All Heaven Breaks Loose

Masters of Persian Music

At UCSB’s Campbell Hall, Tuesday, February 28.

The scale of this event took me by surprise, especially since the magnitude of it was not immediately apparent. Campbell Hall was full and buzzing, but the lights were already down by the time I got to my seat and I couldn’t really tell who was there — students and faculty, of course, plus various open-minded folks from the community. Still, that is not the kind of crowd to generate the almost religious feeling of expectation I was sensing all around me.

There was a raised platform on the stage, covered with carpets and strewn with cushions. There were spaces for four performers, with two microphones, suggesting two vocalists. At first, there was only Hossein Alizadeh with his tar, a stringed instrument held and played like a guitar, sounding (to me) like a cross between a 12-string and a sitar. Alizadeh played an extended solo, intricate and somewhat chromatic, an exploratory probe into the musical past of the Iranian plateau. When he finished, he rose to generous, contained applause, acknowledged it with an elegant nod, and walked off stage.

When he returned with three other men, the crowd exploded. If I say it was like Elvis had suddenly materialized before us, I mean no disrespect; I am only trying to give an idea of the tidal wave of admiration that flowed from the auditorium to the stage — mainly directed at the singer, Möhammad Reza Shajarian. When the publicity material referred to his status in Iran, I guess I didn’t quite grasp the scale of the whole thing. He is a figure of extreme veneration, not unlike a religious veneration in tone (if that is not blasphemy).

When he began to sing, I understood immediately. He is a performer of immense range and power, either solo or singing with his son, Homayoun, who also plays the tombak, a bongo-like drum. With Alizadeh on tar, and Kayhan Kalhor, a virtuoso of the kamancheh (spike fiddle), they played and sang far into the night.

I didn’t understand a word of the songs, but their emotional content was unmistakable. It was almost like an opera, in effect. There was a large contingent of Persians in the crowd, who knew all the musicians and held them in the highest esteem. For me, it was an exotic and powerful and musically rewarding experience; for them, it was news from home. ■

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