Songlines | Music of Iran: A Beginner's Guide
10 May 2018

Music of Iran: A Beginner's Guide

By Laudan Nooshin and Simon Broughton

Iranians often say that their music is imbued with a sense of the vast desert, the mountain landscapes and the ancient and turbulent history of the country

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Ghazal crossover duo, Kayhan Kalhor (left) and Shujaat Khan (photo: ECM)

Iranian music presents ancient and modern faces. The Persian classical tradition with its mystical and contemplative melodies is an intimate part of the culture, performed with an almost blues-like intensity. It is currently in revival at home, while outside Iran there is an equally vibrant Iranian pop scene, highly distinct with its pulsating dance rhythms; a homegrown pop scene has also recently started to develop. As you’d expect from a huge and predominantly rural region, ranging from the mountains of Iranian Azerbaijan, through desert expanses to the Caspian Sea, there are also numerous folk traditions. 

Iranians often say that their music is imbued with a sense of the vast desert, the mountain landscapes and the ancient and turbulent history of the country. The 1979 Iranian Revolution, which created the Islamic Republic, was cultural as well as religious, and was accompanied by a strong “return to roots”, and a reawakening of interest in Iranian traditions. In the backlash against Western culture, directly after the revolution, pop music was banned until 1998 – some of Iran’s own pop musicians eventually found a new home base abroad. But Iran’s classical music has experienced an extraordinary renaissance – as have many of the arts – bringing new life and ideas to a musical tradition that goes back centuries.

Classical Music

Musiqi-e assil (classical music), which in Persian means “pure” or “noble” music, was originally a royal or aristocratic entertainment. Some people date this music back several thousand years, and although there isn’t much evidence to show how the various melodies and instruments have changed over time, we can be sure that this is a music whose roots go back a long way. For Iranians, it is an important symbol of their culture – an intense, private expression, refined, contemplative, historically rooted, and with a close relationship to poetry.

Classical pieces range through slow, quiet, contemplative passages – usually in the lower part of the singer’s range – to melismatic displays of virtuosity known as tahrir. These are fast and ornamented passages, usually high in the vocal range and often compared with the singing of the nightingale. Their typical sound is soulful and intense, and the result is a mesmerizing arabesque, as voice and instrument speak to each other in turn.

Poetry and music go hand in hand in Iran, and much of the classical music is set to the words of medieval Persian mystic poets such as Mowlana (Jalal Edin Rumi, 1207–73) and Hafez (1325–89). Music is an important medium through which people experience this ancient poetry, whose messages are often seen to have contemporary significance. Poetry in turn gives music a respectability, since the written word has a higher status within Islam; in fact, much of the Islamic proscription of music is directed towards instrumental music. Today, it’s still unusual to hear a performance of Iranian classical music without a vocalist, although there have been moves in recent years to emancipate music from words and to give instrumental music a validity in its own right.

From Courts to Cassettes

Until the beginning of the twentieth century, classical music was heard mainly at the royal courts and in the homes of wealthy amateurs. Most of the significant classical musicians of the nineteenth century were based at the courts of the Qajar monarchs (who ruled Iran between 1794 and 1925). This intimate music, with its close relationship to mystical Sufi poetry and philosophy, was well-suited to such gatherings, and it remained sheltered there until the 1900s.

The decline in the influence of the royal courts in the early twentieth century coincided with the opening up of classical music to a wider audience, through recordings and Western-style public concerts, and eventually through the important medium of radio. A further boost came with the arrival of cassettes, from the 1960s, which meant that music could be carried around discreetly – an important consideration in an Islamic society. The rapid pace of Westernization, however, meant that by the 1970s classical music was still a minority taste. There was a feeling that it belonged to a past age and was out of step with the modernizing nation state.

Prominent classical musicians of pre-revolutionary Iran include the singer Gholam Hossein Banan, probably the most-recorded voice in the country prior to 1979, and instrumentalists Ahmad Ebadi (setar), Faramarz Payvar (santur) and Abol Hassan Saba (violin, setar, santur).

