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The Kamkars. Photo courtesy of Kereshmeh Records

Magic with music
The Kamkars on tour in the United States

By Kamran Hooshmand
September 1, 1999
The Iranian

I just returned from a concert performance by the Kamkars in Houston, Texas. It was simply an amazing experience. For two days I spent the majority of my time helping them out in various ways, and had the honor of introducing the group to the audience.

It was certainly great to see a family interact with each other both musically and on a personal level. There was a certain kind of a division of duties among the brothers and their one sister. Hooshang Kamkar for instance, didn't perform at all. He basically directed the group's activities and oversaw the sound mixing. He is a prolific composer and has arranged many of the group's songs.

As with everything Iranian, the entire presentation was very symbolic. For example, there are seven brothers, and the number seven has always had a special "mystical" place in ancient Persian mythology. The one sister, is a world of symbols by herself. Ghashang Kamkar in a way represents the Iranian woman. Solo vocals by women is banned in Iran, but woman can still perform musical instruments. Ghashang plays the setar, the small long-necked lute which itself has always been associated with Sufism and personal meditation.

The setar has a soft delicate sound which is intended for the performer to hear and perhaps a small audience close to the performer. Since the 1979 revolution, the setar has become the instrument of choice for Iranian women. In this way, the associations of the setar with a woman (Ghashang), Sufism, meditation, and politics carefully weaves the internal with the external. In effect, with every strum of the setar, Ghashang ties the personal psyche to the collective. I remember vividly when I first saw the Kamkars in Tehran in 1993. During the concert I heard women in the audience yelling "Long Live Ghashang Kamkar!"

The oldest brother, Pashang, and the youngest, Ardavan, play the santur. The santur, with its 72 strings, has a bright and relatively louder sound than most Iranian instruments. Although a perfect match for Iranian traditional music, it is often thought of by the masters as not the ideal Persian instrument because of its set intervals played on fixed notes, which once tuned and set, doesn't allow much room for modulations, which is an integral part of Persian classical music. However, the santur became very popular in Iran in the 70's mainly because of its bright, louder sound, as well as its ability to play Western harmonic intervals, at times even imitating the piano. After 1979, the santur's status certainly diminished in comparison to the setar and tar, which is also a type of lute.

The Kamkars' use of santurs certainly adds a dynamic, vibrant sound to the group. It also adds harmonization which unlike the typical Kurdish music, is an added Western element. However, this harmonization is so well crafted into the fabric of each composition that it is heard as an extension of the overall sound of the group and not as a separate technique. Pashang plays the santur more subtly, delicately, while Ardavan the youngest member of the group, plays it with more energy. Ardavan has also introduced new techniques in playing the santur. In the second half of the program, he opens the set as a soloist. At this time he switches his "quarter tone santur" with one that's tuned chromatically, thus he can create truly stunning passages which constantly bridge between Western classical passages on a piano, and traditional Persian music, and even Kurdish and Azari motives. His solo performance was superb, ending in a standing ovation.

The only instrument with a continuous tone (as opposed to the more percussive tone of the strummed instruments) is the kamancheh, a spiked fiddle played vertically by placing it in front of the performer -- much like a small cello -- played by Ardeshir Kamkar. Besides being a virtuoso Kamancheh player, Ardeshir is also one of the main composers of the group. Like the santur, both Western classical and Iranian traditional techniques were used on the kamancheh. Many of the Western tehniques imitated similar techniques of the violin. The most interesting aspect I noticed was that during some of the rhythmic passages Ardeshir would use the kamancheh as a percussion instrument striking its round soundbox with the wooden part of the bow, creating a sharp clicking sound like Latin claves. This certainly added a nice accent to the sound making more lively.

Another instrument which has also re-emerged in Iranian classical music is the barbat also known as the oud throughout the Middle East. Because it is fretless, the barbat fits perfectly with the nuances of Iranian music. The barbat was played by Arsalan Kamkar, himself a prolific composer and arranger, who is also a virtuoso violinist in the Iranian National Orchestra. The barbat, is an ancient instrument which was the leading instrument in Persia centuries ago. According to scholars, most musical theories were first studied and applied to the barbat and the tanbur (a long-necked lute). In today's Iranian orchestra, the barbat acts mainly as a bass instrument, keeping the bass rhythms ("paaye"). But, it has recently been used as a solo instrument for improvisation. Arsalan beautifully demonstrated the barbat's potential as both a rhythmic instrument and a solo improviser.

Finally, Bijan Kamkar is the lead singer of the group with a relatively high voice in the tenor range. Besides singing, Bijan also played the daf, a large frame drum with small rings hanging from its inside rim. The daf is capable of producing several different sounds. By shifting the daf back and forth, one can control the sound created by the instrument to produce only a drum sound, only a snare sound, or both. This created a very rich, vibrant, and energetic sound which I think to a great extend could be considered the "signature sound" of the Kamkars.

There is more to the daf than just as a percussion instrument. The daf is ancient and has often been associated with the religious ceremonies of the Kurds and Sufi dervishes throughout the Middle East. The kurds have a particular respect for the daf, giving it almost humanistic qualities. for instance, in some of their Sufi rituals if a daf's skin breaks due to heavy beating of the drum, the Kurds say symbolically "daf shahid shod" ("the daf has been martyred"). During the performance of the Kamkars, the daf acts as a wake-up alarm, breaking the flow of the music, which can be quite nostalgic, and trance-inducing at times. It bridges the internal and the external psyches; balancing the meditative, spiritual, and ethereal with the physical.

The axis of the rhythm section was held by none other than Arjang Kamkar, playing the Iranian drum known as the tombak or zarb, an hour-glass shaped wooden drum that is played horizontally by placing it on the lap. The zarb can produce a multiple of sounds and textures, which to the novice listener may sound like more than one drum is being played by multiple drummers.

Besides the musical aspects of the performance, the concert undoubtedly had certain nationalistic overtones, both in the context of Kurdish nationalism, as well as the larger Iranian nationalism. Other issues that arose in my mind were issues of identity and ethnicity, politics of language, metaphor and symbolism, women's issues and the role of family in musical contexts, as well as interactive hegemonies of language and music.

Also, one of the favorite topics I dwell on is democracy in music, where one would investigate the interaction of musicians and instruments in a group by noting the hegemony of instruments, leadership, role of harmonies and rhythms and analyzing them within a sociological spectrum. How does a group playing the same melody following a lead line, compare to a group where everyone plays a different line? Does this say something about the social and political structure of that society?

The Kamkars are currently touring the United States for the first time. If you have a chance to see them, don't miss it! It will be one of the great musical experiences of your life.


Kamran Hooshmand is a musician and ethnomusicologist affiliated with the University of Texas at Austin. He is also the founder of the Middle Eastern group, 1001 Nights Orchestra.

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