Sound: The Encounter: Jazz from Iran and Syria

Four jazz-oriented artists from the Middle East merge the musical traditions for Persian and Arab bagpipe, double clarinet, lute, and drums along with the Western saxophone. Together they forge new sounds that transport ancient melodies into modern idioms. This performance was recorded live in concert at the Freer Gallery on December 12, 2013, and was presented in cooperation with the Aga Khan Music Initiative.


Sound: The Encounter
Jazz from Iran and Syria

Saeid Shanbehzadeh, neyanbân (Persian  bagpipe), neydjofti (double clarinet), boogh(goat horn), vocals
Basel Rajoub, saxophone, duclar (duduk-clarinet hybrid)
Naghib Shanbehzadeh, percussion (tombak/zarb, darbuka)
Kenan Adnawi (guest artist), ‘ud

This performance was recorded live in concert at the Freer Gallery of Art on December 12, 2013.
It was presented in cooperation with the Aga Khan Music Initiative.

Title Time
Somraya 0:00–5:46
Ey Shaame (Candle) 6:04–13:51
T’abiyat (Nature) 14:09–20:05
Eshgh Bazi 20:25–24:10
Mina (Harbor) 24:22–31:24
Mawlana 31:42–39:29
Choupi 39:49–47:23
Bida’ya (Start) 47:35–55:40
The Encounter 55:47–1:14:52

The podcast is 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.


Traditional music and lyrics, arranged by Saeid Shanbehzadeh, Basel Rajoub, and Naghib Shanbehzadeh
A feast and celebration of the triumph of love directed at once toward an earthly and divine beloved.

My love, I came for you from a very far place
I came for your lips
I came for your nice heart
The road was so difficult, but I came for you.

Ey Shaame (Candle)
Traditional music and lyrics, arranged by Basel Rajoub
A song about the essence of love and the experience of reaching it.

Do not burn candles,
There’s a long night ahead.
Bedtime is now,
Go away, my sadness,
My love story continues.

T’abiyat (Nature)
Music by Naghib Shanbehzadeh
A percussion solo inspired not only by the sounds of nature and the surrounding environment but also by all sounds of the universe, both ancient and contemporary.

Eshgh Bazi
Traditional music, arranged for solo neyanbân by Saeid Shanbehzadeh

Composed and arranged by Saeid Shanbehzadeh, Basel Rajoub, and Naghib Shanbehzadeh
Mina is the Arabic word for “harbor” (Persian: bandar). This piece is music for the bandari dance—literally, “of the port or harbor”—a form of exuberant group performance that developed in the coastal region of southern Iran. Its hand gestures are thought to represent the movements of fishermen.

ell God, talk to the Almighty,
Say Mash’allah,
Ask God to help.

Lyrics attributed to Rumi, with musical arrangement by Saeid Shanbehzadeh

I drink the wine of celebration,
I dance around my beloved,
Let drunkards do the talking,
But I am very conscious.

Traditional music and lyrics, arranged by Saeid Shanbehzadeh, Basel Rajoub, and Naghib Shanbehzadeh
A piece inspired by the music performed at zar (healing) ceremonies that are purifying, invigorating, and enchanting.

Bida’ya (Start)
Music by Basel Rajoub; arranged by Basel Rajoub and Kenan Adnawi
While principally known for their work in a range of contemporary musical idioms, Basel and Kenan—both originally from Syria—engage in a conversation between dudukand ‘ud in a traditional style that pays homage to their country and cultural heritage. As Basel puts it, “This music offers both gratitude and a gift to a homeland left behind.”

The Encounter
Composed by Basel Rajoub and arranged by Saeid Shanbehzadeh, Basel Rajoub, and Naghib Shanbehzadeh
In this celebration, artists from different countries revive their historical connections and present a contemporary expression of their musical heritage.


