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"Our Existence Is All Celebration"

by Mehmet DEDE

The New York Times calls him the "ambassador for a silenced music." He's lived in 11 different countries and speaks 5 languages. He's a regular at Columbia and NYU lecturing on Middle-Eastern music. With his multi-cultural background and knowledge in music, Amir Vahab, in his own words, is truly like "Middle-Eastern mud."

Born in Tehran, Iran, Amir began studying music at an early age. His first instrument was the tanbour and he eventually moved to playing setar, tar, ney and daf. Amir Vahab left Iran when he was 18 years old, moving first to England, then to France and Switzerland. In 1981, he settled down in New York City and opened up his own jewelry shop. After working in that business for many years, he finally managed to quit it to solely focus on music production and performance. A deeply spiritual person, Amir Vahab regularly holds drumming circles at his apartment on the Upper East Side and performs with his band Ensemble Soroosh at various venues in NYC.

Following is an excerpt from our interview:

You grew up in Iran during the regime of the Shah. How did Iran change in your eyes since the revolution?

I left Iran three years before the revolution happened; I had no idea that there would be one. It was the time of the Shah and he seemed very secure. I did not return for 24 years. When I finally did, I saw that it had changed a lot, in size and social life. There were a lot of bad changes but some good ones as well. When I started playing traditional Iranian music, my own brothers were making fun of me saying "Oh, you're playing Iranian instruments!" It had to be piano, guitar or something similar. We were so Westernized. Today there are lots more Iranian musicians with local instruments and that's a good thing.

Tell us about the Iranian community in the US and the people who attend your concerts. Where are they coming from?

The Iranians in the US are divided into two major groups: Those who came here after they formed an identity in Iran (18 years and older) and those that came here either as a child or were born here. People in the second category are very much "Americanized," some of them don't even speak Persian. Yet in time, these young Iranians start yearning for their own culture and origin. There is even a verse in the Qu'ran that says everything returns to its roots.

Your music is very moving and spiritual. Where does this spiritualism come from?

I had a concert once where I was supposed to play Sufi music and I asked a spiritual guide what to play. He said if you are a spiritual person, your music is automatically spiritual. No matter what you play. And if you are not a spiritual person, no matter how hard you try you cannot play. The Persians say, what you pour inside the jar is what is going to come out of it. So if you have spirituality in the jar of your body, it will come out.

What kind of songs do you perform?

My repertoire consists of a lot of regional Persian music, but also Turkish and Kurdish music. For some reason Kurdish and Turkish music trembles my heart and I am neither 100% Turkish or Kurdish [laughs]. I play a lot of folk and Sufi music.

Essentially Sufi music is deeply rooted in folk music.

Yes, the difference of the two is in the words. You know, Sufi poets talk about Sharab (wine). Rumi for instance says [quotes in Farsi] "I am drunken but not from the sharab, the sweetness that I am talking about cannot even be found in shequer (sugar)." He's reminding us that there are other senses that our language cannot explain. The totality of existence cannot be put into words. It must be felt. That is Sufi music.

You regularly hold drumming circles with a group of people tapping on daf, zarb, tanbak etc. What is the goal of the drumming circle?

Drumming goes as far back as the creation of human existence. The rhythm is part of our nature. The theme comes from the American Indian who celebrated their children, drummed for rain etc. We drum to celebrate our existence, all the halal things that Allah gave us, his blessings. It's a means to remember Allah and pray. We never drum without reason; every drumming has a purpose. We drum for healing, for seasons, for joy. Our existence is all about celebration. God created us from nothing into something. The drummings are prayers [drumming sounds coming from the background].

Last question before you join your next drumming session. Who is part of your Ensemble Soroosh?

I have 50 musicians I work with one and off. I pick a few depending on the concert: Sufi, traditional Persian, folk music etc. I have Kurdish, Armenian, American, and Turkish musicians.

To find out upcoming performances visit Amir Vahab's website at www.tanbour.org

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