Songs of the Persian Mystics

The Nowruz celebrations in New York continued on Sunday, following the festive 9th Annual Persian Day Parade, with an evening of classical Persian music at the Symphony Space in Manhattan, presented by World Music Institute.  Living master of the tar and setar, Ostad Mohammad-Reza Lotfi brought the entire audience to another state of being with his never-ending knowledge of these ancient instruments along with his incorporation of traditional folk music.  His pure, white aura (and clothes and silky hair) made him look like a musical prophet, speaking to his disciples through his ancient lute and passing the poetry of the Sufi mystics to those who would listen.  And every seat was filled with two listening ears. Classical Persian music has a very strict model to follow, however the music is actually performed through improvisation.  With so many rules to abide by, it takes a lifetime to master the craft of properly improvising in the correct format.  To try and explain this simply is next to impossible:  Gushehs are melodic forms used in improvising, and a collection of these gushehs create a dastgâh.  Those dastgâh are the repertory for Persian classical music known as radif.  These are organized into 12 modes which are variations based on a primary melodic phrase called a daramad.  Confusing yet?  It gets even more complicated.  However, as I learned more of this strict improvisational method, it made me think of jazz music and the model in which a jazz musician comes up with his or her own "licks."  In a very similar way where there are rules to which notes will work for certain chord progressions, classical Persian music has its own set of rules to follow for slightly more existential and spiritual reasons.  I learned that certain phrases are learned by the classical musician, drilled into the muscle memory of the hands and fingers, and should be released and naturally played once the improviser begins to find the purpose in the music and in the mystical poetry.  Like Miles Davis in his inebriated states of euphoria, the muscle memory of his fingers let the trumpet speak without being cognizant of the enlightening music exiting the instrument.

Lotfi's last performance in New York was 19 years ago, marking this a monumental show - his usual venues in Iran are packed stadiums, and needless to say the performance at the Symphony Space was sold out.  Lotfi was accompanied by Mohammad Ghavihelm on the tombak, a chalice-shaped drum played horizontally in the lap, and on the hand drum which was embellished with metal rings to create more of a metallic sound.  Using finger-snapping and hand-cupping motions on the tombak, Ghavihelm changed the sound and pitch of the instrument and the mood of the song altogether.  A beautiful voice on the drum shared the spotlight as Lotfi continued playing the skinny-necked setar and began singing the Sufi poetry.

The audience members were quite an eclectic bunch:  There were front-row yuppie converts whose own white clothing and strangely cut hair marked their levels of devotion to the Sufi practice and to Lotfi's every move.  And then there were the Iranian-Americans whose music was being played for them, in honor of their culture and their people's history.  And then there were folks like me, enjoying the meditative state that the music put me in, calmly and beautifully making me aware of absolutely nothing else.  It was improvisational bliss.

©2012 MMallozziTHE BARE FEET™ FIVE: 1. Ostad Lotfi Music:  Ostad Lotfi's album The Mystery of Love is a live recording from his Copenhagen performance.  If you can't see him live, this is the next best thing! 2.  World Music Institute:  WMI has a number of upcoming cultural music performances including tonight's Senegalese Sufi Troubadour, Cheikh Lô at Carnegie Hall. 3.  Symphony Space:  NY's Symphony Space continues to bring stellar performances to audiences with upcoming events like Gertrude's Paris Festival, Festival of India, and more! 4.  Bar Thalia:  When seeing a show at Symphony Space, be sure to stop in Bar Thalia for some great drinks, food, and more intimate events!  2537 Broadway at 95th St., New York, NY (646) 597 - 7340 5.  Persian Dance:  Julia Kulakova, frontrunner in bringing Gypsy and Persian dance to New York, offers a variety of classes including Kurdish dance.  For more information on classes and workshops, go to