By Krishnaraj Iyengar

KRISHNARAJ IYENGAR speaks to celebrated Iranian percussionist and musician OSTAD PEYMAN NASEHPOUR who hails from a family of legendary musicians, as he journeys into the enchanting and mystical world of Persian music, discovering its ancient traditions, soul-stirring melodies and exhilarating rhythms.

Q1) What do we mean by 'Persian music'? Which are its different schools?

A1) This is a very critical question. I believe that we have two important categories of music played in Iran or Persia and every category has its own members.

One is the music based of the music of the "Dastgah" modal system collected in "Radif repertoire" which let's say, can be called Persian art music, while the other one is Persian folk music. Please note that I am not talking about POP music. Radif is a collection of many old melodic figures preserved through many generations by oral tradition. It organizes the melodies in a number of different tonal spaces called "Dastgah".

Also there exists a lot of interaction among all the members of every category in Persian music. For example for "dastgah music", there are considered to be three schools or "Maktab", viz. Tehran, Isfahan and Tabriz school ( ll names of Iranian cities) and I don't know why the Shiraz school is not taken into consideration!

My father believes that today because of the ease in communication, all these schools are getting closer and closer to each other that today they are hardly distinguishable from each other. In my opinion this view is correct but it needs an explanation. Since they are all based on the dastgah modal system, they have the same modal system though there are some differences in accents of the performance.

The story of folk music is much more complicated. Sometimes from one village or town to the other one, you see a totally different music! You may wonder how colorful Persian folk music is!

I finish my answer by saying that by talking about Persian vocal music, I don't only mean the vocal style which employs poems in the Persian language, (because in Iran we do have different ethnics with different languages and accents), but the musical styles are strongly related and connected to each other. Therefore we have many genres that are played out of Iran's political borders that one must consider as "Persian music".

Anyway many believe that the antiquity of Persia and its music, change of political borders through the history and some other factors make it very difficult to draw a line between what is Persian music and what is not.

Q2) What are the origins of Persian music? OR, Where does Persian music trace its roots?

A2) This is a very hard question, because one cannot easily trace the origins of Persian music. The difficulty lies in two basic facts. First, many documents have been destroyed through the history, so researchers don't have enough evidences to prove the origins of Persian music. The second reason is that many documents have still not been investigated in detail, although recently some old manuscripts about music have been translated or illustrated and published to be available for researchers.

Anyway, what we know from the similarities between the names of melodies played in today "radif repertoire" and the names mentioned in old manuscripts, encyclopedias and works of poets, is that the antiquity of Persian music goes back to pre-Islamic era. Also what we know is that the concept of today modal system, i.e. "dastgah" is new and according to a book on the history of Persian music written by the late Dr. Taghi Binesh, this concept of this modal system is not older than 200 years. We also know that before this the modal system , there was "magham" discussed in many old manuscripts written in Persian, Arabic and Turkish language.

The oldest document for Persian music is a cylindrical stamp dating back to the 5th millennium BC, which has been unearthed at Choghamish near Dezful city. It shows the world's most ancient music ensemble, which is consisted of a harpist and a drummer. The history of most Persian musical instruments are also in dispute, though we know that some of them such as chang (Persian harp), barbat (Persian lute), sorna (Persian oboe), tanbour (Persian long-necked lute), tonbak (Persian goblet drum) and daf (Persian frame drum) are belonging to pre-Islamic era.

Q3) What is Persian folk music?

A3) Since different ethnic groups live in Iran, we have lots of different styles and genres of folk music. Many of them are not sung in Persian language, therefore some may consider it uncomfortable to label them as ‘Persian’ folk music. When I want to talk about anything related to the culture of Iran, I prefer to use the term ‘Persian’ instead of ‘Iranian’, because it reminds people the antiquity of Persian culture.

By folk music we mean the music that is played in provinces, towns and villages that is special for that region. That is why some prefer to use the term ‘Persian regional music’ instead of ‘Persian folk’ music. Therefore folk music is local and may not be heard in other regions, but it is obvious that interactions always happen and some immigrants bring the folk music of one region to the other one. For example in the North-Khorasan region we have a very rare music genre played by Kurdish immigrants that is called "Kormanji music".

Some famous folk music genres in Iran are: North-Khorasani, South-Khorasani, Baluchi, Systani, Turkmani, Katuli, Mazandarani, Gilaki, Taleshi, Azerbaijani,Kermanshahi, Kurdish, Lori, Bakhtiari, Bushehri, Khuzestani, Bandari and so on...

Q4) What does the Persian classical melodic form comprise of?

A4) Persian art/classical music is based on ‘dastgah’ modal system. Any dastgah consists of some small melodic pieces which have been put in a special order to configure a dastgah. Every such a small melodic piece is called "gusheh". Since these small melodic pieces have been put in a special orders to configure a dastagh, all these collected dastgahs configure the base of Persian art music and is called "radif". Radif literally means ‘row’ anyway.

In Persian classical music, we have 7 big dastgahs and 5 or 6 smaller ones. The big dastgahs are Shur, Mahour, Homayoun, Nava, Rastpanjgah, Chargah and Segah and the smaller ones are Bayat-e-Tork, Bayat-e-Esfahan, Abuata, Dashti and Afshari. I must explain that these smaller dastgahs are actually called ‘avaz’. My father believes that there is another special small dastgah that must be added to the list and that is Avaz-e-Bayat-e-Kord which is sometimes called ‘Kordi-Bayat’.

