Classical Persian Music
Classical Persian Music is the precious and ancient heritage of the Iranians passed on through generations from master to pupil, for thousands of years - It is the music in which sounds of nature, poetry and mysticism come together to form a mosaic of hundreds of beautiful and delicate melodies.
The entire repertoire of the classical Persian music is called the radif, which means row in English. It indicates an order in the organization of its sub-components. There are over 300 melodies (or gusheh-ha) within the radif. The radif is divided into twelve dastgahs; seven major dastgahs: Mahur, Shur, Homayun, Chahargah, Segah, Nava, Rast-Panjgah; and five subsidiary dastgahs: Esfahan, Afshari, Abu-Ata, Bayat Tork, Dashti. Each dastgah is a musical scheme, which the performer uses as the basis for improvisation. It has its own scales with embedded modulations, hierarchy of scale degrees and repertory of traditional melodies. In general, these ancient melodies are memorized by musicians and form the basis of their improvisations. Each melodic pattern is a skeletal idea upon which the performer improvises. Therefore, the art of improvisation is central to the performance and moreover many compositions are based on such improvisations.
Traces of Persian Music
Traces of this music can be found as far back as the 7th century BC. However the most substantial historic evidence dates back to the period between 3rd and 7th century AD, when music flourished at the imperial court of the Sassanid dynasty. It reached its peak in mid-7th century during the rule of King Khosro, with Barbod being the most illustrious of the court musicians who is attributed to have invented the Persian modal system.
Through out history, there have been various events promoting cultural exchanges between ancient traditions involving the Persian culture:
- The ancient silk road which brings East and West together such that by the third century B.C., the area had already become a crossroads of Asia, where Persian, Indian and Greek ideas and cultures met.
- The Sufi tradition of the Middle East bringing elements of Persian, Turkish, and Arabic traditions in close contact.
- The Sephardi jewry with their mix of Persian-Arabic-Turkish traditions coming into contact with the Ashkenazi jewry with their inherent Western European traditions
- The traveling gypsies that started from India then onto to Persia and Mesopotamia – today’s Iran & Iraq, Eastern Europe, North Africa and then settled in Southern Spain, bringing with them and sharing the various folk traditions along their journey
- Persian scholars that started traveling and settling in the Arab world following the formation of the Arab Empire, in mid-7th century. These musicians and scholars became important figures in the formation of Islamic culture in the East. The work during this era of Iran's notable scholars and musicians is generally credited to be of Arabic origins, however -- because these men wrote in Arabic and bore Arabic names. Some of the most important examples are the following:
- The 9th Century, court musician Abulhasan Ali Ben Nafi, nicknamed Zaryab, who moved to Cordoba, in Southern Spanish region of Andalusia. He was a virtuoso on the Persian lute, Barbat, this same instrument later became known as the Ud and is known to be the parent of the Spanish guitar. Zaryab founded the first musical academy in Cordoba, where music and chant were taught. He also introduced the Persian tradition of closely tying poetic verses to melodic structures. Zaryab has been a subject of study for investigators and an inspiration for artists. In fact, Paco de Lucia dedicated his album “Zyryab” (1990) to the Black Bird.
- Farabi, the most celebrated of early Persian scholars,10th century musician, philosopher, and theorist that lived and worked in Syria and Spain. His book Al-Musiqi Al-Kabir (the great book of music) discusses music theory, intervals, scales, modes, rhythms and musical instruments.
- Ibn Sina (Avecina) whose writings discuss not only the theory of music but also the ancient concept of therapeutic effects of music, and the notion of harmonic dissonance and consonance.
- 13th Century Safi al-Din who introduced the 17-tone octave scale, the foundation for music theory in the Muslim Middle East.
It was during these times, that two schools of music developed with the direct influence of the Persian tradition; one was the school of Baghdad and the other the Cordoba school which later became the North African and Flamenco systems.
Flamenco &The Evidence of cultural exchange through musical developments
Even though Flamenco has emerged as a publicly performed musical art form only as of late 18th century, early forms of it started evolving between 8th and 15th centuries.
Thus, flamenco evolved from a mixture of ancient cultures in Andalusia and includes traces of Hindu and Greek psalms, Gregorian chants, Persian melodies, Mozarabic dirges, Jewish laments, Morisco songs, Castilian romances, African song dances, all of which fused with the indigenous Andalusian rhythms and eventually gave rise to this amazing musical structure highly revered in the world today. And more recently, the elements of Latin American music such as the Rumbas from Cuban culture gets integrated into the mix. I think it is the best example of a successful work of fusion that most people in the world can identify with as their own.
This phenomenon became evident to me when I came into contact with flamenco and felt an immediate sense of the familiar, a pang in my heart, which was then reciprocated by my flamenco teachers and friends. For example, the renowned flamenco artist, Carmela Greco, when she first listened to my santur she also had this sense of the familiar. She immediately invited me to play santur for her solo performance in an upcoming show. Now this sensation I’m sure is present for Latin Americans, as is for the Arabs, Indians, as is for the Jewish people and all the people of other cultures that have elements of their music also integrated into flamenco.
I've studied these Persian Instruments:
Dating back to 7th century BC, according to an Assyrian rock relief, the Persian santur, the great grand parent of Piano, has many relatives around the world such as the Hungarian and Romanian cimbalom, the European hammer dulcimer & hackbrett, the Greek sanduri, Chinese yanqin, and Indian santoor. It is a three-octave dulcimer made with aged walnut wood and performed by using two delicate handmade wooden mallets. The mallets are commonly, especially in the recent decades, covered with felt to soften the sound quality; however using pure wooden mallets without the felt, one can hear even more of all the incredible harmonics it produces. It is a non-chromatic instrument with seventy-two strings arranged on adjustable tuning pegs in eighteen quadruple sets, nine (bronze) in the low register, and nine (steel) in the middle and high registers. It is one of the commonly used instruments in Iran today famous for its colorful sounds.
Belonging to the lute family, the tar appeared in its present form in the middle of the eighteenth century. The body is a double-bowl shape carved from mulberry wood, with a thin membrane of stretched lamb-skin covering the top. The long fingerboard has twenty-six to twenty-eight adjustable gut frets, and there are three double courses of strings. Its range is about two and one- half octaves, and is played with a small brass plectrum.
The ancestry of the setar can be traced to the ancient tanbur of pre-Islamic Persia. It is made from thin mulberry wood and its fingerboard has twenty-five or twenty-six adjustable gut frets. Setar is literally translated as “three strings”; however, in its present form, it has four strings and it is suspected that setar initially had only three strings. Because of its delicacy and intimate sonority, the setar is the preferred instrument of Sufi mystics.
Dating back to the pre-Christian calendar, Daf has a wooden frame with a goatskin cover with rings inside the frame. Frame drums are the most ancient type of musical instruments. Daf is one of the most ancient frame drums in Asia and North Africa. In Iran, Sufis use Daf during their Zikr (spiritual chanting) ritual; in recent years Iranian musicians have successfully integrated it into Persian music and is one of the commonly used instruments in Iran today.
Zarb (aka, Tombak; courtesy)
It is an ancient persian goblet shaped drum, made from Walnut or Mulberry wood, and covered with goatskin. In the days of the Persian empire the Zarb came second to Daf, which was favored at the court, and formed part of the traditional music ensemble. Only in the 20th century has the Zarb come into it's own, from a simple rhythmic accompaniment to a performance in itself. It is one of the commonly used instruments in Iran today.