Music and Festivities in Iranian Cultures


Farhang va Pazhuhesh, Biweekly Magazine
No. 157, Aug. 17th, 2004, Page 19-23
By : Sassan Fatemi


Since ancient time music has been inseparable from festivities in the Iranian cultures, so that joyful occasions are never observed without music. Besides the type and quality of the music performed during various ceremonies determine their success. The close association between festivities and music may indicate that they are both of the same nature and take place concurrently. This may even mean that both follow a single purpose. Yet the more important reason for their coming together may be related to their decisive role in establishing contacts and sociability. The atmosphere and time of festivities determined by the public criteria to respond to the public taste including the families, women, men, the young and the old along with the type of music and the method of its presentation underline this feature.

It is quite obvious that public festivities and joyful occasions cannot be imagined without music. Though expressing happiness varies in different cultures, any culture marked with joyful occasions without music is hardly conceivable. Despite the lack of knowledge on the reason for such a close worldwide association between music and festivities, hardly any research has so far been conducted on the anthropology of music (anthomusicology) and no concrete outlook has ever been presented on the issue. Such a failure even seems more unaccountable when one considers the remarkable commonalties between the festivities held in different places worldwide.

Music and festivities seem to have many commonalties in the culture of Iran and other countries known for their Iranian culture including Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Azerbaijan. Though there is no definite theory about the link of music to festivity and feeling of joy in the literature of the anthropology of music, noteworthy ideas have been presented on the issue by a number of researchers. "Music in Festivity" written by a French Researcher Bernard Loretta-Jacob (1994), which examines three distinct cultures including that of Barbarians from Upper Morocco as well as the rural areas of Sardinia and Romania, is undoubtedly one of the most reliable texts ever written in this regard.

Based on the views brought up by the French researcher, this article aims to clarify some of the aspects of the relation between music and festivity in the Iranian cultures. The first assumption in the beginning of Loretta-Jacob's book is brought up by raising the following question: "Does the similarity between festivity and music account for their coming together?"

Festivity and music both take place in time. The latter is often defined as an art of time. In fact, as an art of time, music is distinguished from others such as the visual arts, which are arts of place. Development of a musical piece and its being understood needs time. As a basic musical element, rhythm presents the lapse of time. Meanwhile, festivity is the art of organizing an event in time. Similar to music, this one also takes place based on a general schedule, while improvisation plays a role in it.

In other words, festivity motivates a paradoxical freedom and leads to self-motivation. Therefore, as a basic structure, festivity is comparable to a musical system -- a set of harmonious and integrated rules and value. Within the framework of secondary rules, a musical system presents the form and ability of creativity to the musician.

There is a general plan for holding festivities in the Iranian cultures, which similar to worldwide cases is developed in the mind as a model. Just like other traditional rules it is so flowing and undetermined that can hardly ever be materialized. It is rather an ideal model having failed to become a law due to lack of authority. Nonetheless it resists being frozen. Most of musical systems are almost the same way. This is particularly true about those whose rules have become secondary, while such ideal models almost serve as a basis for all musical impromptu.

Apparently impromptu music is created on the basis of models just marked by a general scheme, instead of a definite and established piece of music. The fact that there is no definite and stable process in festivities is quite evident form the problems facing the anthropologists in acquiring accurate information from local sources. The most obvious explanations obtained from the people interviewed are soon denied by themselves once they go into more details, indicated by such phrases as: "There may some occasions ...", "Some don't do such a thing...", "Not always, except..." among others. Such insignificant comments may at times make great anthropologists puzzled. Nonetheless, what is important is the possibility of improvisation under special conditions and in view of the general policies.

In the northern Mazandaran province, the festivities are held in the open space (in the yard) during the daytime and a traditional musical group known as Lutis play sorna and naqareh (a type of drum) or sorna and dohol (another kind of drum). The music is accompanied by dance, either by Lutis or the guests. After sunset, the festivities are held indoors, where various festivities are held according to the gender and age of the guests. Chamber music is the type of music commonly played indoors and it consists of the following musical instruments: dotar, kamancheh, peasant flute, while songs are sung in accompaniment to music. In old days, the wedding ceremonies in Tehran were held in the courtyards and traditional players called Motreb Ruhozi (one playing special type of traditional music on a covered pool) used to play music from 18:00 to midnight. Besides actors usually staged a particular type of show known as Siahbazi. According to the research conducted by John Billy, the wedding ceremonies in the city of Herat also started at the house yard around 18:00. The guests took cups of tea and listened to music up to 20:00 or 21:00, when they were called for supper. The guests started dancing after having supper and the actors performed shows. Then the bridegroom was taken to men's parlor on a special chair. After singing several songs and performing a few rituals, the bridegroom was taken to women's parlor. Dancing and music continued until the ceremony ended by playing solemn music and singing hymns.

