Kayhan Kalhor, a master of the Iranian kamancheh, speaks to Nigel Williamson about his various collaborations and why he has always played simply for the enjoyment of making music
Kayhan Kalhor (photo: Lawan Hosseini)
On social media you will sometimes find Kayhan Kalhor listed as ‘kayhankamancheh’. It’s a fitting handle. Like Ravi Shankar and the sitar or Toumani Diabaté and the kora, Kalhor is one of those rare musicians whose name has become synonymous with his instrument – in his case the traditional four-stringed Persian spike-fiddle known as the kamancheh.
Songlines has taken a strong interest in the Iranian maestro’s career over the past 20 years, for in a way we made our debut together – Kalhor’s first album Scattering Stars Like Dust (on Traditional Crossroads) was a Top of the World choice in the first issue of this magazine way back in the spring of 1999. Since then almost every album he has made has been similarly garlanded and he shares the record for the most Top of the World listings (seven) with the Portuguese fado star Mariza.
Scattering Stars Like Dust – which took its title from a line by the 13th-century Persian Sufi poet Rumi – was essentially an album of solo kamancheh playing, its sinewy tone accompanied only by the rhythms of the tombak drum played by Pejman Hadadi.
However, since then Kalhor has largely made his name and reputation with an impressive series of adventurous collaborations, sometimes with other Iranian musicians but also on a series of cross-cultural adventures with the likes of sitar player Shujaat Khan, Kronos Quartet, Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble, Turkish saz and bağlama player Erdal Erzincan, the string quartet Brooklyn Rider, Azeri singer Alim Qasimov, kora player Toumani Diabaté and the Dutch jazz pianist Rembrandt Frerichs among others.
Yet he insists the kamancheh with its delicate, plaintive sound – which he calls his “voice” – is still essentially a solo instrument. “I always wanted to collaborate with musicians from other cultures but my main purpose as an Iranian musician is as a soloist,” he says via Skype from his home in Tehran. “I’m presenting a traditional culture and the ultimate production in that culture is a solo record. I’ll never abandon that.”
After years of endless travelling and dividing his time between the US and Iran, he’s now spending most of his time back home and as a result playing more solo concerts than ever – 41 concerts in different cities around Iran this year. “Believe it or not there are millions of people pursuing Persian music here,” he reports encouragingly. “The younger generation are crazy about good music. They are thirsty for it.”
Kayhan Kalhor playing with Toumani Diabaté at Morgenland Festival in Osnabrück in 2016 (Andy Spyr)
His return home was in part enforced by the election of Trump as US president. “After the new administration took over there was a lot of hatred and intolerance towards immigrants and my wife cannot travel to the US,” he says. “That’s why we live mostly in Iran. To tell the truth I’m not sorry about that. I think immigrants bring a lot of value to US society and if they don’t appreciate it, then let them have it. We don’t appreciate them at the moment, either.”
Twenty years ago the kamancheh was little heard in the West but through Kalhor’s endless touring and collaborations he has put his instrument on the world music map. That the art of playing the kamancheh was added to the UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list in 2017 is in no small part down to Kalhor’s ambassadorial role as its foremost exponent, although he modestly plays down his own significance.
“I cannot say that – but you can and I thank you for it,” he says. “I play 100 concerts a year around the world so I suppose that has helped to attract attention. I work hard because I love Persian culture and I love kamancheh.”
His achievements have been recognised this year with the WOMEX Artist Award, presented ‘for the mastery and virtuosity of the kamancheh, for the ceaseless innovation and collaboration to create exciting new musical languages and for bringing the Persian classical music tradition to the ears of people all over the world.’
When Kayhan Kalhor plays, ‘he creates whole languages in which to communicate with people from all over the world, from centuries past and far into the future,’ the citation continues.
Kalhor accepted the award with characteristic humility, not as a personal accolade but as “recognition of the rich culture of my homeland and an ageless Persian art.”
Ageless is right, too, for with its long upper neck and finial, bowl-shaped resonating chamber, spiked end-pin and four pegged strings played with a bow, the kamancheh is one of the oldest Persian instruments with a heritage dating back to the Mongol and Timurid empires.
In reviewing Kalhor’s debut album 20 years ago, Songlines wrote ‘the magic of the performance lies in the apparent ease with which Kalhor weaves together tradition and innovation.’ The words still ring true for his approach has continued to be guided by a potent combination of serious virtuosity and vaulting imagination ever since.
“I strongly believe that our generation has to have its own language and musical vocabulary in Persian music,” he says. “In order to have a healthy tradition you have to let it breathe and renew it every now and then. There is a responsibility to add something unique that doesn’t sound exactly like our forefathers and teachers.”
