Masters of the Persian Santur: Dariush Saghafi and Kazem Davoudian

Two virtuosos of the Iranian hammered dulcimer explore the subtle nuances and dramatic flair of Persian classical music on this ancient instrument. Their improvisations, performed at the Freer Gallery of Art in 2014, are based on the Persian dastgāhs, melodic modes that are comparable in richness and history to the ragas of India.


Masters of the Persian Santur: Dariush Saghafi and Kazem Davoudian

Dariush Saghafi, santur
Kazem Davoudian, santur

Song (Performer) Track
Improvisation in the Persian dastgāhs (melodic modes)
homāyun and magham-e-Esfahān

Kazem Davoudian

Improvisation in dastgāh shur

Dariush Saghafi

1.  Chahar mezrab¹
2.  Gusheh safa hossaini² zarbis³
3.  Gusheh sahnaz zarbi, chahar mezrab¹
4.  Gusheh razavi foroud
5.  Zirkeshe salmak
6.  Chahar mezrab

Improvisation in dastgāh māhur

Kazem Davoudian


¹ Chahar mezrab is a fast-tempo, four-beat, virtuoso format based on an ostinato pattern.
² Safa hossaini, sahnaz, razavi foroud, and salmak are three melodies (gushehs) in the repertoire of the melodic mode called dastgāh shur.
³ Zarbis are metered (rather than free-rhythm) compositions within a particular dastgāh (melodic mode).


Persian Melodic Modes (Dastgāhs)

Four of the twelve dastgāhs (melodic modes) of Persian classical music are heard in this recording. (A few theorists list fourteen or eighteen modes.) Many of these modes employ pitches not found in Western classical music, such as a kind of half-sharp (sori) and half-flat (koron). Two of the modes heard here include a half-flat (koron) on the second pitch of the scale. If this scale began on C, then D half-flat is one microtone below D and three microtones above C.

Dastgāh homāyun, first mentioned in Persian literature of the fourteenth century, is also heard in the classical music of Turkey and Azerbaijan. Its character is considered very poignant. For some musicians, the most moving melodies in Persian music are in this mode. If this dastgāh began on the note C, one common version of its scale would be

C─D half-flat─E─F─G─A-flat─B-flat─C

Related to dastgāh homāyun, this mode is also considered a poignant one, although it is thought to be less somber and mysterious. In Western terms, one version of its scale could be rendered as


Some consider dastgāh shur to be the most important of the Persian melodic modes. Shur (emotion) is thought to best reflect the Iranian temperament. Many musicians state that if only one dastgāh could be kept, it would be this one. A new student of Persian music begins by learning about this dastgāh. More traditional melodies (gushehs) are associated with this mode than with any other. In Western terms, a common version of this scale would be

C─D half-flat─E-flat─F─G─A-flat─B-flat─C

One of the oldest Persian melodic modes, it is widely used in Lorestan and Azerbaijan and (under a different name) in Arab music. Its pitches are similar to the major scale of European music, but compositions in this mode also modulate frequently to dastgāh shur, homāyun, and esfahān. In Western terms, this mode could be rendered as


Persian Classical Music

The repertoire of Persian classical music is known as the radif, which musicologist Bruno Nettl has called “the principal emblem and the heart of Persian music, a form of art as quintessentially Persian as that nation’s fine carpets and exquisite miniatures.” The radif includes approximately four hundred individual pieces, each called a gusheh, that are divided into twelve groups, or dastgāh. A performance from the radif begins with an introduction, which presents the melodic mode of the particular dastgāhchosen by the artist. After the introduction, the soloist performs various pieces from that dastgāh, often modulating from the mode of the introduction to other modes. A cadential motif might link one gusheh to the next, thus bringing the listener’s attention back to the basic mode of the dastgāh. A modern performance usually features a selection of the more outstanding pieces from the group, since playing all the pieces in any one dastgāh requires more time than modern audiences are accustomed to hearing.

The artist’s process of selecting which pieces to perform, and in what order, is part of the improvisatory nature of Persian music. What is more important is the musician’s interpretation of each gusheh. The performer alters and embellishes the gusheh at will and presents it in a different way each time. Responding to their feelings at the moment, musicians can create highly personal and intimate renditions of each gusheh by varying and adding to it.

