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Art and Music Can Influence the World: In Conversation with Kamancheh Master Kayhan Kalhor Ahead of His Performance in Malaysia

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By Mohani Niza

Muslim World Today

Date of publication:
7th August 2018

We recently spoke to the Persian musical treasure Kayhan Kalhor in a special interview ahead of his performance in Malaysia this September. Kalhor is an internationally-acclaimed virtuoso on the kamancheh, an Iranian bowed string instrument which is also used in places such as Armenia, Azerbaijan and Turkey.

Kalhor has collaborated with other world-renowned artists. He founded the Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble which won the Grammy Award for Best World Music Album in 2017. He is credited for popularizing Persian music to the world.

Kalhor will perform at the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia on September 15 where he will be joined by setar virtuoso Kiya Tabassian and tombak marvel Ziya Tabassian. The Washington Post once wrote about their performance that “They brought a sense of the Eternal with every note they played!”

The performance is presented by PUSAKA in partnership with the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia, with the support of the Canada Council for the Arts, the High Commission of Canada in Malaysia, and official hotel PNB Perdana Hotel & Suites on The Park.

Below is the interview:

Muslim World Today: Can you describe to me how your journey in learning and performing music began?

Kayhan Kalhor: I was born into a family of music lovers. My parents were very fond of Persian classical music and my brother was a non-professional singer who later started instrument making. However, we never had a professional musician in our family. One day when I was five years old, my brother brought home a mysterious Persian santour – an instrument with many strings and an almost loud sound which mesmerized me at once. It was love at first sight with music. In a few days, I was able to play several songs that I had learnt by myself on that instrument. This was noticed by my parents. They asked me if I wanted to take music lessons and I gladly said yes. My father took me to a nearby music school and registered my name. I tried to play the Persian violin. I didn't know then that my teacher was one of the best possible teachers any child could have. A kind old man who was so giving and so patient. His name was Ostad Ahmad Mohajer.

MWT: Who are your biggest musical influences?

KK: I have learned and am still learning from many musicians by listening to them. However, I think my biggest influences were my first teacher Ostad Mohajer, and later on, the late Ostad Faramarz Payvar, who was undoubtedly one of Iran's most celebrated masters of all time. I was so blessed to meet him when I was twenty-one years old. As I said there were many masters whom I learned from in between, but meeting him and spending about eleven months of life with him, before he became fatally ill, was the most brilliant chapter in my musical life. He also became a mentor and father figure and helped me very much to learn about life and nurture an appreciation for many things that I didn't even know existed until that time. He was a true teacher.

MWT: How has your family influenced your musical career?

KK: As I said they loved music, and they were pleased and appreciative of whatever small achievements I accomplished in my early days. I think the best thing they did was to leave me to grow as a musician and not to limit me to choose my direction in life. I became confident that music would be my future when I was only thirteen or fourteen, and because of that I had to miss many of my classes at school and did not have a similar life to other kids my age. By this time, I was hired by a professional, and I had to go to work like any other orchestra member, every afternoon, most days of the week. Sometimes we had to stay very late at the studio for recordings. My older brother would stay with me and took me home at midnight. I think this part of it can be terrifying for any parents of a thirteen-year-old. Meanwhile, I had to pass my exams and finish high school like the others. I think my full and demanding schedule as a youngster was awkward for them to accept and be a part of. I was fortunate that they walked through different stages of my career with openness and patience. I guess this was the most significant influence when I think of it after almost forty years.

MWT: When you were young, did you aspire to work as something else besides an artist?

KK: Like any other child, I liked airplanes very much and wanted to become an airline pilot. I didn't know that music would make me a permanent passenger of planes for decades. So, I guess my relationship with aviation is still there but I’m in a different role. In my early twenties, I became fascinated with architecture and started to read many books about it. This is still one of my main areas of interest, but of course I never had enough time to study it as music demanded almost all of my time.

MWT: Can you tell me about the time you were introduced to the kamancheh? What was that experience like?

KK: First I should explain that back in those days there were only a few serious kamancheh players around. Kamancheh-playing was an almost dying art. There was an old master who played once in a while on the national TV. Later I learned that he was the most important master of kamancheh in Iran in those days. His name was Ostad Ali Asghar Bahari.

