There once was one; and then there were none. Under the blue dome of the evening sky, apart from the presence of God, there was absolutely no one…. Nestled between the Caspian Sea and the Alborz Mountains, in the city of wolves, lived a little boy with his grandfather. The little boy loved to hear stories and his grandfather had many to tell, and so they spent most of their days together. Years passed; the boy grew up and left home to live adventures of his own; chasing legends and dreaming of giants. Videos:  [PHOTOS]
Along his journey, he spent many nights under the blue dome of foreign skies, far from his city and far from anyone to guide him. But his grandfather’s tales never left him and when he listened real hard, he could always hear his old familiar voice echoing through his consciousness and lighting up his path. Today the little boy is a man; and the giants are his friends. Today, the man is a storyteller in his own right and although the story of his journey is most enchanting when it is he who tells it through his Setar, I am nonetheless grateful to bring to you my conversations with him in the following pages.
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I was officially introduced to Kourosh Taghavi on September 14, 2007 outside the Neuroscience Institute in La Jolla, during the entr’acte of a local concert. His wife, Sara, and I both work on the editorial board of Peyk and knowing that I had been interested in interviewing him, she brought him to meet me during the break. What I recall from that first meeting was a very warm and genuine smile along with unpredictably soft skin when I shook his hand—testament to his hobby of gastronomy—and an overall very young, hip guy. To those who have the pleasure of knowing him, Kourosh is all of that and much more.
However, if like me your experience up until that point, was limited to seeing him against the backdrop of a stage during a performance, making any assessment of his natural state would be a difficult and unreasonable task. Watching Kourosh perform on stage, you witness a different person; a serious, focused man, with his eyes closed, lost somewhere inside his own world. Sitting within his audience, you are not free to observe him as your glance is fixated and you dare not take your eyes off, because without realizing it your respiration has tuned itself to the strings at his fingertips and in your trance he has transported you on a journey, hostage to the corners of his imagination. A live performance highlights the profundity and intricacy at the base of traditional Iranian music, although the musicians who are the messengers of this powerful communication often find themselves unjustly typecast inside but one lone dimension out of their entire world.
I only saw Kourosh one more time after that night until January of 2008 when he opened the doors of his home and his life to me for this interview and taught me that nowhere was the example of typecasting more evident or undeserved than my own perception of him had been before the memorable handshake that made him my friend.
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Gorgan, Iran ( 1965-1983)
M: Tell me about your childhood years; what was your family like? Do you have any particular memories that stand out from those early years?
K: I was born in 1965 in Gorgan, Iran. I have 2 older siblings; a brother and a sister. My parents were both social activists and my grandfather was a judge and a poet. My first childhood memory is from my grandpa. He started reading the Shahnameh to me when I was 11 or 12 years old and read it in its entirety at least 2 or 3 times. I became at ease with routinely hearing poems from a very young age and grew accustomed to poetry as a form of storytelling from the tales of the Shahnameh. In general, I can say that I loved all stories, and particularly those immersed in fantasy. Jules Verne, who wrote futuristic stories of voyages to outer space, was one of my favorite authors. I had a wild imagination and I spent countless hours of my afternoons daydreaming and inventing stories. These stories incorporated elements from my own imagination with current events as well as books and local tales to create crazy reports which I would then tell people to make them believe that I had a very exciting and wild life!
M: How do you feel those early years shaped your career?
K: My artistic style and nature became one of a storyteller and I think that shaped my style as a musician also. When I play, I am always telling a story in my mind and there are characters at work. In real life, I have also always been drawn to people who resembled legends and idols, much like I was drawn to Rostam and Ghoul and Esfandiar and Sohrab of the Shahnameh. I think we need to establish these role models in real life so that children, in particular, can relate and be drawn to, and feel inspired by, to pursue their dreams and do all those great things the same way the legends of the fairy tales once inspired us as children. I remember dreaming of meeting those people who, in real life, were no less legendary than Rostam, Esfandiar and Sohrab were in the Shahnameh. The most amazing part of meeting giants such as Mohammad Reza Lotfi, Hossein Alizadeh, Hooshang Ebtehaj, Mahmood Dolatabadi, Ahmad Shamloo, and Bozorg Alavi was actually witnessing their ordinary side!
Unearthing Roots Abroad (1983-2003)
M: When did you leave Iran and what was your motivation?
K: I left Iran in 1983 (about 24 years), and I have only returned once since. I initially spent a year in Italy—which was very fun—before arriving to the US. Like most of the kids my age, I was socially active and vocal in Iran which led to the decision for my studies to continue abroad. In 1984, I started at Cal State Northridge as an undergraduate student in Pre-Med. Four years later, I had a change of heart and realized that medicine was neither my passion nor the career I wanted to pursue.
M: How did you transition from a Pre-Med student to a Professional Musician?
