Kalhor Sets Rumi-Related Music in Hollywood Bowl

Kayhan Kalhor, Silkroad Ensemble
Iran Times

The Silk Road Ensemble featuring the kamancheh player Kayhan Kalhor and vocalist Hamidreza Nurbakhsh will perform a concert centered on the port Rumi September 27 at the famed Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles.

Entitled, "A Celebration of Rumi: The Sights and Sounds of Mystic Persia," the concert will also feature Nur-Mohammad Dorpur, a traditional dotar player from the Khorasan region, the Whirling Dervishes of Damascus with Sheikh Hamza Chakour and Ensemble Al-Kindi, the Qaderi Dervishes of Kurdistan.

The Grammy Award-winning cellist Yo-Yo Ma, who is also the artistic director for the Silk Road Project and its founder, will accompany the musicians during the historic performance that will for the first time see Iranian musicians performing at the Hollywood Bowl.

The Silk Road Ensemble and Yo-Yo Ma held an open rehearsal of their new pieces September 7 at the Tanglewood Music Center in Massachusetts.  The group is also expected to give the opening performance at the 10-day Westobou Festival, at Augusta State University in Georgia, beginning September 18.

The Silk Road Ensemble is a group of internationally renowned musicians exploring cross-cultural exchanges between lands of the ancient Silk Road and the West through concerts, festivals, exhibitions, educational outreach, recordings, publications, and the commissioning of new musical works.

Kalhor, 45, was born in Tehran where he began studying the kamancheh-an upright four-stringed Persian fiddle known for its lamenting and voice-like sound-at the age of seven.  Just six years later, he started playing with Iran's National Orchestra of Radio and Television.

Shortly after the Islamic revolution, Kalhor left Iran to pursue music studies.  He lived in several Western countries, including Canada, where he studied music composition at Carleton University in Ottawa.

Kalhor has worked on many cross-cultural musical collaborations including Ghazal, a duo with the Indian sitarist Shujaat Husain Khan. The sitar and kamancheh work well together, Kalhor said, mainly because of the "affinity of the two cultures" and their many historical connections.

Kalhor has also performed with the New York Philharmonic and at the Mostly Mozart Festival and is scheduled to perform at New York's Carnegie Hall October 18, after the recent release of his collaborative album "Silent City."  But Kalhor said he rarely performs in his home country because of the bureaucracy involved in giving a concert.

In 2000, the Iranian musician met members of the Brooklyn, New York-based string quartet Brooklyn Rider at Tanglewood.  The quartet's members include violinists Colin Jacobsen and Jonathan Gandelsman, violist Nicholas Cords and cellist Eric Jacobson.

At Tanglewood, the quartet took part in Yo-Yo Ma's Silk Road Project; it was there that Kalhor was introduced to Brooklyn Rider and the Silk Road Project.

 "We enjoyed each other on first meeting and were fascinated with his [Kalhor's] world, but at the beginning wouldn't have dreamed of making this recording together," Cords said of their "Silent City" album-the result of what Cords said was eight years of learning and experimentation.

"Silent City," the somber song the album was named after, commemorates Halabjah-a Kurdish village depopulated by a chemical weapons attack in the Iran-Iraq war.  The song is included on the newly released album on the World Village label, which Kalhor recorded with Brooklyn Rider.

The song opens with a murmuring of the strings, eerily evoking the swirling dust of barren ruins, with a Kurdish melody heralding the rebuilding of the destroyed village. The song has a particular significance for Kalhor, who was born in Tehran to a family of Kurdish descent. The sound of the kamancheh is "warm and very close to the human voice," he told The New York Times.

Kalhor insists on a deep understanding of the musical cultures he works with. "Nowadays with a lot of musical collaborations and fusion music, it's obvious that the performers really don't know each other's culture," he said. "Sometimes, I think the producers just put four different guys from different cultures in a studio and want them to jam. This is not going to be my approach."

As an Iranian musician who frequently performs for Western audiences, Kalhor told The New York Times he inevitably faced political questions. But he stressed that he was a cultural ambassador, not a politician. "We are always in the middle of politics," he said, laughing. "We go to a concert and boom, a political question about the government, about the president, etc."

For that reason, his ensemble with the celebrated Iranian singer Mohammad Reza Shajarian, the singer Homayoun Shajarian and the lute player Hussein Alizadeh is called the Masters of Persian Music, not Iranian Music. "For political reasons, I think we didn't want people to think it has anything to do with today's politics of Iran or the U.S. or any culture for that matter," Kalhor said, adding that Persian culture goes back much further. "When we say Persian we don't mean today's Iranian borders."

Traditional Persian melodies inspire much of the album, a recording whose pieces are composed and arranged by Kalhor, Colin Jacobsen, the violist Ljova and the Iranian santur player Siamak Aghaei. The bassist Jeffrey Beecher, the percussionist Mark Suter and Aghaei also perform.