Persian Melodies

How Vancouver became a hub for Persian classical music

In Vancouver, I find the far-flung edge of the Persian empire by way of the Sea Bus, the aging ferry that crosses from downtown to the North Shore, where thousands of Iranians have settled over the better part of a decade.

As I arrive at the terminal, I am greeted by the pale, freckled faces of girls who may be the offspring of the Scottish stock that came here in the 1940s and 1950s to work on the docks. Soon a tall, dark man with a neat moustache and goatee pulls up in an unassuming red Toyota. As we drive past BC Transit buses and up the road toward the mountains, it’s easy to forget that I’m sitting next to one of the most famous Persian musicians in the world.

“I feel at home here. It’s just like being in Iran,” says Hossein Behroozinia, renowned player of the barbat, or Persian lute, smiling as he drives past shops and restaurants with Farsi signage en route to his house in North Vancouver.

“But the roads are a bit safer,” I point out, remembering Tehran’s terrible traffic.

“Yes, you are right,” says Behroozinia, suddenly more sombre as he tells me of his sisters recent death in a hit-and-run accident in the Iranian capital. “She was on her way to a rehearsal for the Tehran Symphony Orchestra,” he recounts. “She was a very talented singer.”

In these days of heated rhetoric by unpopular presidents in Tehran and Washington, DC, the Tehran Symphony Orchestra is perhaps not the first thing about Iran that springs to mind. But it’s quite a good one by all accounts, and surprisingly features men and women side by side, performing a mixed Western and Persian classical repertoire. While women’s voices are still considered demonic by the regime because they entice men to lustful thoughts Behroozinia explains that this only pertains to solo acts, and that groups of three or more women are now permitted to sing in public.

Deadly traffic, however, is the least of the problems endured by musicians in Iran. According to Behroozinia, the Byzantine process involved in merely staging a concert is a “bureaucratic nightmare,” with every lyric of every song submitted to the police and the Ershad (the Ministry of Islamic Guidance), and copious amounts of cash demanded for licences and permits.

Add to that a failing economy, sanctions, pervasive censorship, and rampant crime, and it’s easy to see why a place like Vancouver has such strong appeal to the growing community of Persian classical musicians. Mohammad Reza Shajarian, considered the best Persian classical singer in the world, has a home here; and musicians like Amir Koushkani, who has performed with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra as well as his own Persian jazz fusion group, Safa, are making forays into Western musical idioms. While Los Angeles is still the centre of Persian pop music, Vancouver is slowly becoming a centre of classical Persian music, where terms like tar, daf, and setar are entering the local musical vernacular.

“When I first came here, in 1992,” explains Behroozinia as we arrive at his well-appointed home, with its rolling green lawns and mountain views, “I thought it was paradise.” Rather than feeling the sense of exile so common among immigrants, he finds Vancouver’s peace and quiet inspiring.

He has already established the Nava Art Centre, an academy that promotes traditional Persian music and poetry, and has acquired an entourage of enthusiastic young students. For his group of mainly twentysomething pupils, classical Persian music is a lifeline to their ancestral culture that transcends current political realities as neatly as the poetry of Rumi and Hafez offers escape from the realm of worldly struggle.

“When I play this music,” explains twenty-five-year-old Pouya Sabouri, one of Behroozinia’s best students, “it reminds me that we were once an empire. It makes me feel proud of my heritage.” Just as many Iranians look to their Zoroastrian past and its imagery winged horses, patron angels, and sacred fire as a way of celebrating an illustrious history in a less than certain present, classical music and the sung poetry of Rumi, Hafez, and Saadi offer a sense of identity far from the images of an increasingly unpopular regime.

But this new cultural identification is a nuanced one, full of a whole spectrum of greys rather than the black and white absolutism sometimes imagined by Western observers. As Behroozinia puts it, “In Iran, we have both a Zoroastrian and an Islamic heritage, and I don’t see any conflict between the two. Persian culture is so strong that no one can stop it. It will continue to grow and flourish in spite of everything.”

At a recent Shajarian concert at Vancouver’s Orpheum Theatre, the vitality of that culture is palpable. The master singers voice pierces the hearts of his listeners as his gorgeous tenor soars with the spirit of the Rumi poem he sings: “Give me a taste of the wine of union so that the door / of this eternal prison I may shatter frame by frame.”

The Iranian woman beside me weeps as Shajarian sings, his voice a transcendent instrument that caresses the quavering melodies. As his thirty-three-year-old son and protégé, Homayoun, sits beside him, and Behroozinia and four other musicians on tar, daf, kamancheh, and tombak wait on his every note, we are momentarily transported to the court of Darius. The master closes his eyes, rapt in his art. He opens his mouth, and out comes pure Persia, sung with painful longing.