The most important similarity between the two are the fluctuations taking place including the moments of tension and tranquility, climax and downfall as well as their points of weakness and strength. For instance, the interval between the supper and carrying the bridegroom to women's section on a special chair during the wedding ceremonies in Herat explained by Billy is the climax of the ceremony. Meanwhile, the ceremonies held after sunset and supper in marital festivities in Mazandaran and Tehran respectively mark moments of tranquility. Such a comparison is not only valid when festivities and music are assessed as two independent events, but even the distinct moments in such ceremonies become influenced by the similar moments in their musical aspect to a great extent. This is also true about the Romanian gypsy music about which Loretta Jacob conducted research.

The music of Mazandarani Lutis is based on the rule of gradual gain of tempo, which takes place gradually and in harmony with the warming up of the ceremony to reach its final climax. The phenomenon can be observed in performance of two old repertoires commonly played in Bokhara and occasionally in the repertoires performed in Tehran.

Given that festivity is taken as a venue for performing music and reminiscent of such performance, it may be viewed as a musical conservatory. Loretta Jacob himself noticed this same feature in the cultures on which he conducted research, in particular that of Barbarians from upper Morocco, where almost all types of musical repertoires are performed during a wedding ceremony including hymns and dance music. A similar example can be observed in Mazandaran. Though religious music doesn't play a significant role in this northern province, general musical repertoires are performed during wedding ceremonies including songs with or without narration as well as melodies played by peasant flutes. On the other hand, a significant part of repertoires marking happy occasions are played in wedding ceremonies by sorna and naqareh. Mazandarani musicians all agree that their local music has been derived from the very core of festivities. They believe that wedding ceremonies are the best place for promotion and even production of music. In the Central Asian states, a variety of music is performed during marital festivities.

Despite lack of musical variety and diversity of festivities in Iran including the venue for performing and teaching music, musicians in Baku enjoy such variety, particularly in case of festivities. In the Azeri capital of Baku, light music and songs are presented along with classical music in festivities. According to the specialists, ceremonial occasions provide the best opportunity for learning music. Vameq Mohammad Aliyev, an Azeri player of Tar said, "We used to add to our skills during such ceremonies. There were a few players who had a good musical understanding and know-how so that if someone made a mistake in playing, they would notice and point it out." According to Jabbar Qar Yaghdi Oghlou, the ceremonies are similar to schools, where one has the chance to add to his/her expertise.

The festivities observed by the community is the main issue. As a matter of fact, festivity is taken as a social commemoration and music is undoubtedly one of the most significant tools used in such occasions. However, there is another similar link between music and festivity at a different level. Here we would like to mention one of Allen Meriams' (1964:224) ten applications of music: giving value to rituals. In other words, music also makes festivities more valuable and interesting. In many cases, joyful ceremonies are considered as a success when good music is played during them.

The service rendered to festivities by music is eventually appreciated and rewarded. According to Loretta Jacob, while festivity gives value to the community and makes use of music as a tool to this end, music itself takes an active part in a social event. This proves that music is not just a medium with aesthetic values and individual enjoyment. In some cases, festivity can even give music a mere entity. The community approves of playing music in festivities. As a consequence, its entity is recognized by the public. Bans on music in some communities are usually lifted during festivities. For instance, the Barbarians from Upper Morocco are not allowed to listen to music at the presence of their fathers, father-in-laws, mother-in-laws and it would be shameful to do so. However, during weddings such bans are lifted, given that the best part of the ceremony is held at the village square, where the villagers gather, irrespective of their relation to one another.

The link of the music and festivity to the community even goes beyond this. In fact, the two not only give the community a chance to display its sociability, but both of them underline the social distinctions by dividing the space and time. In many instances, division of time and space stresses that of gender and age, while in others it distinguishes the boundary separating the family from the public.

Both in Mazandaran and ancient Tehran, as the bride and bridegroom leave their families and the bride's dowry is taken from the bride's house to the bridegroom's, the a public atmosphere prevails. On such occasions, music mostly serves to disseminate the news and is performed by noisy instruments such as sorna and dohol or sorna and naqareh. In Tehran it was played by players from the royal Naqareh-khaneh, who were replaced by military bands during the reign of Nassereddin Shah. In Mazandaran, the Lutis play music in front of the group accompanying the bride and bridegroom.

