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I knew reviewing Salar Aghili and the Raz-o-Niaz Ensemble, with special guest Hossein Behroozinia, would be a difficult task, even before the gentleman introducing the musicians began speaking in Farsi. Though the rich sound of Persian traditional music has often fascinated me, I know little about its structures or history beyond an emphasis on modes and a few tidbits gleaned online. Nonetheless, when I found out about this concert featuring one of the young masters of Persian song, sponsored by Duke University, the Iranian Cultural Society of North Carolina and the Persian Cultural Center of North Carolina in honor of the name-day feast Mehregan, I had to go.
The introductory speech, not to mention all of the lyrics, was in an unfamiliar language, which surely means this non-Farsi-speaker’s review will be less than ideal. So is it possible to convey something of the flavor of the concert from the perspective of a complete novice? I think so. We’ll start by noting the show was astonishingly intense and captivating, and completely won over the crowd.
Seated in the center of a semi-circle with the ensemble he put together in 1998, Salar Aghili sang his heart out. There were 6 instruments onstage: three strings, a reed and two percussionists. The stringed instruments were komanche, a bowed four-string fiddle/violin; tar, a plucked fretted lute, and the fretless barbat, played by special guest Behroozinia. The reed flute, a ney, was played with what seemed at times an odd open-mouthed style; the percussion was a large frame drum, a daf, and the sheepskin drum known as a tombak.
They all got their chance to shine.
The focus of the evening, of course, was Salar Aghili’s voice. Rich and full enough to easily fill Page Auditorium, paired in extended segments with both the full ensemble and individual instruments, filled with yearning and swooping from high to low and loud to quiet with ease, that voice was simply transcendent. This listener accustomed to the Western classical tradition heard a nasal quality that some might need to get used to (I loved the edge it provided), but Aghili’s power and control would be obvious and undeniable to any fan of European opera. There were moments that are difficult to describe; even without knowing the meaning of the lyrics, I could understand that Aghili’s treatment at times dissolved the words into pure spiritual sound, in a way that reminded me of, well, Van Morrison playing with vocals on his groundbreaking album Astral Weeks. Sufi mysticism, early Van Morrison…are the similarities obvious to anyone else?
The astonishing vocals weren’t the only amazing thing about the evening. Most surprising to me were 1) the truly humble way Salar Aghili shared the stage with the other musicians, and 2) the looseness of the song structures, which allowed for extended solo passages and plenty of gorgeous free improvisation. The crowd especially went wild over Kamran Montazeri’s brilliantly groovy tombak solo – one of the best percussion solos I’ve ever heard, in any genre of music – but each performer had room to show off his or her instrument.
Again, I’m not the ideal reviewer for this concert. The program tells me the evening was split into two sections, with Part One in Mahour & Dashti Modes and Part Two in Esfahan & Nava Modes, but I’d be lying if I told you I understood what that meant. I tried to listen for the difference, but was too swept away by the power of the group’s performance. In all honesty, I suspect the same is true for many of the Farsi-speaking members of the audience. One thing is very clear, however: the crowd loved it. The cheers and applause grew noticeably louder as each song ended, with a spontaneous standing ovation in the midst of the first set, and two wonderful encores at the end. There were roses thrown, children on stage and an obvious communal vibe in the room among local Iranian-Americans that I felt honored to participate in; all in all, a fabulous evening.
One final note: I’ll admit I was hoping to hear a more overt political element in the concert, not least because of the stand taken last year by Mohammad Reza Shajarian (http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/babylonbeyond/2009/09/iran-famous-singer-shajarian-decries-language-of-fire.html), an acknowledged master in the tradition Salar Aghili is continuing. Perhaps it was there, in the words I couldn’t understand.
Or perhaps it was there, in the music already. Beyond language.