The fresh “accents” as he calls them, are in part inspired by working with musicians from other cultures. His collaborators are carefully chosen. “I come from a deep, spiritual musical culture and I don’t want to do something that breaks that,” he explains. “I try to keep the collaborations within traditions that have something in common with my tradition – so I thought ‘why not mix it with other deep spiritual cultures like North Indian music, Turkish music, Arabic music?’”
As “a citizen of the world, standing with artists whose music fosters unity,” he has sought out musicians “with a lineage so they could steal from me and I could steal from them and we could develop a new language together, something that didn’t exist before.” As examples he cites the Indian sitar player Shujaat Khan, with whom he worked under the banner Ghazal on four albums including Moon Rise Over the Silk Road (in 1999) and The Rain (in 2003), and Toumani Diabaté, with whom he has performed in concert and recorded, although no recording has been released as yet. He is not a fan of bolted-on world music fusion projects involving Western pop or rock stars.
“They usually start with a famous white guy… and you can guess the rest,” he says, diplomatically. “I never wanted to be part of that because nothing meaningful can ever come from it. Jamming based on a certain rhythm can be nice, but it lacks the spirituality and deepness we are after in our music. I stay away from it because it doesn’t scratch the surface and it doesn’t fulfil me as a musician.”
He differentiates between “jamming” and the age-old art of improvisation, the absence of which is one of the major differences he has found in his collaborations with Western, conservatoire-trained musicians, such as Yo-Yo Ma, with whom he won a Grammy in 2017 as part of the Silk Road Ensemble for the album Sing Me Home, and Kronos Quartet, for whom he composed the piece ‘Gallop of a Thousand Horses’, which appeared on their album Caravan in 2000.
Yet he has found an even greater contrast in the “different function” of music in Western society. “For our classical music you close your eyes and think within yourself to find some connection between you and the being – god, energy, the beloved, whatever you want to call it. That is the only function. In Western classical music the functions are different.”
It means he brings a different approach to his collaborations with Western musicians. “With non-Western musicians we bond as personalities and friends first and then slowly take up our instruments and try to create something,” he says. “With Western musicians destiny – or a booking – brings us together and whether it is one of my compositions or somebody else’s, there is notation and the bond is primarily through the music.”
As someone who has spent much of his adult life shuttling between Eastern and Western cultures, it has been impossible for Kayhan not to get drawn into the global politics of the situation, particularly with relations between Iran and the US currently in a state of heightened bellicosity.
“You can’t live in this part of the world and ignore it. You get pulled into politics whether you like it or not,” he says. “But I try to be socially-conscious rather than politically-conscious. We have to make politicians see what we see as artists.”
Shelley once wrote that poets are ‘the unacknowledged legislators of the world’ and in an age in which divisiveness and intolerance seem to rule, Kalhor retains faith in the capacity of music to remind us of “our common humanity” like almost nothing else.
That puts a duty on musicians to engage with the world around them, something which Kalhor has done powerfully on several occasions. The title-track of his 2008 album Silent City with the New York string quartet Brooklyn Rider was a lament for the Kurdish city of Halabja, where 5,000 died in a chemical attack ordered by Saddam Hussein, and his 2011 album I Will Not Stand Alone with the Iranian santur player Ali Bahrami Fard referenced the protests and killings on the streets of Tehran after the contested 2009 election that kept president Ahmadinejad in power.
Kayhan Kalhor with Iranian singer Hossein Alishapour (HR Shirmohammadi)
In the present tension between Iran and the West, he abhors the xenophobic bullying and shameless cynicism of Trump and his acolytes. “Most of the propaganda isn’t the truth – believe it or not we’re perfectly normal people here in Tehran,” he says with a nervous laugh. “But if you’re sitting there watching Fox News you’d think we eat our babies here for breakfast. Sure, we have our problems with the political system – but then so do you.”
Touché. And while accepting that there is fault on both sides, the case he makes is balanced, persuasive and not one we often get to hear in the mainstream Western media.
“We have a lot of oil in the region and everybody is trying to manipulate the situation,” Kalhor reasons. “I’ve been very outspoken about our political system, but a lot of the propaganda against us is sick. We’re trying to defend our country and we get accused of being terrorists. We’re not popular because we are one of the few countries that stands alone and we’re not buying a lot of weapons from the West. This is our homeland and we have to fix it.”
Looking back on his achievements over the past 20 years and asked what his remaining ambitions are, he offers a disarmingly simple and rather wonderful answer. “None, because I never had any ambitions,” he says. “I just wanted to play music and make people enjoy it. I didn’t want to make this recording or win that award. That just happened. I don’t know what I’d do without music. Whenever I’m on stage, I’m on top of the world and God speaks to me. That’s all I want.”
Kayhan Kalhor performs with Iranian-born setar player Kiya Tabassian at Songlines Encounters Festival next May
This article originally appeared in the November 2019 issue of Songlines. Never miss an issue – subscribe today!