In the city of Bokhara, important occasions such as marital ceremonies are usually held in the alley, while a painted curtain was hung at its end in order to specify the related boundary. Though the festivities are private and attended by family members and relatives, almost all the residents of the neighborhood helped in arranging the events and participated in them. During the weddings in Tehran marked by Ruhozi shows and those in Mazandaran held in the court yard, all along the ceremony the neighbors and residents of the neighborhood appeared on the roofs overlooking the yard where the wedding was taking place and thus watched the ceremony without being officially invited.

During the Qajar era, separate wedding ceremonies were held for men and women in the city of Tehran. According to the evidences, more attention was given to marital ceremonies held for women who were held indoors. At times, rich families held such ceremonies in separate houses simultaneously. Given that the actual wedding ceremony was held at the presence of female guests, women's musical groups overshadowed those of men both in skill and the number of players. Meanwhile, this did not apply to Ruhozi show which was performed by both men and women on the covered pool. Towards the end of the show women mainly dominated it, after which male groups played the major part of the music and outnumbered women.

In the city of Bokhara, ceremonies held for women and men are not only separated in place, but they take place in different times. However, here most of the marital ceremonies are held for women and men in one house, while they are separated from each other by a curtain hanging in-between. In general, memorials are attended by few men. They are rather frequented by women. In the ceremonies attended by women, soft music along with dance is preferred, but the female guests hardly ever dance themselves. They rather let professional dancers accompanying the musical groups take care of the dancing.

On the other hand, the ceremonies attended by men are more serious and ceremonial. They actually resemble rituals. Men's ceremony is held on a different day. They are held in the bridegroom's and bride's house in turn. During the ceremony, which is merely attended by men, just a few solemn pieces of the Central Asian classical music repertoires are performed. The guests usually don't stay long, but leave after having the traditional food (a mixture of rice and carrot) to give others the chance to come in.

Though a great number of relatives and acquaintances of the bride and bridegroom participate in the ceremony, since they keep moving about and hardly take a seat for a long time there is no need for a large space.

In Herat, the wedding ceremony takes place for men and women concurrently and in two adjacent yards. Women's ceremony is longer than men and is held in an atmosphere similar to than attended by men, but is less decorous. The distinction between the music played in men's and women's ceremonies is also observed here, while the difference between them is much less. The presence of children in women's ceremonies who keep running around makes the festivity less formal, while the music played here is of the popular type and includes Herati melodies and songs.

A more clear sample of the divisions based on gender and age is displayed in Mazandaran province. After sunset the participants move into the house, where three separate ceremonies are held: one for women, another for men and a third one which is a division of men according to their age.

Various methods of organizing the ceremonies are exercised and they are either held simultaneously and in one place, at different times and places. Besides divisions are made according to the musical tastes of the participants, their age and gender.

At times such dual approaches are not exercised while organizing the festivity, as is the case with the Barbarians of the upper Morocco witnessed by Loretta-Jacob.

At times unity in place is observed, while there is no unity in time. In Bokhara, men and women attend wedding ceremonies separately and the community is divided on the basis of gender. Such distinction is also observed in music, where solemn music is mainly played for men and light music for women at different times.

At other times, there is unity in time and none in place. Herat is an example, where two ceremonies are held for men and women in two separate house yards simultaneously. Likewise, in Mazandaran, separate ceremonies are held simultaneously not only based on division of gender, but by age group, given each have their own musical preference.

Thus, the music itself seems to divide the time and space to a great extent. It even leads to division of time even when it is played in a single place and for a single audience (including men and women, young and old). In Bokhara, the repertoires are performed in several parts each of which take around 30-40 minutes. In ancient Tehran Ruhozi shows were divided into two sections: music and shows.

As a conclusion, it may be said that music is inseparable from festivity. Without music, there will be no festivity, whose quality mainly depends on that of music performed during the event. Their inseparability may actually mean that they are one and the same. Both take place in time and abide by a single grammar. Meanwhile, both of them are systematic, institutionalized and self-motivating. The most important point about them may be their crucial role in sociability and establishing contacts. The ceremonial atmosphere of festivities are being divided based on the public criteria including family, gender and age along with the type of music and its method of performance. Festivities are a call on the public and underlines sociability, which is a proof that the community is subdivided into smaller units. During festivities, the atmosphere of small divisions is separated from one another. In the meantime, festivities are an occasion for rituals and social joy. Music is the most significant tool that can be used in both occasions. The call and preparation is organized through music. By playing a role in making a call on the public and organizing such ceremonies, the music promotes sociability and division of the community into smaller parts.



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