Like many cross-cultural musical explorations, Sound: The Encounter began with a chance meeting. This one took place in China, where, in 2011, Iranian bagpipe player and singer Saeid Shanbehzadeh and Syrian saxophonist Basel Rajoub were both performing at the Shanghai World Music Festival. “We were there with different bands,” Basel recounts. “I went to Saeid’s concert and was surprised to discover that in Bushehr, the part of southwestern Iran where Saeid is from, they play a kind of music that’s similar to the music of the badu—the bedouins—who live in the Middle East. Many songs have the same melody but different lyrics. And of course, the lyrics are in different languages: the badu sing in Arabic, whereas the Bushehri sing in Persian.

“I liked what I heard, and I said to Saeid, ‘Let’s try to do something together.’ Around a year after that, we met again, by complete chance, on a street in Paris. I was rehearsing with another project, and Saeid came over with his bagpipe. After listening for around ten minutes, he pumped up his bagpipe and literally took over the rehearsal space. We started working to see how to mix the saxophone with his instruments. Saeid’s son Naghib joined us on Iranian percussion. We started by just jamming and trying to play solos and melodies. After that we started to work on the hard things: how to put the saxophone with the bagpipe and how to change the rhythm. We met five or six times to rehearse—in Paris and later in Istanbul and Lisbon. There were a lot of conversations in between, although we don’t share a spoken language. Our lingua franca became music.” Saeid adds, “We didn’t restrict ourselves to playing just Iranian and Syrian music. We’ve been inspired by a lot of traditional motifs and melodies from the Persian Gulf as well as by jazz. We’re three artists with three different mindsets, and it’s important to understand what we can do together with our musical knowledge.”

For their performances in the United States, Saeid, Naghib, and Basel were delighted to welcome another fellow expatriot, the Syrian ‘ud master Kenan Adnawi. He first met Basel a decade ago while they were attending the High Institute of Music in Damascus. In that context, they knew one another as performers of classical music, both Western and Middle Eastern, and it took some time before each recognized in the other an interest in folk music and in contemporary approaches to improvisation. Kenan, currently a resident of Philadelphia, used Skype and Viber to rehearse the concert program with Saeid, Basel, and Naghib in Europe. After rehearsing in virtual space, the tour marked their debut as a group performing together in the same physical place.

The ongoing musical conversation among Saeid and Naghib Shanbehzadeh, Basel Rajoub, and Kenan Adnawi has been nurtured by the Aga Khan Music Initiative, which brought Sound: The Encounter to the United States. Part of the Music Initiative’s mandate is to support musicians from the Muslim world who are striving to reassemble diverse expressions of a shared musical heritage in contemporary forms. “There’s very little interaction now between Iranian and Syrian musicians,” noted Fairouz Nishanova, director of the Music Initiative. “Through Sound: The Encounter, we’re trying to reconnect not only musicians but also communities. Music turns out to be a good way to do that. Musicians can tell stories to one another, and to listeners, through their instruments. Saeid and Basel don’t share a spoken language and had never played together, but their musical conversation flows naturally, and it has continued to evolve. Both of them, it turns out, are resourceful storytellers.”

- Ted Levin, Dartmouth College


Neyanbân (or ney anbân) is a bagpipe indigenous to southern Iran. Bagpipes have an ancient history in the Middle East and western Asia. Like some other bagpipes from the region, neyanbân has only a chanter (actually, a double chanter, consisting of two separate but identical pipes) that is fingered to play a melody. By contrast, most European bagpipes have at least one drone pipe that sounds a steady pitch while the chanter plays the melody.

Neydjofti is a single-reed wind instrument consisting of two identical pipes with six holes that are fingered simultaneously. Such instruments are related to the aulos of ancient Greece, and they exist in a variety of contemporary forms, from the Uzbek qoshnay and the Syrian mijwiz to the Yemeni mizmâr.

Duclar is a hybrid instrument that joins a clarinet mouthpiece to the body of an Armenian duduk (a cylindrical, double-reed woodwind), thus transforming the dudukfrom a double-reed to a single-reed woodwind.