In every dastgah some rhythmic compositions are played. Some of them are traditional, while some of them have been composed recently. The most important rhythmic compositions of Persian art music are ‘charmezrab’, ‘reng’ and ‘pishdaramad’ that is instrumental and ‘tasnif’ that is vocal.

Perhaps it is interesting to mention that every dastgah starts by a very important melodic piece that is called ‘daramad’. Since later, a special overture was added before the performance of the dastgah music concerts, this rhythmic composition was named ‘pishdaramad’, the idea of which comes from a very important Iranian musician whose name is Ostad Darvish Khan who was a very skillful tar and setar player.

Q5) Having been born in a renowned musical family of Iran, please do tell us about your legendary father Ostaad Nasrollah Nasehpour?

A5) My father is a highly acknowledged master of the vocal radif repertoire of Persian art music and since some of his family members and relatives such as his father, the late Agha Shakour, were musicians, he was acquainted with Azerbaijani music through his childhood. When he moved to Tehran, he studied vocal radif with the late Ostad Mahmoud Karimi for many years. He also studied instrumental radif repertoire of Persian art music at the National Music Institute with the late Ostad Ali Akbar Khan Shahnazi who was a very skillful tar player. In the class of master vocalist, the late Ostad Soleiman Amir Ghasemi, he was acquainted with the late Ostad Saeed Hormozi who was a master ‘setar’ player and he learned many important points of Persian classical music.

At last he worked with the great master of vocal radif repertoire, the late Ostad Abdollah Davami, who had a great influence on his musical development. He has trained many students and some of them are professional vocalists who perform in Iran and abroad. As a professor of the Art University of Tehran, his books on old theoretical music of Persia are under publication. My father has had a great influence on me and my brothers. My younger brother, Pooyan plays the Persian ‘santoor’ and my youngest brother plays the ‘tar’ and ’kamancheh’. I play the ‘tonbak’ (Persian goblet-shaped drum), ‘ghaval’ and the ‘daf’ ( both frame drums).

Q6) What is the system of imparting musical training in Iran?

A6) In Iran, the system of training is passed on orally and in this way the knowledge conveys from ‘Ostad’, the master, to the ‘Shagerd’, the student.

Though today the difficulties of life and mechanization do not permit you to live like in the past, but still good students try to be almost always in contact with their masters to get the elegant points of the music. This ‘Ostad-Shagerdi’ relationship is sometimes so intimate that it may appear like a parent-child relationship.

Q7) Please do tell us about Persian rhythm-based music?

A7) Persian music is full of vocal rhythmic compositions such as ‘tasnif’, ‘taraneh’ and so on. Also we have different kinds of instrumental rhythmic compositions that are generally called ‘zarbi’ and three important zarbi forms are ‘pishdaramad’, ‘reng’ and ‘charmezrab’.

Q8) How did you choose Tonbak as your instrument? Could you tell us more about this intriguing drum?

A8) As far as I know, I was interested in rhythm and percussion and that is why I chose the ‘tonbak’ as my instrument and started learning that when I was 9 years old.

About the tonbak I can say is the Persian goblet drum that its antiquity with the old name ‘dombalak’ goes back to pre-Islamic era although we don't know if the structure of that drum was the same as what we find today.

Because of the efforts of the late Ostad Hosain Tehrani who is considered the father of the modern tonbak and some other tonbak masters such as my own teacher,the late Nasser Farhangfar, this drum has progressed a lot and by using all the ten fingers of the both hands, one can produce a very colorful sound on it.

Q9) Does Indian music draw you? Who are your favorite Indian musicians?

A9) Apart from the depth and beauty of Indian music that can draw any musician, the reasons why I am a great fan of Indian music include the mathematical complexity of Indian ‘tals’ and the similarities that Indian and Persian music have. Particularly by working on Indian taals, I have noticed some similarities between Indian and Persian rhythm cycles.

It is very difficult for me to say who my favorite musicians are while I enjoy almost any great master of Indian music. Here I take the chance to appreciate the kindness of renowned Sitar maestro Pandit Arvind Parikh who has always helped me to understand more about Indian ‘sangeet’.

Q 10) Please mention about the growing influence of pop music in today's Persian music scene?

Globalization and relationships among different musicians from different countries and cultures make the discussion of fusion music and the impact of POP music over Persian music, very serious topics.

We have some westernized musicians who belittle Persian classical music and make fun of folk musicians! This is really sad. There are a lot of advertisements and propaganda behind Pop music, but we still do have a lot of devoted musicians and Persian classical music fans who dedicate a lot of energy behind the promotion of our music.

Many who believe the grass is greener on the other side of the fence, beckon others what they already have. Here, I am inspired to quote the legendary Sufi poet of Iran, Hafez-e-Shirazi who says Salha del talab e jaam e jam az ma mikard,An che khod dasht, ze biganeh tamanna mikard ( For years, my heart craved for the goblet of jamshed ( wisdom),that which it already possessed , while it beckoned from strangers). There is no doubt that we must respect other cultures, but at the same time , we don't have the right to make fun of and neglect our own traditions and values.

Q11) Where is Persian music today? What future do you see for Persian music?

A11) Persian music is not as catchy , pulsating and rhythmic as what Iran's today young generation demands. Though melodically rich, because of some historical reasons, less rhythmic compositions have been composed and performed.

Also Persian music has not been introduced out of Iran as much as it deserves, though today I see some signs that suggest that it is going to be discovered internationally. I see a bright future for Persian music, well… if we are going to have a peaceful world!

This interview was originally published at AV Max music magazine in March 2009. AV Max is the first and only music magazine of its kind in India.

Persian Serenade ::: Interview with Ostad Peyman Nasehpour by Krishnaraj Iyengar