VITRALIU Cultural Magazine
Year XXIX , No.55, October 2021
Ali Asghar Rahimi:
“My music addresses the whole of humanity, beyond race and color, beyond country and culture!“
Interview by Marius Manta
Mr. Ali Asghar Rahimi, I saw you twice in Bacau, performing a type of music that surprised the public through its warm and deep atmosphere. I would start this dialogue with an invitation to make a short portrait of traditional Persian music. I may be wrong but I clearly have the feeling that the music you sing is part of a complex system of beliefs, it comes out of the mystery and among basic elements of life. Is it rooted in some kind of collective pattern?
Although my music is in structural and formal alignment with Iranian Sufi music, the content and message it conveys reside out beyond the boundaries of any particular tradition or ritual. Generally, Sufi music emerges from the sacred chants and practices reflecting the belief and ideology of various Sufi sects holding a very broad range of diverse perspectives and beliefs, that give birth to specific forms of musical and poetic expression, tunes and rhythms, as well as particular instruments representative to each and every sect, that resound in their gatherings and places of worship, known as khaneqa.
Considering the variety of these Sufi groups, the poetry and the musical styles most vividly reflect outstanding diversity and originality.
But since in my view these timeless melodies are traced back to our primordial roots, to the ancestral memory of humanity, and convey the very essence of our true inmost nature, after extensive research and exploration, after delving in the depths of individual artistic manifestations specific to each and every sect, I have chosen for myself a framework that synthesizes the countless musical and poetic variations mirroring the multiple Sufi paths, thus creating a unique and original style that is neither confined to nor influenced by any paradigm or religious practice, free from all such limitation and ties of belonging, and it is in this spirit of freedom and limitlessness that I hope to share my message. This is because my music is not restricted to a certain nation, ethnicity or religious group, but addresses the whole of humanity, beyond race and color, beyond country and culture!
In my work I have greatly benefited from Persian mystical poetry, especially the poetry of Rumi, whose exquisite subtlety of meaning and universal message of human values have been so widely acknowledged. Ever since childhood, I have thoroughly explored and contemplated Rumi’s complex poetic work, thus gaining profound understanding of Rumi`s conceptual and ideological foundation and learning to integrate it in my music.
We talk a lot about freedom in music, thus I want to know something about the proportion between improvisation and composition
There’s an essential rule when it comes to music. Every capable composer is also very capable of improvisation! These two elements spring forth from the same source, they both flow from the wellspring of individual vision and style, and they both unfold towards the fulfillment of the same purpose, the creative expression of musical harmony. Though it may often happen that a musician who excels in improvisation may not be also qualified as a songwriter, they can definitely set an example for composers. You can never hear the same melody twice from a musician skilled in the art of improvisation. Even if they play the same song, it will have a different fragrance and color each and every time you hear it. Although, even when improvising one should follow a series of rules and patterns, they will be ever filled with fresh tunes and verse, and vibrant harmonics. Certainly, this principle also applies to composers. But amidst all this, there are some musicians who do not exclusively rely on their personal taste or there experiential and even technical knowledge. Apart from relying on their personal understanding they also follow their unique vision and imagination in the creation of songs, therefore transforming into music all that is revealed to them in the instant of inspiration.
We can thus infer the personal and spiritual characteristics of every musician upon hearing their creations, since their innermost thoughts and feelings are conveyed by means of their music.
We also talked about traditional music and I am interested in the connections that would interchanged between it and nowadays Iranian music.
Music and literature, and art in general, be it classical or modern, is infused with the flavor of the circumstances and occurrences of its own time and space and their influence upon the personalities and behavior patterns displayed by the people of every age and place.
Ancient Iranian music and literature are the expression of ancestral Persian celebrations and traditions, as well as storytellers of unpleasant events or wars that have been endured by this vast land throughout history. Classical Iranian music conveys the core tenets and mystical beliefs held by this nation across the ages, clearly bringing to light the permanent emphasis on fundamental human values.
Today, modern Iranian music follows the same rules and principles, as in being a manifestation of the psyche and character of the new generations, as well as a response to the taste and inclinations of their audience. The connection between these two musical genres is undoubtedly a fervently debated topic, having been attempted numerous times, most frequently without the proper refinement, awareness or experience. But it should be mentioned that, though seldom, it sometimes occurs that such a merging gives birth to a real masterpiece, in complete alignment with the fundamentals of art, as an authentic expression of beauty. The relevant aspect in this attempt at connection or fusion between the two genres is that, despite the broad range of current technological possibilities available in modern music, traditional music still stands out as shining more brightly on all levels, since classical or traditional Iranian music reverberates with the calling to essential values and deeper meaning, while modern music conveys nothing but the clamor of urban life, the fascination with the glamour of ever shifting illusory colors of our current world.
