‘Day and night I tore myself to shreds so the sun would come – it didn’t come’
For three hot, sticky, and otherwise unbearable summer days in July, a motley crew of Iranians from around the globe descended on Toronto’s sleepy Harbourfront Centre to put the ‘Tehran’ back into Tehranto. For its third edition, the Tirgan festival gathered together artists, musicians, performers, scholars, and myriad other pundits from various disciplines for what has now become the world’s largest celebration of Iranian arts & culture outside Iran. Kicking off this year’s theme of ‘hope’ – which some may have regarded as a reflection of the dire state of Iranian international relations, or of a spirit of optimism regarding Iran’s political future – was Siavash Shabanpour’s operatic rendition of Arash the Archer, based on the late Siavash Kasraii’s poetic retelling of the ancient Iranian myth. To the clash of symbols and the occasional clack of a beer can cutting through the thick veil of humidity that summer’s eve, a colourful crowd of awestruck, sweat-drenched onlookers witnessed the timeless trial of one of Iran’s most noble sons against the warriors of Turan, which brought forth a renewed spirit of nationalism, pride, and, true to the festival’s adopted theme, hope; and thus, with a bang (literally), the kabab-infused festivities began.
Gutted at having missed Paris-based Shahrokh Moshkin-Ghalam’s dance interpretation of a selection of love stories from the Shahnameh (the Persian ‘Book of Kings’ epic) for the second time due to the bane of typical Toronto traffic – which the influx of Iranians did nothing to assuage whatsoever – I arrived at Harbourfront a good three hours before a concert by Hamed Nikpay, consoling myself with the fact that I’d have plenty of time to explore the communal delights the festival had to offer. After picking up a bit of Persian swag at the pop-up bazaar on the green (sans bargains, alas), and a spanking-new copy of Hamid Rahmanian’s new version of the Shahnameh, I caught a lecture on classical Iranian music by the eccentric Lloyd Miller, a somewhat familiar name in the jazz lexicon. Although captivated at first by the 70-something’s colourful anecdotes about performing in pre-Revolution Iran and his remarks about identifying as an Iranian (though he lamented not having ‘the cool hair or the cool skin’), he later lost me with some dubious remarks about the origins of Persian music and misplaced praise for various figures in Iranian history. The juvenile spirit of my university days still flowing strong within me, I slipped out as inconspicuously as possible (having only had to walk past a camera or two) back into the heat, ticket in hand, in pursuit of Agha Hamed.
‘With his heartwarming poems and beautiful music, please welcome Hamed Nikpay!’ The audience – composed mostly of ardent young fans and clueless baby boomers – clapped, hooted, and howled, as the five-piece ensemble slowly emerged from behind the stage and began to fine-tune their moisture-ridden instruments. After a rather humble introductory greeting, Nikpay set the record straight, lest there should be any misconceptions about his practice. ‘I just wanted to say I’ve never written a poem in my life’, he said softly, gazing at his red velvet loafers. ‘I’m not a poet … I’m just a musician’. Hats off to you, Hamed, I thought, as I made out the words afarin and damet garm being whispered in the rows beyond. As with his forbears and contemporaries in the Iranian avaz tradition, the overwhelming majority of Nikpay’s compositions are based around poems by renowned medieval Persian poets such as Rumi, Saadi, Hafez, Attar, Khayyam, and others. Despite his songs being firmly rooted in mystical Persian verse, Nikpay has been able to carve out a signature sound for himself, through his openness to world cultures and his seemingly effortless synthesis of styles – both instrumental and vocal – from Iran, the greater Middle East, South Asia, and beyond. While ‘purists’ such as Miller may find Nikpay’s brand of music abhorrent (the former having expressed a profound dislike for Googoosh and any form of non-spiritual Iranian music in general), he has garnered quite a following both in Iran, as well as in Europe and North America, pandering to the tastes of lovers of Persian music with a deep appreciation for the grand ostads such as Shajarian and Nazeri, yet who don’t mind a bit of a ‘shaking up’ of the status quo every now and then.
