. North and South-Khorasani, Baluchi, Systani, Turkmani, Katuli, Mazandarani, Gilaki, Taleshi, Azerbaijani, Kermanshahi, Kurdish, Lori, Bakhtiari, Bushehri, Khuzestani and Bandari, each style mesmerising the listener with a kaleidoscope of color and earthy musical expression. Although modern pop, rock and hip-hop have gained popularity with Iran’s young, both classical and folk music have their audiences. One can find living stalwarts like vocalist Mohammed Reza Shajarian and Ostad Nasrollah Nassehpour along with his sons, to name a few, dazzling audiences at esteemed venues like Tehran’s Talar e Vahdat.

Sufi ensembles like that of the Ni’amatullahi school have ‘zikr’ or divine remembrance ceremonies with even towering classical instrumentalists like the late Mohammad Reza Lotfi having participated. The Daf being of great mystical significance, plays a pivotal role in Iranian Sufi music. ‘Ta’aziyeh’ or music to commemorate the martyrdom of Hazrat Imam Hussain ibn Ali Aleihissalaam is an integral part of Iran’s religious music. A Shia tradition especially among the Ithna’asharis who form a majority in Iran, heartrending laments and odes accompanied by drums and other instruments on the day of Ashura in the month of Muharram, move you to tears.

Like in India, Iranian musicians too, follow a guru-to-disciple tradition. They believe that the relationship between ostaad (master) and shaagerd (disciple) is like that of father and son. Like India’s gharana tradition, Iran’s ‘maktab’ system preserves her musical traditions, Tehran, Esfahaan and Tabriz, each named after a city like in the case of gharanas, being the principle three. Being India’s erstwhile neighbour and cultural cousin, many old rhythms and even ragas share similarities with Iranian dastgaahs.

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Printable version | Apr 17, 2021 5:10:49 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/friday-review/music/sounds-of-persia/article8475715.ece

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