The ideal state of mind for this improvisation is one of total immersion, as if the musician is possessed by the essence of the mode or rhythmic cycle and loses any sense of being a voluntary participant in the event. When improvisation reaches its height, the performance can become unpredictable even to the musician. From this experience comes the idea that music originates from an outer source, and the performer, through virtuosity, is a mere vehicle.


The hammered zither seems to have originated in the Middle East in the form of a harp laid on its side and struck with hammers. It appears as such in documents from ancient Babylon and Assyria. The more modern instrument reached Spain by the eleventh century and North Africa by the fourteenth century. It became important in Arab music and traveled east along the Silk Road and other trade routes to find a prominent place in the music of India, Kashmir, China, and Tibet.

The Persian santur is made of walnut and features seventy-five strings laid over movable bridges of hardwood (kharak), with the bass strings on the right and the treble strings on the left. The strings are struck with two light hammers (mezrāb) held in three fingers of each hand.

Notes on Persian music and instruments were adapted by Michael Wilpers from Jean During et al., The Art of Persian Music (Mage 1991); Jean During, Scheherazade Qassim Hassan, and Alastair Dick, “Santur,” in Oxford Music Online; Hormoz Farhat, “Iran,” in S. Sadie, ed., New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 20 vols. (Macmillan 1980); and Ella Zonis, Classical Persian Music (Harvard 1973).


Dariush Saghafi

For the past forty-five years, Dariush Saghafi has been engaged in the study and research of Persian music and poetry. He believes the musician must accomplish two things: first, appeal to a general audience, and then satisfy the demanding standard of the masters. At the age of eleven, he began to study santur with Ostad Abolhassan Saba, a leading figure in Persian music. He also studied with Ostad Faramarz Payvar, a distinguished Iranian santur player and master musician. On two occasions Saghafi received the gold medal award in santur competitions held among students from all Iranian colleges and universities. From 1961 to 1967 he taught santur at the Tabriz Institute of Fine Arts. A highly respected musician and interpreter of traditional santurplaying, Saghafi has performed in Tehran and Tabriz, both as soloist and in various ensembles, and at New York University, Carnegie’s Weill Recital Hall in New York, and at the Kennedy Center. He received a Pennsylvania Council on the Arts Fellowship in Traditional Arts in 2008. Saghafi joined Cuarteto Latinoamericano in the premier of Reza Vali’s Calligraphy no. 4, which was released as a CD in 2006. The Art Institute of Tehran also invited him to lecture on santur and its tradition of performance according to the teachings of Ostad Saba in 2003. A year later Saghafi joined Bhajan Sopori, a master of Indian santur, in a concert performance at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. In 2008 Saghafi performed in Pittsburgh in the concert Masters of Azari and Persian Music, and the following year he lectured on Persian music at Duquesne University and at Queens Museum of Art, among other public presentations.

Kazem Davoudian

Kazem Davoudian, santur, received his BA degree in music from the University of Tehran, College of Music and Dramatic Arts. His notable teachers included Esmaeel Tehrani on santur and Bahman Rajabi on tombak (Persian goblet drum). He also studied under the faculty’s renowned composers Kambiz Roshan-Ravan, Shahin Farhat, and Mostafa Kamal Pourtorab. From 1983 to 1989 Davoudian received commissions from Iranian National Radio and Television to compose works for the Tehran Symphony Orchestra and the Chamber Orchestra of Tehran. The results included The Mystery of Life, Asmar, and Shorydeh, as well as soundtracks for the films Grand Cinema and Think of the Kind Mountain, a documentary by Khosro Sinaei.
Since immigrating to the United States, Davoudian has continued to contribute to the growth and development of Persian music by performing, composing, and teaching. He toured the United States and Canada with Hossein Alizadeh, a leading exponent of Persian classical music, and with the Dastan Ensemble. More recently, he formed the Haftahang Music Center, led master classes across the country, and conducted his orchestral works at Wolf Trap and the Kennedy Center. He has released four albums as well as a composition on a poem by Nima Youchidje for the great Iranian vocalist Mohammad-Reza Shajarian.


This podcast is coordinated by Michael Wilpers, public programs manager. It was made possible through support from the Thaw Charitable Trust. Audio preservation and editing of this recording were supported by funds from the Smithsonian Women’s Committee.

Thanks to Andy Finch for audio recording, SuMo Productions for audio recording and editing, Nancy Eickel for text editing, Torie Castiello Ketcham for web design, Betsy Kohut and Cory Grace for artwork images, and especially the artists for permission to present this performance as a podcast.

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