Accompanied by four master musicians – Farzin Farhadi on soprano saxophone, Hussain Jiffry on electric bass, Alfredo Caceres on Spanish guitar, and Satnam Ramgotra on tabla – Nikpay, with utmost devotion and resolve, performed an eclectic set of songs from his most recent album, Reaching You (Vasl-e To), as well as a number of older favourites from the previous Spellbound (Divaneh-tar) and All is Calm (Asoudeh). Commencing with a handful of more contemplative and jazzier numbers, the initial focus was largely on the interplay between the musicians, as well as the subtle vocal work of a reserved, yet undoubtedly enrapt Nikpay, whose impassioned wails continuously reached new sonic heights. Later, as the ensemble found their groove and became more ‘comfortable’ (as exemplified by Ramgotra’s humorous Indian-themed interjections in-between songs, and the gradually increasing taarof-ridden banter between Nikpay and Farhadi), Nikpay took his setar and tanbur in hand, and progressed through some of his more dynamic compositions. On the piquant Cordoba to Kordestan, Nikpay’s masterful cascading strumming on the tanbur (an Iranian long-necked lute used extensively in Sufi rituals, particularly in Kurdistan), accompanied by Caceres’ fluid melodies on the guitar evoked at once the rugged mountains and valleys of Kurdistan and the lush gardens of Moorish Andalusia. Hearing Nikpay alternate seamlessly between Persian, Spanish, and Indian schools of singing and instrumentation, I couldn’t help but recall the legendary Zaryab (lit. ‘one who finds gold’), the eminent Persian musician at the Abbasid court in ninth century Cordoba, and the longstanding relationship between the Persian and Spanish (and Arabic) musical traditions. History lessons have never been so visceral.
Having gone from Cordoba to Kurdistan and back, Nikpay’s performance reached a sombre tone on what was perhaps the most emotionally charged number of the afternoon. Gently laying his beaten tanbur aside, a downcast Nikpay solemnly addressed the audience to introduce the next song of his set, which would see him and Caceres trading licks on the setar and guitar. Entitled Nayamad (lit. ‘It Didn’t Come’), the song was a homage to his late uncle, who, after being stripped of his post as a university professor in Tehran twice, was reduced to selling sandwiches in the tiny town of Rudehen on the outskirts of the city. Under extreme financial pressure to provide for his wife and children, he soon succumbed to a fatal heart attack. As Nikpay related this painful anecdote, the story of another friend of mine, the Iranian artist Farbod Morshedzadeh, came to mind. As we were chatting in his Rudehen abode just a few months ago, he told me how, as a result of his honesty regarding his religious tendencies, he was fired as a university professor. In between cups of tea and drags on his cigarettes, he further went on to lament the state of a country, in which, to quote a song by the alternative Iranian rock group Kiosk, ‘everyone is out of place’.
Shetab kard ke aftab biyayad, sang a humble, yet undeniably impassioned Nikpay: He made haste, so the sun would come – nayamad; it didn’t come. Akh, daridam; shabaneh rooz daridam ke aftab biyayad – nayamad, the bitter tale continued: Oh, I tore myself to shreds; day and night I tore myself to shreds so the sun would come – it didn’t come. After his fervent laments came the pitiful and harrowing verse, which seemed to serve as a reflection of all those tired, weary, and beaten faces one so often comes across in the land of the noble: What strange, ominous days … hah … time is the master of the dog, and I, its dog.
Stepping outside the auditorium, the sun was burning ever vehemently above a white canvas of sails, seagulls, and steamers. Looking around at the throngs of children devouring hot dogs by the water’s edge and the families languidly ambling along the thoroughfare, I couldn’t hold back the pangs of melancholy within the depths of my stomach, despite the joy around me. What strange, ominous days, Nikpay’s voice continued to resound. Though the sun shines resplendent above our heads on this lazy midsummer’s eve, I thought, for some, it has yet to come. The words of the sage from Khorasan, the land where the sun ‘rises with ease’, seemed to echo from beyond the waves:
From our arrival and departure, what have we to show?
And where is the warp of our being’s weft to sew?
Many innocent souls in the firmament’s cycle
Burn and become dust – where’s the smoke?
From Joobin Bekhrad’s The Quatrains of Omar Khayyam