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Uncharted territory
Som'ma: Uncompromising virtuosos

June 25, 2003
The Iranian

In today's virtual music world of looped audio samples, synthetic sounds, and overdubbed studio recordings, it is a deep breath of fresh air to hear a group of musicians emphasize strongly on capturing the essence of their live performances and their natural sounds in their recordings.

Another deep breath and a big, proud sigh will ensue once you realize that this group consists of Iranian virtuoso musicians playing traditional Iranian instruments. But a bewildered gasp comes when you realize that they are going fully against the grain in opposite directions to traditional Iranian music and mainstream Persian Pop.

You won't hear danceable rhythms and cheesy lyrics that spell M-O-N-E-Y and market sales, and you also won't hear strict classical Iranian pieces solely following tradition. You are then left to wonder who their target audience is and how they intend to establish an Iranian following by burning all the 'safe' Persian music bridges behind them.

But such is the uncompromising nature of the band Som'ma. This a band where a desire for individual artistic freedom has brought them together in a collaborative effort to push the tonal restraints set by the Persian classical music 'Dastgah' system.

Together they are exploring the uncharted territories of Persian art music, regardless of mainstream or traditional audience support, and guided only by their inner light. However, to be able to legally cross these traditional music borders and venture into unknown artistic realms, they have had to spend a lifetime of study, practice and research about their musical heritage, culture and tradition.

Besides having the literal meaning of singing and chanting to music to attain a higher state of emotion and ecstasy, Som'ma is also the name of an invigorating beverage used as an offering to the Gods in Vedic ritual sacrifices. But for the members of Som'ma , it also means "...listening to the inner voice of oneself, creating art & music free of any limits or boundaries ,yet true to the emotions and feelings of the musician".

While Som'ma enjoys building on the traditional repertoire of the Persian classical 'Dastgah' modal system and expanding and fusing the melodic 'Gushe' s with new sounds and tonalities, they have also very efficiently incorporated the often overlooked concept of fusing sound and silence within their music.

This unique spectrum of modal sound and modern space in the music of Somma, is reminiscent of the Modal Jazz style introduced by Miles Davis. The harmonically static and purely melodic flow of unrushed, wandering sound , forms the backbone of this style.

Instead of the performer having to confine his movement within the harmonic boundaries of the chord progression, or the melodic restrictions of the 'Dastgah', the soloist can transition and move between modes using the common tonalities in them, and even venture outside of the preset modes and back again to create a sense of tension and release instead of resolving chord harmonies.

The excitement and unpredictability of modal improvisation, and the anticipation of where the audience is being taken to next by the music, is what keeps Som'ma' s live music always fresh, volatile and impossible to experience twice.

Based in San Francisco, Som'ma embodies different forms at different times based on the changes in its lineup of virtuoso musicians. Som'ma's vast repertoire covers everything from strict Persian classical music to Middle Eastern & Indian fusion and even Rock and Electronica collaborations. One of the ensemble's goals is to introduce Western listeners to the mysterious beauties of Persian music by performing in unconventional settings and festivals where Persian musicians do not regulary appear.

Som'ma strives to push the boundaries of today's Persian art music, in the same way that Miles Davis and Frank Zappa further expanded the already vast soundscapes of Jazz and Rock. In this sense, Som'ma is truly an underground Persian music ensemble inside the Persian community. The founders of Somma , Shirzad Sharif and Alan Kushan, both come from highly artistic and musical backgrounds.

Shirzad was born to a musical family, and has trained with the likes of Ostad Farhang Sharif and studied the Persian Tonbak with the legendary Ostad Bahman Rajabi in Iran. His unique performance and teaching technique has led him to performing at numerous seminars including the University of Maryland, University of Utah, San Francisco Sate University & UCLA. Shirzad is the first Tonbak player to have researched & performed other Middle Eastern, Arabic & non-Persian rhythms on the Tonbak.

Accompanying instruments such as the Riqq, Mazhar, Darabuka and Tablas, he has composed and performed many percussive compositions using Arabic, Persian and Indian drums, thus connecting the triangle of the three ancient regions of Persia, India & the Middle East.

He has also developed a very unique style of playing melodic rhythms on the Tonbak, which must be seen and heard to be fully appreciated. Dr. Alan Kushan is one of the leading Persian avant-garde artists, and probably the most accomplished of modern day 'Santur' players and composers. Alan studied santur with Master Faramarz Payevar from the age of 9, then moved to Europe to continue his studies . He holds a Masters Degree in Classical Composition from Berlin University's Conservatory of Music.

Alan has also studied improvisation with Sir Yehudi Menuhin, avant-garde theory with Karlheinz Stockhausen and the vocal music of the Arab Peninsula with Egyptian musicologist: Dr Hassan Habib. He has collaborated with some of today's greatest modern musicians, including Miles Davis, Paco De Lucia, Max Roach, Billy Cobham, Ronald Shannon Jackson and Mickey Hart. An accomplished instrument builder, he has expanded the range of the traditional Santur to accommodate his vast musical creativity by adding elements from the modern piano, harp and guitar.

The result is a unique sounding instrument, which enables him to masterfully transition between classical and modern music styles.With the music of Som'ma, it can be argued that "If it is art, then it is not for all, and if it is for all, then it is not art."

But pioneers and avant-garde artists are rarely appreciated and understood within their lifetimes, as their vision keeps them ahead of their contemporaries. Even so, Som'ma's music, and more importantly their live performances, will surely provide a unique experience for progressive listeners for years to come >>> Sample song "Yekta"

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