Maestro Hossein Tehrani the father of Modern tonbak
by Peyman Nasehpour
Ostad Hossein Tehrani, the father of modern tonbak, was born in 1912 in Tehran, Iran. Once he had attended to "zourkhaneh زروخانه" (Persian traditional gymnasium) and he felt that he loved the tonbak performed by the "morshed مرشد". Note that in zourkhaneh, morshed is the singer and tonbak player who leads the athletes in practicing the martial art. Also, note that the word morshed literally means spiritual leader. Later, when he went back to their house, he made a hole at the end of a clay vase and covered the larger opening with skin, and started playing his first strokes on it. When his father was at work, he was able to practice in a room though after some days the neighbors complained to his father that the sound of Hossein's tonbak was a tormentor. So, he stopped practicing at home and started playing the tonbak on the train (at that time it was called "vagon-e-asbi واگن اسبی" in Iran) for people. That train's line was between Lalehzar crossroads and Machine-Garage at the end of the South of Tehran. This was the first experience of this great master of tonbak performing in front of people.
According to his interviews, he started learning the tonbak seriously in 1929 under the training of the late Ostad Hossein Khan Esmailzadeh (great master of the kamancheh and the tar), and since at that time there was no notation for the tonbak he had to recall the rhythms with some interesting mnemonic phrases such as "Yek-Sad-o-Bist-o-Panj یک صد و بیست و پنج" and "Baleh-vo-Baleh-Ba'leh-Digeh بله و بله بعله دیگه". To continue his studies and research, he went to the classes of the great masters of his time such as the late Ostad Reza Ravanbakhsh and the late Kangarlu. Even he studied the style of the gypsy tonbak players (tonbaknavazan-e-doregard تنبکنوازان دورهگرد). In 1938, he became acquainted with the late Ostad Abolhasan Saba (multi-instrumentalist) and this acquaintance was an important turning point in his life, and then they became heartfelt and sincere friends and this friendship continued till the time of the sorrowful demise of the late Ostad Saba.
Tehrani himself once said: "except for the recitation of rhythms that I learned from Khaleghi - the late Ostad Ruhollah Khaleghi was a composer and writer. His famous works are his books on the history of Persian music (Sargozasht-e-Musighi) and his very famous national composition, Tasnif-e-Ey-Iran - what I know about the theory and practice of Persian music comes from Saba."
In 1940, after the establishment of Radio Tehran, he and some other artists collaborated with the Radio. In 1941, in the Master Course at Music School under the directorship of the late Ostad Ali Naghi Vaziri (tar and setar player, Persian music theorist, and specialist in aesthetics) he started teaching the tonbak. When somebody else became the director of this music school, the programs were omitted and the teaching activity of Ostad Tehrani was postponed. In 1949, after the efforts of Ostad Khaleghi and some other musicians, the National Music School was established and Ostad Tehrani was invited to teach at this new music school. In these years, after the establishment of the National Music Orchestra and National Music Society, he collaborated with these art organizations as well.
After all these activities, the tonbak became more popular and many volunteers wanted to learn the tonbak. Ostad Tehrani invited some of his students to form a musical group for the tonbak, a phenomenon of its kind in Iran. After the establishment of Iranian TV in 1958, he started playing the tonbak accompanying Ostad Faramarz Payvar (composer and master santoor player). At the first Shiraz Art Festival held in 1967, he played with Ostad Payvar and was the conductor of the tonbak group. Note that one of the tonbak players in the group was Ostad Mohammad Esmaili. Not only was Tehrani a very famous and respected artist in Iran, but also many musicians from other countries had praised his tonbak. He also had some concerts in European cities such as London, Paris, and Rome.
His book titled "Amuzesh-e-Tombak آموزش تمبک", even now, is the most famous instructional book on the tonbak. Later this book was reprinted and Ostad Esmaili recorded the lessons of this book on two cassettes. Ostad Tehrani recorded some tonbak solos and accompaniments on gramophone disks and some pieces have been reproduced in cassettes and CDs. In 1972, though he was ill, he recorded his last performance, which he titled "Rhythms of Zourkhaneh".
He was acquainted with the radif repertoire of Persian art music and tasnif (rhythmic compositions of Persian vocal music). He was kind, smiling, chic (I should explain that he lost one of his eyes while he was working in a technical workshop in his youth and because of this he was always wearing smoked glasses), self-possessed and witty. Unfortunately, after a long indisposition, he passed away on Feb. 25th, 1974.