In North America, we never really paid that much attention to the Muslim world until events forced us to. The revolution in Iran in 1980 that saw the overthrow of the American backed Shah and the seizing of the American Embassy in Teheran changed all of that. Instead of taking these events as an object lesson, a warning about the level of resentment felt in Islamic countries towards Western policies and what that could portend for the future, we exasperated the situation by continuing to ignore the consequences of a foreign policy that caused the situation in the first place.
Instead of taking steps that would have seen us trying to improve the lot of poverty-stricken populations or backing away from supporting regimes that were repressive, we instituted policies that increased the level of confrontation. Within the "us versus them" attitude that has developed over the last quarter century the idea that Islam might be more than just a group of fanatics hell bent on destroying everything we hold dear hasn't been able to gain much purchase.
What's amazing is that there has actually been any sort of connection established that establishes even the tiniest beachhead of understanding amidst all this mutual recrimination. In the last few years there has been a growing fascination among people in the West for the poetry of the Persian Sufi mystic Mawlana Jalal ad-Din Balkhi Rumi, most commonly referred simply as Rumi. With modern Iran being home to the land once known as Persia it is only fitting that Iranian musicians have created a musical tribute for the 800th anniversary of the celebrated mystic's birth.
Shahram &Hafez Nazeri are father and son who have followed in the footsteps of generations of Persian and Iranian musicians in attempting to interpret the work of Sufi mystics through music. But it was Shahram, thirty-five years ago, who first set the words of Rumi to music and has gained a huge international following because of his amazing voice and the passion he brings to his work.
Hafez began his musical education at the age of three and hasn't stopped since then. In an attempt to broaden his horizons, he left Iran to study musical composition in the West. In the year 2000, he assembled a group of young musicians to perform his father's compositions based on the poetry of Rumi.
The Rumi Ensemble toured twenty cities in Iran. Their concerts in Tehran alone drew 140,000 people setting attendance records for the Middle East. In 2005, he put together a new Rumi Ensemble for a highly successful tour of the United States. The music from the first concert series has now released as the CD, The Passion Of Rumi. The CD features the vocal harmonies and melodies written by Shahram that made him famous, and music composed by Hafez that compliments and honours those songs. Hafez refers to the program of music as being a duet between instruments and voice.
Although some versions of the ensemble have seen the inclusion of Western instruments like cello and violin, this version taken from the tapes of the original Iranian tour utilizes only the Mid Eastern stringed instruments; Keammanche alto, Barbat, and Setar with percussion accompaniment supplied by Daf, Tombak, and Damams. While this set up might appear skimpy to our eyes used to far more instruments from a group referred to as an ensemble, once you begin listening to the music you won't be aware of any deficiency in sound.
Various reviewers have tried to describe Shahram Nazeri's voice and I'll now join the ranks of those who fail miserably to do him justice. How do you describe something that manages to transcend being merely physically present and that manages to communicate on a spiritual level? I could tell you technical details about how amazing his control and range are; that he can sing in a near whisper that will carry for miles, each individual note is so crisp and clean.
Or that he can sing notes of such depth that they cause your sternum to vibrate and then takes his voice to places that are almost beyond our capacity to hear they are so clean and high. Would it make more sense if I said that when he sang he reached down inside himself and opened his heart the better to reach out to every single person living.
How about, that it feels like when he sings the secrets of the universe can be heard and the wonders of creation are no longer a mystery. A passion for life that is tangible suffuses each phrase and sends ripples through his voice in the form of tremolos that sends a shiver through your spirit.
Lyrics become immaterial, and at times he is vocalizing sounds in the same manner as a Jazz musician improvising. It's when he releases his hold on lyrics and sets out on these vocal runs with the music swirling around him like leafs cycling in an autumn wind, that you remember that not only was Rumi a Sufi but also the inspiration for the Dervish sects as well. However, instead of just a select few dancers immersing in the words and splendour of Rumi, all who listen to Nazeri are given the opportunity to travel the road of musical meditation.
I don't know if anyone but Hafez Nazeri could have composed music that was appropriate for his father's songs. Not only did it require a thorough understanding of the music, but an awareness of the connection his father had to the songs in order to create the perfect balance between the needs of the overall piece and the vocalist's extraordianry abilities.
The Passion Of Rumi will hold special interest for those who have read his poetry. However, even those like me who have never read the work of Rumi can't help be moved by what they hear. What contribution this disc can have in opening the door a little wider between the West and Iran remains to be seen. At the very least, it puts a human face on our so-called enemy.
I've heard many different types of spiritual music played from Southern Baptist to choral pieces. Without a doubt The Passion Of Rumi outstrips them all in terms of beauty and wonder. This music will speak to everyone no matter how they name their God or their manner of worship. In the nature of all truly spiritual work, it transcends religion and speaks straight to an individual's heart.
(Originally posted October 2007)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.