Mohammad Reza Shajarian
& Kayhan Kalhor,
Night Silence Desert
(Traditional Crossroads, 2000)

Once, a long time ago, I had a friend named Kayhan. When we first met, he had not been in this country for long and his command of English was not what it came to be. When I asked what his name meant, he told me it was "something like all the stars in the sky" and shrugged his shoulders. Later, I learned that Kayhan is usually translated as "universe" and that there is a newspaper in Tehran with that name. I will always like the first translation better and Kayhan (kay HAN) Kalhor's discography is reaffirmation for me of that preference. Kalhor's first CD released on Traditional Crossroads, Scattering Stars Like Dust, is a wonderfully meditative composition, evocative of stillness and great expanses of night sky flashing brilliantly with stars. This second CD, Night Silence Desert explores much of the same musical terrain and integrates the amazing voice of Mohammed Reza Shajarian, the undisputed master of Persian classical singing, into the stillness.

For Western ears, Persian music is an acquired taste. My introduction to it came from the soundtrack to the Oscar nominated movie People of the Wind by Tony Howarth. Later, as I began working with Iranian students on their master's theses and dissertations at the University of Washington, I spent days and nights immersed in the popular music of Iran. After that came the Persian Sufi music many of my American friends fell in love with.

I love Persian classical music and I am grateful to Kalhor for collecting the instruments and masters of those instruments on this CD. I am grateful as well for the illustrations of the instruments as well as the informative liner notes he composed. As Kalhor says in the liner notes, the music on this CD is in the radif style -- a collection of Persian classical modes, but the maqam or folk tradition from which the music originates is clearly evident. The music is drawn from the folk traditions of Khorasan, a northeastern province of Iran from where the singer, Mohammed Reza Shajarian, comes.

To give this classical arrangement an essentially Khorasani folk sound, two masters of indigenous instruments were included in the music. The dotar, a plucked lute, and the ghooshmeh, a double reed flute, are played here by Hadj Ghorban Soleimani and Ali Abchouri.

I don't particularly like Persian classical singing but anyone listening to the range and flawless technique in Shajarian's voice has to be amazed. I'm glad I have this example of his singing. He is recognized the world over as the best example of a classical vocalist and is considered a national treasure in Iran. He has as well won honors outside Iran, including the 1999 UNESCO Picasso award.

Back in the days when I was listening to all that popular music from Iran, when I'd ask what the lyrics meant, my friends would all shake their heads and say "It's sad, very sad." It got to be a joke and everyone in the room would join in with that preamble to any translation. Well, the lyrics on this CD are all sad, very sad. Unrequited love, pierced hearts, Leili and Majnoon (more or less equivalent to Juliet and Romeo) all that stuff and then some are what these songs are about.

The poets whose lyrics are sung here range from Baba Taher of a thousand years ago to our contemporaries, Houshang Ebtehaj and Mohammad Ali Mo'allem. I couldn't find anything on Mo'allem -- which surprises me because, as my friend Kian says, "We Persians pride ourselves on knowing who is writing what poetry like Americans know baseball statistics." In any case, falling in love in a Persian context doesn't seem to have gotten to be any more fun than it was when Baba Taher was writing.

Kayhan Kalhor himself seems to have been all over the musical map in his young life. Besides being a virtuoso on the kamancheh, a stringed instrument of ancient provenance that is played with a horizontal bow, he studied Western classical music at the Santa Sicilia School of Music in Rome and at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. A renowned composer in Iran, he has also composed for the Kronos Quartet and collaborated with the Indian sitar player Shujaat Hossein Khan. He recently finished a tour of North America and has played at the Royal Albert Hall in London.

Both Kalhor's albums were featured recently on Hearts of Space on National Public Radio, so if you're interested, I'm sure you can find them through the Public Radio Music Source and benefit your local station with your purchase.

[ by J. Higgins-Rosebrook ]
Rambles: 30 June 2001

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