Boogh is a folk instrument made from the horn of a goat.

Darbuka and tombak/zarb are Arabic and Persian goblet drums, respectively.

‘Ud is a fretless, short-necked lute that is widely played throughout the Middle East and North Africa for classical, folk, and popular music.


Saeid Shanbehzadeh

Saeid Shanbehzadeh, Iranian bagpipe (neyanbân) and percussion, was born in Bushehr, a seaport city on the gulf coast of southwestern Iran, but he traces his ancestry to Zanzibar in eastern Africa. A virtuoso performer, singer, and dancer, he is also recognized as an authority on the folk music of the Gulf region. In addition to leading the Shanbehzadeh Ensemble, which he founded in 1990, Saeid has composed film scores and acted in Iranian films. Since 2002 he has made his home in Paris. He previously performed at the Freer Gallery in 1997 with the Traditional Bushehri Music Ensemble.

Basel Rajoub

Basel Rajoub, saxophone, is a composer-improviser who merges jazz with Middle Eastern rhythms and melodic modes (maqamat). Born in Aleppo, Syria, he graduated from the Damascus High Institute of Music and received Radio Monte Carlo’s Moyen-Orient Music Award. Active in contemporary music groups that bring together musicians from different parts of the Middle East, North Africa, and West Asia, he is the founder and leader of the Basel Rajoub Quartet. He lives in Geneva, Switzerland. Basel appeared previously at the Freer Gallery in February 2013 as part of the ensemble New Sounds from Arab Lands.

Naghib Shanbehzadeh

Naghib Shanbehzadeh, percussion, is the son of Saeid Shanbehzadeh and a disciple of master percussionist Mahmoud Farahmand. From his base in Paris, Naghib tours widely with the Shanbehzadeh Ensemble and participates in artistic collaborations worldwide.

Kenan Adnawi

Kenan Adnawi, ‘ud, was born in Latakia, Syria, and began studying music at an early age. A graduate of the High Institute of Music in Damascus, he has been an innovator in bringing together the worlds of traditional Middle Eastern music and Western classical music, including works for ‘ud and piano. He has toured widely with the globe-trotting Lebanese musician/composer Marcel Khalife, and he also leads his own quartet. Kenan currently lives in Philadelphia. He performed previously at the Freer Gallery in May 2013 with Tunisian vocalist Sonia M’Barek as part of the Al-Bustan Takht Ensemble.


Podcast, texts, and slideshow coordinated by Michael Wilpers, manager of public programs.

This podcast is 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 and SuMo Productions for audio recording and editing, Nancy Eickel for text editing, Torie Castiello Ketcham for web design, Scott Friedlander for permission to use his photographs, Cory Grace and Betsy Kohut for images, and especially the artists for granting permission for the museum to podcast their performance at the Freer Gallery.

Aga Khan Music Initiative

The Aga Khan Music Initiative is an interregional music and arts education program with worldwide performance, outreach, mentoring, and artistic production activities. It was launched by His Highness the Aga
Khan to support talented musicians and music educators working to preserve, transmit, and further develop their musical heritage in contemporary forms. The Music Initiative began its work in Central Asia and subsequently expanded its cultural development activities to include artistic communities and audiences in the Middle East and North Africa, West Asia, South Asia, and West Africa. The Initiative designs and implements country-specific activities that promote the revitalization of cultural heritage. It also supports music both as a source of livelihood for musicians and as a means to strengthen pluralism in nations where music is challenged by social, political, and economic constraints. In North America and Europe, the Initiative’s work focuses on performances, outreach, and arts education. Multidisciplinary artist-in-residence programs provide an opportunity for students to experience the creative challenges of intercultural music making.

AKMI tour credits

Director: Fairouz Nishanova
Senior Project Consultant: Theodore Levin
Tour Logistics and Management: Rebecca Guillaume and John E. Pendleton

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