I fell in love with the sound of Kamancheh immediately when I saw him, and I was sure that I found my instrument. I was ten when that happened, but the problem was that there were no Kamancheh teachers in the city where I lived and Ostad Bahari lived in Tehran. To make this harder, it was not possible to find an instrument to play on. My brother who was nine years older than me, and who used to solve all of my problems, found a not so good Kamancheh for me. That was the only instrument we could find at that time. I started to play on it by myself by watching and listening to Ostad Bahari while I played violin in the Orchestra. In a few years, I found a teacher to pursue kamancheh with and that became my principal instrument.

MWT: What is your daily routine like, when it comes to music?

KK: When music becomes your profession and you travel a great deal to perform, there are no routines. Sometimes you have to perform in Los Angeles and go to the airport after the concert to fly to some European destination. Stay there a day or two and somewhere else the next day. So, practice time, sleeping, and everything else is subjected to your touring schedule. I get to be at home for short periods of time, but when I'm home, I try to rest a bit and catch up with my writing or composing work. Anyone who lives a touring life knows that the word routine does not mean anything in a touring artist's life.

MWT: Music is something that has been heavily regulated in Iran since the Islamic Revolution took place. Has your music been under scrutiny? How has the government of Iran responded to your music?

KK: There were some difficulties in the early days of the revolution, but the stories that the Western media portrays of Iranian society and life in Iran, in general, are not a realistic ones. From time to time there is an opposition to perform a concert in a religious city, but this is mainly a reflection of the political power struggle between different fronts to prove their power. We see less and less of this these days. I encountered a few problems to perform in a few cities when I was touring Iran last year, but I did play almost seventy concerts in three months in all of Iran after all. So, the situation depends on the political climate rather than a religious one. Iranian society is a young and alive one who loves music and arts, and I think I have the most youthful audience in the world when I play in Iran, which makes me very happy and assured about the future of music and the arts.

MWT: What do you hope your music can achieve, aside from entertaining the audience?

KK: I think the arts in general, and music as an essential part of it, form the cultural section of each society. I believe that in any well-balanced society three elements are essential to fulfil our needs as humans and lead us to a better life where we can enjoy, respect and appreciate life as humans and form durable happiness and success as world citizens. These three elements are politics, economy, and culture, which mutually feed and propel each other to become either more productive or vice-versa. They all have equal importance and in the absence of one the others cannot function properly or will result in corruption.

For instance, if we have a cultured society, we will have better politics and will know our rights and will elect better politicians to work towards making a better community. Good politics will lead to an excellent and uncorrupted economy, which in turn should healthily nourish culture. Bad politics, on the other hand, leads to a corrupt economy and no cultural infrastructure. So every element in its own right helps to build a functioning society with fewer problems on every front. You can even see more human rights and environmental awareness and less violence and crime in a community that has the right balance between these critical elements. So, we mainly need to have art and music as a part of that to build the cultural section of each society and the world as a result of that. We cannot live without music. I feel this makes what I do very important. Furthermore, I think that I and other artists are the cultural ambassadors of our people and represent them around the world. We have the honor of introducing a very ancient and essential culture that has contributed a great deal to art, wisdom, and knowledge to human societies around the world.

MWT: You place a great sense of hope on the youths of Iran, according to what you wrote in an op-ed in the Dallas Morning News in May. Why do you say that and what differentiates the youths of Iran today compared to their parents’ generation?

KK: I hope this is the case. However, I think the new generation of Iran is more ambitious and knowledgeable than the old one. This probably is the trend around the world but, considering the political climate of Iran today and the false propaganda going around against Iranian society, we all feel that we need to be heard and that we (as anyone else in this world regardless of where and under what political rulers they live), should not be identified with our politicians. So, I think I or any artist coming from my country has a more difficult job to present their art. I doubt any European or American musicians are being asked the same kind of political questions that we as Iranian artists are always asked!

MWT: What do you look forward to the most in your upcoming performance in Malaysia?

KK: To close my eyes, play and feel the vibe of the Malaysian audience and see what kind of experience that would be for me and how I could get a message from one of the oldest cultures of the world to them, from one Asian culture to another Asian culture. I am always willing to learn every day. I'm sure I will learn a lot from Malaysians as well.

MWT: What do you hope the audience in Malaysia would bring back from your performance?

KK: To experience and remember the kind of beauty, peace, and serenity that we have inherited from our ancestors, who would want us to feel and live with it all the time. We often tend not to be attentive to this beauty, but when we immerse ourselves in it, it resonates with what is eternal inside us.