Masters of Persian Music

At UCSB’s Campbell Hall, Tuesday, February

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

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

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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