I also wish I could know if traditional music is somehow sustained by the authorities in Iran and what are these ways to give it to necessary support?
Currently, a wide variety of musical genres are approved and supported by our government and our people. At the moment, there are over 160 actively functional TV and radio channels in Iran that broadcast and promote various types of music during their programs on a regular basis, and, evidently, the factors or phenomena associated with every genre. But this certainly doesn’t mean that the door is open to any type of music and musician, therefore organizing concerts or producing albums is most commonly supported by personal endeavors and seldom by private organizations.
We are coming back to you and your great experience. Please tell me some words about your masters and schools you’ve learnt at. More, you received some distinctions from important entities. Could you reveal their significance?
In Iran, if you long to become a proficient musician, it is only achievable by means of self study, outside music schools or colleges. Although at times academic music studies might prove helpful, it is only to a certain extent.
More precisely, concerning my field, Sufi music and tanbur, there used to be no specialized institution or college whatsoever that teaches it. As a result, following my aspiration to immerse in the study of tanbur and the experiential knowledge of Sufi music, in my adolescence I was compelled to journey to various cities in order to benefit from the presence and teachings of widely acknowledged masters (Ostad), since at that time there were no tanbur specialization classes available in Isfahan, my native city. So I was forced to travel on a weekly basis to other Iranian cities that used to be centers of learning this art back then. I immensely benefited from the knowledge and guidance of great masters, such as Ostad Seyed Amrollah Shah Ebrahimi, known as the father of Iranian tanbur, and Ostad Taher Yarveisi, a reference for all Iranian tanbur experts. But in order to attend courses offered by these prominent artists, I had to take introductory classes with teachers such as Touraj Honarjou and Seyed Ali Jaberi.
My deep desire to take part in private classes with the two great masters Ostad Seyed Amrollah Shah Ebrahimi and Ostad Taher Yarveisi hadn’t been a consequence of musical and artistic aspiration alone, rather, it was their spiritual glow that had significantly increased my passion and yearning to receive their blessing and benefit from their presence. These two exulted masters, who both departed from this world, were not highly skilled in music alone, but it can be affirmed with certainty that they had also attained spiritual and moral excellence. In fact, this is one of the fine characteristics of Iranian mystical and Sufi music, due to its spiritual nature the student or seeker is spontaneously called and compelled to undertake the inner quest for refinement of self. Of course, this is only attainable provided that the student enjoys the privilege of companionship and guidance of a truthful and authentic master of the art.
There are numerous teachers who call themselves masters merely as a consequence of their technical or performative musical skills. Since these teachers themselves cannot glance beyond appearances and delve into the spiritual depth at the heart of this art, their student will also be deprived of such insight. Therefore, the title of master (Ostad) is inadequate for this category of teachers. In Iranian mystical and Sufi music, a master is one who has reached the highest skill, technical and artistic knowledge of this field, as well as a highly elevated station of self-realization which pervades their music. The difference between teachers of the exoteric skill and real masters of the esoteric art can vividly be sensed and noticed in the quality and impact of their work. For instance, upon hearing the work passed on by the aforementioned masters, one will listen with their heart’s ear, and let the soul fly in unbounded vastness, since this music overflows with the authenticity of pure feeling and depth of meaning. But in the case of certain other works, it is only the technical artistic dimension that can be seen or heard, nothing beyond…
After some years of gaining more skill and knowledge of the tanbur, I was invited by the Isfahan music college to initiate the first institutionalized tanbur teaching program in this ancient city of arts and culture.
Undoubtedly, when it comes to the qualifications and honorary titles I have obtained, I am greatly indebted to the grace and endeavors of my masters.
• Member of the Music Rights Council of the Iranian Cultural Heritage Office, under UNESCO patronage
• Artist of the Year 2018 for the best practices in field of promotion and preservation of traditional cultural heritage awarded by M. Eminescu UNESCO Cultural Centre and Art & Heritage Association
• Founder of the Tanbur Center of Isfahan,
• Member of the Isfahan Music Council as maqami music expert
These are some of the qualifications and titles that have generously been granted me.
What place does live shows occupy for your music? How can you connect your interpretation with the public’s intuitions?
For me, the brightest outpouring of inspiration manifests itself on stage, as I am flooded with the radiant energy of my audience, I tune in to deeper levels of inspiration, and ultimately drown in this overwhelming stream of ever flowing ever living energy. Upon reaching that state, I completely forget my spectators, and tunes just pour from my being as bearers of pure feeling.
