Enjoy energetic and contemplative music from this ensemble of Persian music specialists from the East and West Coasts performing traditional and original music with settings of poetry by Rumi and Faraz Minooei. Two members of the ensemble have appeared with Yo-Yo Ma’s Silkroad Ensemble: Faraz Minooei on santur (hammered dulcimer) and Pezhham Akhavass on tombak (hand drum). Ensemble leader Behfar Bahadoran on tār and setār (lutes) was the top prizewinner in an international competition for musicians in the Iranian diaspora. They are joined by Steve Bloom on percussion and the late vocalist Shohreh Majd. This performance took place in 2010 as part of the museum’s annual celebration of Nowruz, the Persian New Year.
The Pejvak Ensemble
Behfar Bahadoran, tār and setār
Faraz Minooei, santur
Shohreh Majd, vocals
Pezhham Akhavass, tombak
Steve Bloom, percussion
Lyrics by Faraz Minooei
|Improvisation in dastgāh navā
Tār and Tombak duet
Lyrics by Rumi (ghazal 94, verse 2; ghazal 95, verses 1, 2, 6, 8)
Lyrics by Rumi (ghazal 1375, verses 1, 12)
Lyrics by Faraz Minooei
The four-stringed, long-necked lute known as a setār has a long history in Persia and the surrounding region. The instrument’s predecessors are depicted in West Asian bas-reliefs from the second millennium BCE; an eighth-century Persian terracotta figure, now in the Louvre, shows a man playing a similar long-necked lute. The instrument was first described in written documents in the tenth century—when it was known as a tanbur—in treatises by the Arab music theorists and philosophers al-Farabi and Safi al-Din. It was mentioned in Persian poetry as early as the twelfth century and first appeared in Persian paintings about four hundred years later.
The original setār had only three strings; a fourth string was added to the modern instrument as a drone. Its curved soundbox is made entirely of white mulberry wood, and the walnut neck is fitted with moveable frets of twine. Small holes are carved into the wooden face and sides of the soundbox to improve its resonance. The setār’s soft, delicate sound makes it ideal to play in secret, a necessary feature in an Islamic Persian culture that long disapproved of instrumental music. From its earliest depictions to the present day, musicians have played the instrument using the forefinger.
The unusually shaped, six-stringed tār is a modern instrument unique to Iran, and it first appears in Persian paintings and photographs as recently as the nineteenth century. Its double-chambered soundbox, developed in the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century, is modeled after the ancient rabab, another lute. The tār’s soundbox is covered by a very thin sheepskin parchment. This makes the instrument especially sensitive to the touch of the plectrum, which is traditionally made of metal and inserted into a ball of gum. The twenty-six moveable frets are made of gut. Because it is so difficult to craft, the tār is the most expensive of the traditional Persian instruments.
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 Iran, 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 instruments adapted by Michael Wilpers, manager of performing arts, from Jean During et al., The Art of Persian Music (Washington, DC: Mage, 1991); Hormoz Farhat, “Iran,” in New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, ed. S. Sadie (Macmillan 1980); and Ella Zonis, Classical Persian Music (Cambridge, MA: Harvard 1973).
For the last item on this podcast, the Pejvak Ensemble used verses 1 and 12 from a ghazal (poetic ode) by Rumi.
Translation: William C. Chittick, The Sufi Path of Love: The Spiritual Teachings of Rumi (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1983), 346–47, from Jalāl ad-Dīn Mohammad Rūmī (1207–1273): Ghazal 1375, from Divan-i Shams-i Tabrizi (The Works of Shams of Tabriz).
I have returned, like the new year, to break the locks of the prison and smash the claws and teeth of these man-eating spheres.
The seven waterless planets are devouring the creatures of earth— I will throw water upon their fire and still their winds.
I have flown from the beginningless King like a falcon in order to kill the parrot-eating owls of this ruined monastery.
From the beginning I made a covenant to sacrifice my spirit to the King. May my spirit’s back be broken should I break my pledge and covenant!
Today I am Asaf, Solomon’s vizier, sword and firman in hand — I will break the necks of any who are arrogant before the King.
If you see the garden of the rebellious flourishing for a day or two, grieve not! For I will cut their roots from a hidden direction.
I will break nothing but injustice or the evil — intentioned tyrant — should anything have a mote of savor, then I am an unbeliever should I break it!
Wherever there is a polo ball, it is taken away by the mallet of Oneness — if a ball does not roll down the field, I will smash it with the blow of my mallet.
I now reside in His banquet, for I saw that His intention is Gentleness. I became the least servant of His way in order to break Satan’s legs.
I was a single nugget, but when the Sultan’s hand grasped hold of me, I became the mine — if you place me in the balance, I will break the scales.
When you allow a ruined and drunken man like myself into your house, do you not know at least this much: I will break this and break that?