Post-Revolutionary Revival

Culturally, the immediate post-revolutionary period was an extraordinary time, and for classical Iranian music, it was nothing short of a renaissance. The movement was led by a number of (mainly) younger musicians, many of whom are still active performers and composers. These musicians were not willing to follow tradition for its own sake and wanted to make classical music relevant to a contemporary audience. They breathed new life into the traditional repertoire. These musicians included the male singers Mohammad Reza Shajarian and Shahram Nazeri, female vocalist Parisa and the instrumentalists Mohammad Reza Lotfi (tar, setar), Hossein Alizadeh (tar, setar), Parviz Meshkatian (santur), Jamshid Andalibi (ney), Kayhan Kalhor (kamancheh), and the (Kurdish) Kamkar family, who have toured widely.

The situation for musicians became particularly difficult during the Iran–Iraq war (1980–88) when it was felt that live musical performance, and the associated expression of joy, was inappropriate. Since the early 1990s, however, there has been a renewal, with the emergence of many young musicians and an even wider audience for classical music than before.

While there was a spirit of optimism surrounding this revival, and opportunities for recording and live performance, it all happened largely in spite of the official policy. Whilst more moderate politicians cautiously welcomed the return to traditional culture, the conservative elements viewed even classical music as a potentially corrupting influence. New laws also limited women’s public musical roles. Female singers were (and still are) only allowed to perform to all-female audiences, although there are no such restrictions on female instrumentalists. In recent years, some singers, such as Parisa and Sima Bina, have been given permission to tour and record outside Iran. Other women work as singing groups (which are allowed to perform). A good example of female vocal can be heard on the CD Saz-é No on which Afsaneh Rasai sings with Hossein Alizadeh.

Although there have been important female classical singers in the past, the instrumental tradition was almost exclusively a male one. But this is changing and it’s no longer unusual to see a woman instrumentalist. The female singers Parvin Javdan and Zohreh Bayat have performed and recorded with a group of all-female instrumentalists.

Another development in the late 1990s was a government satellite television channel, Jaam-e-Jam, broadcasting from Iran to Iranians abroad. Its programming schedule includes classical music performances.

Modes and Improvisation

Iranian classical music is largely improvised, and this improvisation is based on a series of modal scales and tunes which musicians spend many years memorizing as part of their long training. Traditionally, there was a very close relationship between pupil and master, or ostad (a word which, along with other Persian words, was also taken up by musicians in North India) and teaching would usually take place in the ostad’s home. During the course of the twentieth century most teaching was taken over by conservatoires and universities.

The music is largely an oral tradition and the emphasis is still on strict rote memorization. Musicians never perform from notation, since each performance is a spontaneous expression by the musician – but one firmly rooted in the memorized repertoire; in other words, a unique “re-creation” of the tradition at each performance. A metaphor for this is the nightingale, a bird regularly encountered in the visual arts and poetry of Iran. According to popular belief, the nightingale (bolbol) has the most beautiful voice on earth as it sings of its unrequited love for the rose (gol). Moreover, it is believed that the nightingale never repeats itself in its song. In practice, of course, both nightingales and Iranian musicians do repeat themselves, but the metaphor is important for its ideal.

The repertoire is a collection of some two hundred pieces collectively known as radif (series), and the training of a classical musician essentially involves memorizing these pieces precisely. The individual pieces of the radif are known as gusheh (corner) – a short piece or melody, lasting from as little as fifteen seconds to as long as two minutes, with its own modal identity and often particular turns of phrase. It is these individual gushehs that are memorized strictly by musicians and after many years of training form the starting point for creative improvisation in performance. The gushehs are in turn arranged into twelve dastgahs (systems). These are ordered collections of modally related gushehs (rather like a Baroque suite), and a performance of Iranian classical music will usually be in one of the twelve dastgahs.

Each of the two hundred or so gushehs and the twelve dastgahs of the complete radif repertoire are individually named. Some of the names indicate a particular sentiment or emotion while others are names of towns or regions of the country. Some of these names are also found in the maqams or makams of Arabic and Turkish music, the two other important classical traditions of the Middle East. Historical contact between these cultures has resulted in cross-influences in the modes and their names, as well as in instrument types.

At the same time, there are significant differences between Iranian classical music and its neighbouring traditions. There are no rhythmic cycles in Iranian music as there are in Arabic and Turkish musics (and the even more distantly related Indian). Rhythmically, much of Iranian classical music is based on the metrical structure of the poetry that is being sung (or implied in the case of the instrumental accompaniment).