Therefore, while watching videos of my performances, it may often happen that I notice some improvisation which is quite surprising even to myself! Upon trying to reproduce these melodies in solitude, I have always been unable to obtain something as enchanting and delightful… since those songs are imbued with the resonance and living energy of that particular space.
For an untrained ear, the music we refer to has austere background but out of the paradox the light appears. There are different types of miracles, the music is one…
My music is a multi faceted multi dimensional package. The content in all its aspects is selected and structured with great care and precision, as to be in alignment with the message we aim to pass on. With a recorded history of over 7000 years, the tanbur itself is a keeper of our ancestral characteristics and nostalgia. This is the central element of our package. The tanbur scales/ maqamat, the telltale signs of the authenticity and, at the same time, of the ineffable mysterious quality of the spiritual states of our ancestors, could be regarded as yet another essential component of this package, since I have found in this realm an unbounded fount of inspiration and insight. So in my work I am constantly gravitating around this core element, expanding into various forms of musical manifestation and improvisation reflecting my individuality and unique taste.
All the literature and poetic elements that I’ve integrated in my work and performances belong to prominent mystical and Sufi poets, glowing with the enchantment of mystery and depth of meaning. The rhythmical patterns, harmony and beauty of these verses delight the ears and uplift the heart of each and every listener, beyond the borders of nationality, beyond culture or language.
Furthermore, the nuance and texture of my voice as well as the flavor of my music emulate the timeless style of our ancestors. In this type of work, one should not require of the audience to understand their language, but rather aim to directly connect to the hearts of the spectators, in an instant of unmediated transmission by means of the words chanted interweaving with resonant tunes. This is definitely achievable for the experienced knowledgeable musician, since a primordial mother tongue is shared by all humankind: the unified language of the soul. From the interlocking and merging of these ancestral bits and pieces, a holistic perspective emerges, one that simultaneously integrates the mysterious darkness of our enigmatic immemorial past, as well as the brilliance and radiance shining from the purity of our ancestral nature. In the unification of these two opposites, one can very tangibly sense and hear the embrace of the revealed and the concealed, the mingling of the light and the shadow.
What are the instruments are you playing at and which one is your favourite?
Obviously, a musician specialized in a particular instrument might be able to play, to a certain level, one or more instruments resembling their own. This fact also applies to me, though I am specialized in tanbur. Iranian orchestration employs instruments more closely associated with Sufi music, such as the kamamcheh, oud or ney, as well as some percussion instruments.
Lastly, how do you define the connection between music and literature?
Music and literature might appear as distinct forms of art that only merge upon composing or performing a track with lyrics. But upon more thorough analysis we realize it isn’t so. Even when considered individually, the two arts interact and impact each other. Every poet, regardless of their place of origin, is affected and influenced, on a subconscious level, by the rhythms, songs, and chants passed on to them in early childhood by their mother or embedded in their mind by singing with other children during games. You can witness and recognize traces of these resounding rhythmical patterns of mother’s lullaby in the verse of every poet from every land and nation. This clearly proves how music impacts literature, for the inextricable link between music and literature is easy to infer.
Additionally, if we take a closer look at rhyme and rhythm within the lyrical structure of poetry, the significance of music in literary work becomes even more evident.
On the other hand, the reverse also applies: The music of every region is shaped and flavored by the literature of that area. If you take a careful look at all the rhythms, motives, and harmonics produced by any musician or composer you will notice a striking resemblance to the harmony and flow of discourse and to the elegance of eloquence. So the composer or musician is influenced, on a subconscious level, by all the harmony of speech and verse they have ever heard, and by that which bursts fourth from their own inner self, thus translating all this content into the language of musical harmony and melody. This explanation is an interpretation of the subtle connection between these two arts which cannot be grasped by means of senses, therefore eluding appearances.
But when it comes to the overt palpable interaction of the two arts, it should be mentioned that, at times, a song can be written or chosen in order to fit a specifically determined poem, and at other times a poem may be written in accordance with a predetermined instrumental track. In both instances, should the adequate alignment and synchronization be duly observed, with proper understanding and knowledge, a new artistic creation emerges, that is neither music nor literature… or should rather be referred to as both pure music and pure literature, in the all-encompassing sense.
Thank you very much for this walk concerning traditional Persian / Iranian music.
I thank you for giving me the opportunity to talk about my music and my culture. I would also like to thank to Mr. Geo Popa and the wonderful team of “George Apostu” Cultural Centre for inviting me to be part of their projects, to Prof. Gheorghe Iorga for his tremendous work in promoting Persian literature and last but not least to the culture-oriented people of Bacau who received me with much warmth and kindness.
For Romanian version please click on the links below:
VITRALIU nr. 55 - octombrier 2021 (revista online)
Marius Manta - Interviu cu Ali Asghar Rahimi (pdf)