If the watchman shouts, “Hey!” I will pour a cup of wine on his head; and if the doorman seizes hold of me, I will break his arm.
If the spheres do not rotate round my heart, I will pull them up by the roots; if the heavens act with villainy, I will smash the turning heavens.
Thou hast spread the tablecloth of Generosity and invited me to lunch — why doest Thou rebuke me when I break the bread?
No, no — I sit at the head of Thy table, I am the chief of Thy guests. I will pour a cup or two of wine upon the guests and break their shame.
Oh, Thou who inspirest my spirit with poetry from within! Should I refuse and remain silent, I fear I would break Thy command.
If Shams-i Tabrizi should send me wine and make me drunk, I would be free of cares and break down the pillars of the universe.
Behfar Bahadoran is a composer, tār and setār player, percussionist, and painter. He moved to the United States in 2005 where he has developed his career as a musician and a music instructor. He has performed at such venues as the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco, Lincoln Center and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and the Kennedy Center and Smithsonian in Washington. He began his formal training on violin with Homayoun Khorram. He is self-taught on the lutes tār and setār. He obtained his BFA from Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) as a painting major in 2015.
Faraz Minooei, santur, was born in Tehran and began playing santur at the age of nine. He received his B.A. from San Francisco State University in 2008 with santur as his primary instrument and earned his Master of Fine Arts degree in music from the University of California, Irvine, with an emphasis in integrated composition, improvisation, and technology. He has studied with M. R. Lotfi, Hossein Omoumi, Royal Hartigan, Hafez Modirzadeh, Michael Dessen, Kojiro Umezaki, and Christopher Dobrian. Since 2006, he has lectured and performed at Stanford University, San Francisco State University, and the University of California campuses in Irvine, Los Angles, and Santa Cruz. In 2009, he collaborated with Yo-Yo Ma’s Silkroad Ensemble for a performance honoring the 50th anniversary of Lincoln Center, where he joined Kayhan Kalhor. He is the founder of the Echomerz Ensemble and worked as composer and santur player with film director Bahram Beyzaie for three of his plays: Jana & Baladour, Ardaviraf’s Report, and Crossroads.
Pezhham Akhavass, tombak, was born in 1980 in Iran. He earned a bachelor’s degree in music from Sureh University of Tehran in 2005, a second bachelor's degree in world music from San Francisco State University (SFSU) in 2016, and a master’s degree at SFSU in music history in 2019. Pezhham began studying tombak at the age of five under the guidance of Naser Farhanghfar and later under Saeid Roudbary. From 2001 to 2007, he toured with vocalist Shahram Nazeri for concerts in Iran, France, Italy, Austria, Finland, Sweden, the United States, and Australia. His festival appearances have included the Festival del Popolo in Italy, Théâtre de la Ville and Théâtre du Soleil in Paris, the Fes Festival in Morocco, Sodran Theatre in Sweden, and the Mystic Music Festival in Turkey. In 2008, he performed with Yo-Yo Ma’s Silkroad Ensemble for a Rumi 800th birthday celebration at the Hollywood Bowl. In 2010, he toured the US with the Masters of Persian Music, directed by Hossein Alizadeh, performing in ten cities across the United States. He toured again with Hossein Alizadeh in 2015 and 2016. In 2020, Pezhham recorded with Zakir Hussain and Abbos Kosimov for the Stanford Live Stream Project. In 2021, he performed with the Masters of Percussion tour of the US, led by Zakir Hussain, and appeared at the World Percussion Festival in Seattle.
Steve Bloom, percussion, has performed or recorded in more than a dozen countries with such artists as Tito Puente, Pedrito Martinez, King Sunny Ade, Babatunde Olatunji, guitarists Peter White and Dennis Cahill, pianist Gregg Karukas, jazz trumpeters Doc Cheatham and Jon Faddis, flutists Paul Horn and Nestor Torres, and bassists Andy Gonzales and Michael Manring. He co-directed the SAMA Persian Percussion Ensemble, with whom he performed for the General Assembly of the United Nations in 2006. His wide range of styles include Middle Eastern, Persian, Cuban, Latin, Brazilian, Sephardic, jazz, blues, gospel, New Age, and Celtic. He has developed a variety of “hybrid” drum kits that combine hand- and finger-drums with more traditional elements of the jazz and rock drum kit.
This podcast was coordinated by Michael Wilpers, manager of performing arts. Audio recording by Andy Finch, audio editing by Behfar Bahadoran and Suraya Mohamed. Web production by Gio Camozzi. Copyediting by Nancy Eickel and Ian Fry. Special thanks to the artists for granting permission to share their concert at the Freer and Sackler Galleries. This performance was recorded live at the Meyer Auditorium, Freer Gallery of Art, as part of Nowruz: A Persian New Year Celebration, made possible in part through a generous gift from Jahangir and Eleanor Amuzegar.