THE EXQUISITELY melancholy voice of the kamancheh, the four-stringed Persian “spike fiddle”, is one of the most distinctively lyrical sounds of Middle Eastern music.
It can be heard in the virtuosic hands of Iranian musician and composer Kayhan Kalhor, when he plays a sole Scottish date at Edinburgh’s Queen’s Hall next Thursday, in duet with long-standing musical partner Erdal Erzincan, a master of the baglama, the long-necked Turkish lute.
The programme had been billed as “The Passionate Poems of Rumi”, but visa problems for one of Kalhor’s ensemble means they won’t be sticking to that. However, the music they will play together as a duo, drawn from western Iran and the Alevi culture of Turkey, is so bound up with the traditions of the Sufi poets such as Rumi and Attar, that they will be present in the spirit of the music, if not in sung or spoken verse.
“Although we won’t have words in this concert, Persian music is very rooted in spirituality, in Sufism,” says Kalhor. “It’s not just music-making for the sake of music. Alevi music is sacred to the Alevi people, believers in a certain order of mysticism in Turkey and it’s the same as the branch of Kurdish music that I know.”
He is speaking to me from Rabat, in Morocco, where he and Erzincan have been playing at a festival. The 47-year-old musician spends his time between his native Iran and the United States, although basically, he adds wryly, “I’m based at airports most of the time”.
Geographical and cultural boundaries mean little to Kalhor. Although trained in Iranian classical music he is also steeped in the Kurdish music of the west of the country, and his musical explorations have taken in related traditions in Turkey and India, as well as studying Western classical music in Ottawa.
This is his first time playing in Scotland, but Kalhor’s questing musicianship has established him an international reputation, not least as a member of cellist Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project, as well as in collaborations such as his inspired partnership with sitar player Shujaat Husain Khan in the group Ghazal, with the Iranian lute player Ali Akbar Moradi, and of course with Erzincan, with whom he has recorded an ECM album, The Wind. He has also played with and composed for Iranian singers and western orchestras.
Persian classical music offers much more scope for improvisation than its Western counterpart, and in performance with Erzincan he likes to create “something that starts from nothing and develops from there. We just choose a mode, some notes, and try to build on them. It’s a story, a journey, starting from nowhere.”
Such improvisatory journeys can be seen as spiritual as much as musical, but are far from being arcane or impenetrable meditations. Echoing the ecstatic traditions of the Sufi poets, they evolve into heady musical dialogues, Kalhor’s spike fiddle singing, or proving a percussive pizzicato, against the metallic jangle of Erzincan’s lute. Kalhor agrees that it is very much a musical conversation, heightened by the very human nature of the kamancheh’s sound: “It sounds very reedy, and perhaps ‘talkative’, because there is in our culture this idea that any instrument should talk to you. Because of its structure, the kamancheh probably does the talking better,” he laughs.
Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road project, with which he remains active, helped him broaden his music and take it to a wider audience, he says.
“The world is a smaller place, and we all need to know and respect each others’ cultures. I think these days our ears are more open and better educated to connect with other kinds of music.”
• Kalhor and Erzincan play the Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, on 14 June. For further information, see www.kayhankalhor.net
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