Listening to Classical Music

When listening to this music, bear in mind that it is the intricate beauty and ornamentation of the solo melody line (usually with no regular pulse) that is of the utmost importance, inviting more of a philosophical than physical response. The musical interest is almost totally linear – there is no harmony and only a light drone serves to ground the music from time to time. People often draw parallels between the highly detailed melodic lines and the intricate designs of Iranian carpets. As in the carpets, the movement is meandering, as the musician exhaustively explores the melodic potential of a defined area before moving on to the next.

The length of a dastgah performance is largely up to the musician, taking into consideration the particular context of performance. Each individual gusheh, which in the studied repertoire might last thirty seconds, will be expanded in performance to last for several minutes, and often longer. A complete dastgah performance can last for several hours in informal settings, although nowadays something between thirty minutes and an hour is more usual.

Until the 1960s, a typical performance would have comprised a voice and a solo instrument, the latter supporting the vocal sections and playing short instrumental interludes, with the addition of a tombak for the metered sections. In the last thirty years or so, it has become common for performances to be given by an ensemble of musicians, usually including one of each of the main classical instruments, each musician taking it in turn to accompany the voice and to play solo interludes between the vocal phrases. It has also become common for performances to begin and end with a pre-composed ensemble piece. These pieces provide a frame for the main part of the performance, which is usually unmetered and improvised.

Simplifying somewhat, a typical classical performance begins with the opening (daramad) section of the chosen dastgah, followed by a progressive development of the material of each individual gusheh. As the performance continues, there is a gradual increase in pitch and tension – each gusheh is based around a slightly higher pitch range than the preceding one – until the music reaches the climax, or owj, of the dastgah. At this point there is usually a descent and return to the opening pitch area and “home” mode of the dastgah (as heard at the beginning) to conclude the performance. There may also be a concluding ensemble piece to round the performance off.

The important things to listen out for are the rising pitch level and the resulting overall arch shape of the performance, the alternating (or answering) of instruments and voice, and the explorations of the musicians reinterpreting the underlying tradition each time they perform.

Mohammad Reza Shajarian

Mohammad Reza Shajarian is the nightingale supreme of Iranian music, a living legend whose superb technical skill, warm vocal style and vast knowledge of classical Iranian poetry have made him the most successful classical singer in the country.

Born in Masshad (in northeastern Iran) in 1940, Shajarian comes from a family with a long musical tradition. He began his singing career at the age of 18 with the local radio station in Masshad and moved to Tehran eight years later where he performed regularly on Iranian Radio until 1986 (many of these broadcast programmes were subsequently released as commercial recordings).

Persian masters, Mohammad Reza Shajarian, Hossein Alizadeh, Kayhan Kalhor and Homayoun Shajarian

Following his appearances on national television in the early 1970s, Shajarian become a household name. But it was the musical renaissance which followed the 1979 Revolution, and his close creative work with other musicians at this time, which consolidated his position as the foremost musician of Iranian classical music.

Shajarian has given concerts around the world and worked closely with the most prominent contemporary classical musicians such as Mohammad Reza Lotfi and Parviz Meshkatian. As well as his busy performing and recording career, he devotes a considerable amount of time and energy to teaching and to research into the music of his native region of Khorasan. In 2005, his CD Faryad received a Grammy nomination.

Kayhan Kalhor

Iranian music has developed a much higher profile in recent years. That is partly because of some loosening up of the cultural policy of the regime, but also thanks to Kayhan Kalhor and his role as cultural ambassador. His powerful and poetic performances on the kamancheh bring the classical music of Iran to life. Kalhor was born in Tehran into a Kurdish family and learnt the violin as a child, but then he saw veteran kamancheh player Asghar Ali Bahari on television one day, got hooked and decided to take up this ancient ancestor of the violin himself. By the time he was 15 or 16 he was playing eighteen hours a day. The kamancheh has a penetrating, sinewy tone with a touch of deserty sandpaper to it. Kalhor kneels and spins the instrument from side to side to simplify the movement of the bow. ‘It’s like riding a wild horse’, he says, ‘but it has a deepness and warmth that I’m crazy about. It seems to come from a far distance and a far time and reach into parts of the soul that you haven’t encountered before’.

