October 25, 2006


Persian, Anatolian Music Captivates U.S. Audiences

Master musicians Kalhor and Erzinçan use music to bridge cultures

Washington – Kayhan Kalhor, Iranian kamancheh master, and Erdal Erzinçan, renowned Turkish baglama player, are touring the United States, performing and teaching.

The strains of the kamancheh, or spike fiddle, and the baglama, a seven-stringed lute, entwined Persian classical and Turkish Sufi music in a duet that enthralled a full house and earned the artists a standing ovation at their performance at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, October 15.

The concert, organized by the Washington Performing Arts Society, is part of a tour managed by the World Music Institute.

Kalhor and Erzinçan are preeminent in their respective musical traditions. Kalhor, born in Teheran to a Kurdish family, was a child prodigy who studied Persian classical (radif) and folk music traditions, including those of Khorasan and Kurdistan. He also holds a degree in Western classical music. He co-founded the Persian classical ensemble Dastan in 1991. The Rain, his collaborative album with Indian sitarist Shujaat Hussain Khan, son of sitar maestro Ustad Vilayat Khan, was nominated for a Grammy Award, the recording industry’s most prestigious recognition.

Kalhor has worked with the Kronos Quartet and Yo-Yo Ma in his Silk Road Project. Under the name Masters of Persian Music, Kalhor performs with and composes for Iranian vocalist Mohammad Reza Shajarian, tar master Hossein Alizadeh and Homayoun Shajarian. The group has received two Grammy nominations.  Kalhor began working with Erzinçan recently, and a CD by the duo exploring their two musical traditions, The Wind, was released in 2006.

Erdal Erzinçan was drawn to Anatolian folk music and studied in Istanbul, Turkey, developing innovative finger picking on the baglama, which usually is played with a plectrum. He teaches at his own Baglama Music Academy in Istanbul and tours around the world.

Instruments similar to the violin-like kamancheh are found in musical ensembles throughout the Middle East and South Asia, and the modern violin derives from them. The baglama is used in traditional Anatolian folk music and religious ceremonies of the Alevi Sufis, a Turkish mystical order. 


Hearing the two artists in concert, it was easy to imagine the music being played around the fire in a nomad camp on the high desert plateau.  Kalhor coaxed many voices from the kamancheh, summoning contrasting moods, tempos and at one point abandoning the bow and plucking the strings with his fingers to produce a harp-like sound. Another time it became a percussion instrument in his hands.

Erzinçan displayed virtuosity on the baglama with his sometimes exuberant, sometimes restrained finger picking. The two men, seated upon a red Persian carpet, invited the audience into a special world of their making.

Musical dialogues are integral to Kayhan Kalhor’s mission, particularly in his contacts with students. “Telling them about the music and the musical culture, considering the situation between our two countries, I think is very valuable,” he told the Washington File from Middlebury, Vermont, where he and Erzinçan are conducting a music seminar. Kalhor believes in the power of music to link cultures and bring mutual understanding.

It is for that reason, he says, that he studied Western music: “For me knowing about Western music or Western musical culture is a way to get closer to the people I perform for.”

It is also what motivates his work with the Silk Route Ensemble, formed by American cellist Yo-Yo Ma to foster cross-cultural musical exchange, a long-time goal of Kalhor’s.  Eminent musicians, he said, work together to “hear the music and the beauty and learn from each other.”

Through the Silk Road Project, ensemble members work with talented young musicians in a Carnegie Hall-linked program at Tanglewood Music Center in Lenox, Massachusetts. This year the 10 days of workshops and other activities culminated in two concerts at Carnegie Hall.

Bassist and composer Matt Small, who has his own chamber ensemble in San Francisco, worked with Kalhor at Tanglewood in 2004. “His playing and writing represent what the Silk Road Project is all about,” Small said of Kalhor. The experience had a “big impact” on Small’s music. “I feel that this kind of collaborative spirit brings cultures and people together in a very important way. The way the Silk Road Project artists work together across cultural boundaries in music is a symbol for how the citizens of the world should be reaching out to each other, in an attempt to better understand and respect our similarities and our differences,” he said.

The Tanglewood program is highly competitive and draws musicians from around the world, including Iran.  “I have a student, a violin player born in Sweden. He is Iranian, speaks a little Farsi and wants to know more about the culture he comes from,” Kalhor said, adding that the student will attend his three-month program at Dartmouth University in 2007.

Although he now lives in Iran, Kalhor says he spends about nine months of the year on the road, performing and teaching in North America, Europe and Asia. But he wants to spend more time in Iran.

“There is need for new ideas and music and people who can conduct the musical scene. Because what happened in Iran was that after the revolution, a number of good artists in every art, not just musicians -- major painters, filmmakers, writers, poets -- they just left the country. And what happened was this big gap between generations,” Kalhor said. To help fill the gap, he gives master classes and meets as many Iranian young people as he can.

Kayhan Kalhor is happiest when performing. He quoted a Persian verse: “It’s part of an old ghazal from Hafiz, a well known Persian poet. It says ‘listeners make the speech giver excited,’ if this can be the translation. So it is always the listener who tells the performer what to do, and whether or not he is in the right place.”

For additional information, see related article.

(The Washington File is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State.

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