K: Coming to the realization that medicine was NOT my life’s passion was a fairly easy assessment to make, but disclosing my choice to my family was very difficult. As for finding my life’s passion, it was just a matter of falling in love. In 1987, Master Lotfi came to the US with Hussein Alizadeh, Hussein Omoomi, and Mohammad Ghavihelm in concert. I recall the first time that I heard Lotfi play the Setar live, I felt that everything I have always wanted to say was in the sound of the Setar….and it still is. I contacted Master Lotfi and he told me to study with a student of his, Parto Hooshmandrad. In 1988 I started my classes with her in Berkeley. That following year, in 1989, I began studying with Master Lotfi, and in 1990, with Master Alizadeh. I had these ongoing studies through 2003 along with collaborative efforts with other artists and groups, eventually realizing several recording projects, concerts and other live performances.
M: There are two junctures in your professional development that are particularly notable. The first is the relatively late age when you began studying the Setar. The second is that you had the distinct fortune to study under the foremost renowned Masters of this instrument;
—-How do you feel that these events distinguish you from other musicians inside Iran?
K: It is difficult for me to compare becoming a musician in the US versus becoming a musician in Iran, since I have only experienced the former. Also, it is true that I started late in life with music. Most musicians begin studying and practicing during their childhood years. Yet most musicians also do not experience many of the opportunities that I have been fortunate to have and many of those were as a direct result of my residency in the US. The prospect of having Mohammad Reza Lotfi—the person who has had the greatest influence on me—as a teacher; having the possibility to collaborate with other artists and perform with incredible giants such as Coleman Barks and Robert Bly, would all have been inconceivable in Iran. Simply put, had I stayed in Iran, there is a good probability I would not have learned to play the Setar. So, as odd as it may sound, it was the US that provided me with the ideal environment to learn a traditional Iranian instrument that I would not have been able to find even in Iran.
—-Living abroad, do you fear that your Iranian identity is ultimately destined to weaken inside your ever-growing American one?
K: I must say that this is one topic I feel very confident and secure in. I think that if something which we refer to as “Iranian Culture” (namely comprised of: poetry, music, painting, architecture, traditions and customs) has been able to resist the Arab and Mongolian invasions as well as the “Gharb-zadegi” (negative connotation of Westernization/Western influence over Iran) of the 19th and 20th centuries, it should easily handle my 20 years of absence. I sincerely do not believe that the issue of “Iranian Collective Identity” is under any type of threat, because 70 million Iranians and nearly 7000 years of history will assure its continuity. The concern, however, stems from the insecure people who ultimately feel that their “individual identity” is threatened unless they have Chelo-Kabab or Gheimeh 3-times a week. That is of course, unfortunate.
M: How has your career change to music altered your overall path in life?
K: Before becoming involved in the space of music, I was involved in a different space which back then I referred to as “Social Activism,” although I now realize that at the time I did not understand the full meaning of the term. What I do know is that I desperately needed to be involved in something that made a difference, and would change the world for the better, which eventually became music. In 1992, during one of my first concerts, a fundraiser for a homeless shelter in Oakland, I experienced a breakthrough by witnessing the successful fusion of my music and my social activism as evidenced by the collection of the funds raised through the small performance of my Setar. It was at that moment that I found my Guiding Force, My Value, and My Whole Life! From that moment on, I realized that there can be a practical use for the arts. It is not that I rejected fame or did not pursue recognition, but I also wanted to achieve a purpose. My teacher always used to say what you are learning has to be your tool, not your goal, and now, for the first time, I could clearly see a way to apply my tool to attain my overall goal and that was exhilarating.
Community (2003- Present)
M: Please explain why you have referred to San Diego as a case in point city in so far as a real Iranian “Community” is concerned. Why is Los Angeles any different?
K: A community can only call itself a community when it is complete; when it not only has doctors, lawyers and engineers, but also musicians, dancers, painters and singers. Only when there is freedom of self-determination can the youth grow to fill all the positions that are necessary to construct a real community. This diversity exists in San Diego and is precisely what makes the Iranians in San Diego a real Community.
M: During a live performance when musicians and their audience ought to establish a clear—albeit unspoken—bond with one another, often a vast disconnect is felt instead. What advice do you have for those of us who are not bilingual in music on how we may become a better and more educated audience? How can we establish better expectations and communication?
K: I am one of those people who believe that the audience is capable of distinguishing the difference between good and bad so long as they have experienced both. It is true that musicians and non-musicians often speak different languages, but apart from picking up an instrument and beginning to study this language called music, your only other option is repeated exposure. The more exposure you gain, the more experience you will have, and the more fluent you will become. A good audience is an audience who knows what they are choosing and are satisfied with the choice that they have made whatever it may be. I personally do not go to a Pink Floyd concert for the same reason that I would go to a Rolling Stones concert. I expect the same distinction and judgment from my audience. If they come to see me for a performance honoring Forough Farokhzad and Siavash Kasrai, they should not expect to have their memories of Marzieh or bits and pieces from their childhood played that night. Likewise, the audience should expect the same from me, and they should hold me up to the standards that I am claiming. The audience and the musician are in a direct relationship and have a big compromise. There are different types of music for different types of audiences. An educated audience is a more selective audience which then filters which performances they do wish to attend based on the criteria put up by the musician and their own taste and when they do attend, they hold the musician up to that specific standard, and that in turn pushes the musician to excel.