In the late 1990s, Kalhor spent several years in the US and his brilliant debut CD Scattering Stars Like Dust came out on New York’s Traditional Crossroads label in 1998. In America he built up useful contacts which have led to several high-profile tours and recordings with the singer Mohammad Reza Shajarian and the Masters of Persian Music. But despite his deep love for Persian classical music, Kalhor has also pushed out in new directions. He composed the music for an extended piece called Night, Silence, Desert, based on his research into the folk music of Khorasan and an excellent duo recording with his childhood friend in Kurdistan, tanbur player Ali Akbar Moradi. But the biggest impact was made by his revelatory explorations into the shared culture of Persian and Indian music in the duo Ghazal, with Indian sitar player Shujaat Khan. They made three recordings for Shanachie and then a brilliant live recording of intricate tracery, Rain, for ECM. The plucked, resonant sound of the sitar is brilliantly complemented by the long, sustained bowing of the kamancheh, the two instruments sometimes contrasting with, sometimes imitating each other. Kalhor has a particular ability to build musical bridges.

Folk Music

Within Iran’s seventy million people there are numerous ethnic minorities, each with their own language, culture and music. For example, an estimated 24 percent of the population is Azeri, living in the northwest of the country in the area adjoining the Caspian Sea, and about 8 percent of the population is Kurdish, mainly in the west of the country bordering Iraq and Turkey. Both groups have a strong influence on the country’s music. Even among the Persian-speaking population there are many regional variations in dialect, lifestyle culture and music, one example being the nomadic Bakhtiari people. Regional folk music is widely performed in Iran, but less known abroad, where fewer recordings are available.

The Bakshi of Khorasan

Iranians often consider Khorasan, the large province in the northeast, the heartland of their bardic culture. The celebrated musicians here are the bakshi, epic bards (often Turkmen) who sing and accompany themselves on the long-necked dotar. The most famous of these is Haj Ghorban Soleimani, a veteran singer and dotar player from a long line of bakshi. The poems, texts and music he performs have been handed down orally for centuries. The colours and textures of his playing on the two-string dotar evoke the ancestral heritage of the region.

Haj Ghorban Soleimani playing the long-necked dotar (photo: Simon Broughton)

Although the tradition is inevitably a dwindling one, there are younger musicians like the impressive Rowshan Golafruz, the ninth generation in a prestigious line of Khorasan bards. One of the best-known professional singers is Sima Bina, who has collected and recorded songs from her native Khorasan, many about the nomadic horse people of the region.

Kurdish Tanbur Players

In Kurdistan it is the tanbur, also a long-necked lute like the dotar, with two or three strings, that is central to the music. There are two centres of Kurdish tanbur playing and making: one around Guran where the belly is carved from a single piece of mulberry wood, the other around Sahneh where the belly is constructed from strips of wood. The tanbur is heard constantly in Kurdish folk music, but most remarkably at religious gatherings. It is considered a sacred instrument. There is a widespread, Sufi-like faith in Kurdistan whose adherents are called Yarsin, or Ahl-e Haqq (People of the Truth). It is a belief that is thought to predate Islam and includes songs to the sun, as well as to Islamic figures like Ali, the Prophet’s son-in-law, who is revered throughout Iran by the Shias. The tanbur is played at regular religious gatherings, as with the Alevis in Turkey.

One well-respected singer and tanbur player is Ostad Elahi (1895–1974), who widely recorded this repertoire, although his style is hard going for the uninitiated. More approachable is the music of Ali Akbar Moradi, currently the best player in the region. There is a substantial repertoire of sacred music that was only permitted to be heard by Ahl-e Haqq initiates. Worried that the tradition might be lost, Moradi sought permission from the spiritual leaders to record these ritual maqam for the first time and they’ve been released on the French Inédit label. The most famous group performing Kurdish folk music is The Kamkars, members of one family who are also talented players of classical Persian music.

Other Regional Highlights

In the hot and inhospitable territory of Makran in Baluchistan, split between Iran and Pakistan, there’s a strong musical tradition associated with religious Sufi music, trance and healing. The music is played by the Luri caste who were linked by the eleventh-century Persian poet Firdausi to the Indian (Gypsy) musicians invited in the fifth century to play for the Persian Shah. The Luri musicians of Baluchistan play the extraordinary sorud fiddle, carved out of a single piece of wood and shaped strangely like a skull. It has a shimmering spooky sound, with resonant sympathetic strings. Other local instruments include the damburag (long-necked lute), donali (double ney) and the benjo (keyed zither).

