The Kamkars. Photo courtesy of Kereshmeh
Magic with music
The Kamkars on tour in the United States
By Kamran Hooshmand
September 1, 1999
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
- Send a comment for The Iranian letters
- Send a comment to the writer Kamran