M: What is your philosophy on teaching and by what means do you attempt to pass the culture and knowledge of Iranian music to the Diaspora who may have never experienced any of it first hand?
K: I am reminded of the saying: “Talking about music is like dancing about architecture.”I feel like the best way to teach Iranian music is through performance, in other words through the old “oral tradition” system. My students therefore tape their classes since it is not taught through notes. The oral system is based on improvisation and my students learn to improvise right from the start. My teacher once said: “Learn everything there is to learn, as well as you possibly can and then THROW IT OUT”. To be able to do that you must be able to learn the concepts meticulously. To tell you the truth, I was a lazy child myself so I am sympathetic. Besides taking classes with him myself directly, I also watched him teach others quite often and I observed the way he treated them all like children and always aimed to please them and teach them by way of play. I noticed that his students always left happy, whether they were there one day or many. I have adopted the same approach with my students by using an indirect way instead of a systematic way to teach them. For example, instead of teaching them theory or structure, I just tell them “put your finger here and pull like this….” Before long they are playing a complex arrangement without even realizing it.
M: You are exceptionally at-peace with the world and with yourself. Many verbalize this topic, but you have only raised my awareness through your interactions. I would like to know exactly where you find this internal balance
K: Let me just say this right from the beginning and not because this is an interview or because I am looking for something very “chic” to say, but the most important thing for me is to be recognized as a good human being. I don’t care if people say Kourosh is an exemplary Iranian, but I do care if people say that I am a good person. Now, it is true that I learned my definition of what being a good person is from my Iranian siblings and from my Iranian parents and from my Iranian culture but when I came to this country I added new lessons and continued to add to this existing concept of “goodness.” I think that the bottom line is finding a medium or tool through which to communicate the essential goodness of all people, and for me that tool is music. The concept is quite simple. Goodness is accepting that if you understand something so deeply that because of the depth of your awareness, you can draw others in and make them appreciate it, I, too, although from a completely different part of the world than you, can also create the same effect. Goodness is never accepting to rise up by stepping on someone else’s shoulders. These are concepts that exist internationally and each culture employs its own method to try to communicate its message to one another. When you move to another country, your very first challenge is to be accepted as an equal. What do I mean by equality? Equality means if you believe you are such a good person that you can fall in love and love your children, I too can fall in love, I too can love my kids, I too can build the greatest building in the world, and create the greatest work of art ever made….all just like you. I truly believe this definition of equality because I have seen it with my own eyes. I have lived in this country since I was 17 years old and this is where I have learned everything I know about adult life, such as working, falling in love, paying a mortgage, experiencing hard times, etc…I believe whole-heartedly that Americans are very good and very bad people, just like us. In the end if you come to the basic conclusion that “Goodness must go on,” you begin to see how truly irrelevant everything else becomes.
M: Do you have a key to success?
K: Yes, I suppose I do. There was a time when I was receiving both the proper training required to become a professional as well as the individual support of everyone who was lending their hands to push me up to reach my goal. Ultimately, the key point that led to connecting all of these efforts together and led me to reach my point of explosion and success was without a doubt my wife, Sara. Her existence made me secure and peaceful and gave me the confidence to strive for and reach my potential.
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In February now and while the majority of San Diego’s retail stores are preoccupied with taking down the red and pink Valentine’s Day merchandise to quickly reshelf with the Green St. Patrick’s Day items, our little community gears up for Nowruz. Reflecting on the passing year, I imitate the stores and try to rearrange my memories; packing up the seasons that have come and gone, to make room for Spring’s new packages. I look down with admiration at the newfound gem that I inadvertently uncovered in my last Peyk assignment of this year. I worry whether I was sufficiently adept to justly convey all of the exceptional qualities that distinguish him from the rest; not just as a Setar player, or a musician, but as what I truly see him for.
More than those factors, Kourosh is a carefully selected anthology that combines stories with philosophical theories to form a unique and refreshing person. He can sit with the elders just the same as he can relate to a toddler. He can sink into Alizadeh’s music for hours but later that same evening you can take him to the KIOSK concert, since he gets that too. I mention these qualities, not to flatter him, or to endear myself, because all that I have said is common knowledge to his inner circle. I mention these qualities specifically for those of you who like the “Mersedeh of September of 2007”, still may not have met Kourosh personally; especially those of you with children.
Inspiration is like a seed; once you plant it inside a child it is sure to grow and bloom. It will continue to produce long after there is no one else left there to care for it; allowing that child to reap the benefits of its fruit. I definitely do not qualify as a child anymore, and I am not sure how old you, as the reader, may be. All I do hope for is that I may have encouraged you to add one more resolution to your list for this New Year, that is, to let Kourosh tell you a story. I promise it will be the easiest and the most enjoyable resolution on your list! Videos:  [PHOTOS]
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I extend my Gratitude to Kourosh Taghavi for his time, patience, and eloquence.
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Kourosh Taghavi and Namaad Ensemble will be performing in Cal State Fullerton’s Recital Hall Friday, March 14, 2008, 8 pm. For Tickets and Information Call 714/278-3371 or for more information please visit For more information please visit www.Fullerton.Edu/Arts/Events