While Persian classical music is inextricably linked to mystic Sufi poetry and thrived in the medieval royal courts, its fluidity and strength speak to a contemporary audience, and its stately, meditative style is combined with an emphasis on structured improvisation and vocal ornamentation. It is based on a system of musical exposition called dastgah, a set of melodic modes passed down from generation to generation. Like Turkish and Iraqi maqam, Persian classical music is mostly sung poetry. While most of the verse dates from the Middle Ages, the musical forms are said to go back some 3,000 years.

Whether Shajarian has transported his audience back millennia or simply to their prerevolutionary childhoods is unclear, but he has undoubtedly taken them on a journey.

At the end of his concert, the full house demands an encore with an enthusiastic standing ovation. When Shajarian sings “MorgheSahar” (“The Dawn Bird”), a poem written by twentieth century poet Malek o Shoara Bahar while he was in prison, the lyrics “I am a caged bird / please open the door and set me free” resonate deeply with the audience, and they cheer and clap with real passion. The few dozen non-Iranians in the audience look somewhat perplexed, and the staid Orpheum ushers are overwhelmed by the huge crowd that surrounds Shajarian and his band as they emerge into the lobby after the show.

Among the fans is Hossein Amanat, one of Iran’s best-known prerevolutionary architects, who designed Tehran’s famous Freedom Tower (originally called the Shahyad Tower “in memory of kings”). He appears deeply moved by the concert: “It makes me feel very close to this ancient culture so full of content but it makes me feel even more removed from this place.” The sixty-six-year-old Bahai, who fled Iran before the revolution, smiles thoughtfully and mentions that he is currently working on a condo tower in the suburbs.

A group of young Iranian students is among the fans who rush to catch a glimpse of their superstar. “He sings what we feel inside,” says Payman, who has driven all the way from Calgary (where he and his friends are studying engineering) just to attend the concert. Since they will return home next year, this may be one of their only opportunities to see Shajarian live in concert, as he rarely performs in Iran.

When I finally meet the sixty-eight-year-old Shajarian, who led the Persian classical music renaissance that began in earnest after the revolution and who was awarded the unesco Mozart Medal in 2006, he speaks frankly about the Iranian government.

I begin by saying that many people in the West may have the skewed idea that Iran’s society is almost talibani in its restrictions rather than a place of music, poetry, and culture, to which he replies, “Actually, if you compared the regime to the Taliban, you wouldn’t be far off. They are only allowing a certain degree of musical expression mainly on national radio and television, to lure listeners and viewers into hearing their own propaganda.”

Shajarian speaks as the son of a religious father opposed to secular music; he began his musical training singing Koranic verses. When he left his hometown in the northeast to study music in Tehran, he says, he felt liberated. He is famous for singing the lyrics not only of traditional poets like Rumi and Hafez, but more contemporary ones like Mehdi Akhavan Sales, who wrote “Scream,” which contains such politically charged lines as “My house is burning , my soul is on fire, I scream from the depths of my soul.”

The past, however, is alive and well in the hearts and minds of Vancouver’s Persian community, where prerevolutionary Iran remains almost fetishized. Even Shajarian, who still maintains an apartment in Vancouver, seems nostalgic when he speaks of the music scene before and after 1979. “You see, even the pop music before, it was played on Persian instruments. Now it’s synthesizers, drum machines, and vapid lyrics.” The outright ban on pop music for its “Western” influence after the revolution, he explains, resulted in a mini-renaissance of the classical tradition.

But, as ever, the loaded double meanings of traditional Persian sung poetry and the music’s sheer power mean that the Iranian authorities keep a close eye on both classical and pop music. Vancouver, with its mild climate and freedom from the watchful eye of the regime, increasingly offers a kind of musical refuge for Iranian artists, as well as a hospitable environment for East-West musical collaboration. While one would expect Shajarian to be a purist, he says of the growing Persian Canadian fusion fostered by Vancouver’s already established world music scene, “It’s important to mix music provided you do it in the right way because it brings people together.”

When Amir Koushkani first arrived in Vancouver in 1990, he never dreamt he would one day be performing with the city’s symphony orchestra. “Vancouver provided me with a great opportunity to nurture my talent,” says the forty-year-old tar player, who in 2004 composed perhaps the first ever concerto for tar and orchestra, for the Vancouver Symphony. “Canada is a multicultural country where there’s an appreciation for other cultures and a willingness to learn about them. In many ways, classical Persian music is less valued in Iran. People just don’t care about it.”

When I ask him about the brief honeymoon with Persian classical music in the immediate aftermath of the revolution, he says, “Revolution can bring people together or create a sense of temporary unity but its fake. There was a renewed sense of nationalism for a while that led to an interest in classical traditions, but it dissipated five or six years after the revolution.”

In Vancouver, Koushkani, who studied under Master Darioush Peerniakhan, found a supportive musical community as well as patronage from local Iranian notables like the Khosrowshahis (of Future Shop fame). It was also where he first studied Western classical music composition, at Simon Fraser University, with Owen Underhill. He is currently doing his masters in music at York University in Toronto, under David Mott.