In the mountains of central Iran, the raucous sorna (shawm) is played amongst the Bakhtiari and in Lorestan, which is also famous for its folk kamancheh players. Down on the Persian Gulf in Bandar-e Abbas and Qeshm Island, there are many “black” Iranians, descended from Arabs and African slaves. They have their own distinctive music with African percussion or Arabic oud. If you’re in the region, search out the Jahlé band (Bandar-e Abbas) and oud player Mohammad Sedigh Kamali (Qeshm).

Iranian Pop

In the early twentieth century, there were various types of traditional urban music styles in Iran, but from the 1950s musicians began adopting Western musical styles and instruments. By the 1970s a strong pop industry had emerged – along with a core repertoire of nostalgic love songs – and this was the music that most people listened to at a time when classical music was increasingly regarded as out of touch with a modernizing country.

Iranian pop music drew – and draws – on elements from folk and classical traditions but using Western instruments such as electric guitar, keyboards, bass and drums. Its stars are exclusively singers, and their repertoire largely comprises love songs and nostalgic ballads.

With the banning of all pop music (both Iranian and Western) after the 1979 Revolution, many Iranian musicians left the country and settled in Europe or North America. The biggest influx was to Los Angeles – Tehrangeles to the million-strong immigrant Iranian population – where a thriving music scene has developed.

Since 1998 (following the election of reformist President Khatami in May 1997), restrictions on pop music in Iran have eased considerably. There are now a large number of local pop singers and bands whose music is available on commercial recordings as well as through the broadcast media and occasional public concerts (although obtaining government permission for the latter can prove problematic). With Iran’s growing youth culture – and bearing in mind that an estimated 70 percent of the population is under the age of 30 – this “new pop” music has gained a considerable following.

There is also a growing grass-roots rock music scene, although only a small number of bands have managed to gain government permission to record and perform in public (note that any public performance or commercial recording has to be authorized by Vezarat-e Ershad, the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance). However, much of this music is available on band websites. 

Pop Artists

The most popular pre-Revolution pop singer was Googoosh – who chose to stay in Iran even though she was unable to perform there. In 2000, Googoosh left Iran and (after more than twenty years of silence) toured North America and Europe, performing to ecstatic audiences in packed stadiums and concert halls. She now lives in Toronto. Other important singers, who moved to Los Angeles and have kept the old ballad tradition alive in performance and on cassette, include the female singers Homeirah, Hayedeh and Mahasti and the male Shahram, Morteza and Hodi.

Alongside them, a new generation of LA-based musicians (many of whom have never been to Iran) have created more uptempo songs with driving rhythms, or experimented mixing Iranian styles with rap and dance music. Their instruments are all Western, except for occasional use of an Iranian drum, but the rhythms are often based on folk and popular Iranian rhythms, and it is this, as well as the melodies and lyrics, which gives the music its particularly “Iranian” feel. This is music to dance to, and forms an essential ingredient at any Iranian social gathering.

American-based singers and groups to listen out for include Siavash, whose production is always good, although he tends to overdo the synthesized sounds; Moein, always a favourite with his warm vocal sound; and Andy, strongly influenced by Western pop, as are The Black Cabs and The Boys.

Post-1998 pop singers in Iran include Mohammad Esfahani, Ali Reza Assar and Shadmehr Aqili (who moved to Canada in 2000). The first pop band – the highly successful Arian – was formed in 1999 and has released five albums to date, as well as touring extensively both in Iran and abroad. Many others have followed in their footsteps and there are now a number of local pop bands. As for other kinds of popular music, the first rocks bands to gain authorization for commercial releases were Barad (in 2003) and Meera (2004). The folk-rock fusion group Pallett also made an impact with their debut album, Mr Violet, which broke sales records in Iran, and have toured extensively outside Iran.

There is even one officially approved rapper, Shahkar Binesh-Pajouh, dubbed the “dapper rapper” who rather makes fun of the form, dressing in a suit and bow-tie to rap about Tehran’s elite. “Underground” there are plenty more rappers and rock groups, like O-Hum who use the fourteenth-century lyrics of Hafez for their rock songs. O-Hum hasn’t been granted a licence, not because of risqué words, but because rock’n’roll Hafez isn’t considered proper. Much of this music circulates on the Internet (and young Iranians are avid browsers and bloggers) through sites like www.zirzamin.me.

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