Koushkani cites the openness of the local musical scene as a key factor in his development as a composer, noting that the VSO approached him about writing a concerto when he was still in university. His concerto for tar and orchestra features one tar, a full orchestra, and a complicated 5/16 rhythm; the challenge, he says, is in “getting the balance right.” He advises, “For anyone who wants to write East-West compositions, you must pay attention to dynamics. When you play an instrument that comes from Iranian culture, it’s not loud like a modern orchestra, which has a huge sound.” The difference in dynamics, he says, reflects a difference between musical cultures.

“In some ways, classical music has always been underground in Iran,” he says. “It was played in small ensembles, with the emphasis on solo musicians and private performance. It’s only been in the past 100 years that there’s been a concert tradition. While we were playing this music for intimate groups, at the same time in Europe people were making grand concertos for large audiences. Persian classical music was mainly court music, played for a wealthy elite.” There were exceptions, like the Nimatullahi Sufi order, which venerated music and sung poetry, says Koushkani. But it wasn’t until the end of the Qajar Dynasty (1794–1925) that cost-cutting measures aimed at appeasing public perception of a spendthrift court made musicians leave the palace walls and begin to seek students outside.

The experience of rhythm is also different in Iran, he explains. “Rhythm in the West relates to groups of people playing polyphonic music, and the focus is on the accents of the beat, but in Persian classical music were talking about solos, monophonic music with an emphasis on the pulsation of the rhythm. In a way, it’s more subjective; its what’s inside one persons head.”

According to Koushkani’s colleague in Safa, Sal Ferreras, a Puerto Rican Canadian professor of music, “The difficulty of expressing the subtle, almost introverted, nature of much Persian classical music in something as large and complex as a Western orchestra is that it immediately negates the use of many of the instruments.” Ferreras contends that the Persian emphasis on melody rather than harmony forces orchestra parts to duplicate the same melodic lines. The resulting “thickening” of a lyrical line, he says, is best interpreted by a “narrow sound spectrum.” According to Ferreras, a better fit for Persian music would be smaller baroque orchestras, chamber music ensembles, and string quartets.

Vancouver provides an unlikely musical common ground between the two musicians, especially, explains Ferreras, in the Latin rhythms he knows so well, which are themselves “born of the merging traditions of Spain, Portugal, and West Africa in the cauldron of colonial South America. Amir and I arrive at similar rhythmic solutions and places,” he says, “without ever having discussed or planned the outcome.” Similar fusions are found in local groups like Sangha, which combines Persian, Arabic, Indian, and jazz music, as well as in the style of Iranian Canadian singer Amir Haghighi, who along with his wife, Amy Stephen, experiments with Persian and Celtic folk music.

Ferreras contends that Western classical music’s harmonic canon unfortunately developed at the expense of the continuous evolution of melodic improvisation. The nuances of Persian tuning, what he calls “the discrete intervals between notes,” offer certain “colours of the melodic spectrum, the ability to shade pitches with inflections that, while subtle, give a particular cultural identity its audio logo.” It’s in this nuanced sensitivity that he finds a musical resonance with Koushkani.

Koushkani is currently writing a piece for the Vancouver Bach Choir and the vso, based on the poetry of Hafez, for Vancouver’s 2010 Olympic Arts Festival. He relishes the prospect of performing in his adopted hometown, where his 2004 concerto was received with such enthusiasm. “I really like Western classical audiences; they pay attention, and they really listen. The Persian audience isn’t as educated about classical music, so they listen in a different way, as if it’s just entertainment.” Koushkani cites the 500yearold Western tradition of public concerts and better musical education as a contributing factor.

But when I ask if there might be more of a future for Persian classical music in the West than in Iran, Koushkani is unsure. “Since Persian classical music relates so powerfully to language, to poetry, this music will die without the people. It’s a literary as well as a musical tradition, and it can’t exist independently from Iranian culture and society.”

While Persian classical music may have found a temporary refuge in Vancouver, it needs to grow and evolve in its home country. Even the great Shajarian says his music could not survive entirely in exile, and that he needs to “return to Iran to reconnect with the essence of what I sing.” Or as he sang recently at Vancouver’s Orpheum theatre, in the verse of Rumi: “I did not come here by my own volition so that I may return by my own decision / The One who brought me here shall also take me back to my native home.”

Still, Shajarian’s appearance in this Pacific Coast town highlights the growing power of the Persian community here, as well as the possibilities inherent in the meeting of an ancient culture and a young city. At the end of the concert, as the engineering students from Calgary wait shyly for their musical idol to emerge from the backstage entrance, Vancouver’s now almost vacant Seymour Street is momentarily transformed. Laughter and excited Farsi exclamations float up into the night sky. As Shajarian steps into a waiting minivan, fans offer him bouquets of roses, which he graciously accepts, greeting each person like an old friend.

Hadani Ditmars