Fly to Iran

Amazon Honor System

About music * Support
* Write for
* Editorial policy

Borrowing wisely

Questions concerning native music

November 29, 2002
The Iranian

What lead me to undertake the following translation was not a desire to resurrect the argument over Sadegh Hedayat's opinion of our national music. To try to definitively establish such a fact would be to assume that this emotional issue was resolved for Hedayat himself and that he eventually arrived at some conclusive views in his evaluation of Iranian music.

The significance of the following rather lies in its representativeness of a conflict that has tormented many Iranian thinkers since our modern encounter with Western civilization. Ever since that imaginary watershed our intellectuals have been torn between their loyalty to their own familiar culture which jealously claims their allegiance with deep emotional possessiveness, and a Western civilization with its universal prestige and strong rational credentials.

I decided to translate this paper in order to provide it with a wider audience; to make it accessible to those who are more familiar with the language of Iranian fine arts than with its national tongue. In an era of globalization when our national identity is pinned to the wall by the relentless forces of change and homogenization, the unsettled and unsettling questions in the minds of two leading figures of our modern literature -- Sadegh Hedayat and Mehdi Akhavan Sales -- concerning our native music seems to have a much wider relevance and application.

Their unease dramatizes the arduousness of our struggle to preserve our identity without closing our eyes and ears to the world outside our cultural boundaries. It underlines the need for borrowing wisely from other civilizations instead of closing our accounts altogether or declaring bankruptcy.

Our Music, with a reminiscence of Hedayat
By Mehdi Akhavan Sales
Translated by Reza Bayegan

Sometimes I have thought ... that how deep and superb is our music. How human and innocent. What joys, sighs, sadness and perchance from time to time what raptures and festivities have gone into fashioning the landscape of its world and how this exhilarating music is akin to the human soul and its genial simplicity. Its effect on us is marvelous and undeniable.

I cannot conceal (fortunately I have not yet become so intellectual and Europeanized) that I immensely enjoy a warm and spirited panjeh of tar. Especially in Bayat-Tork, Homayun, Abuata, Isfahan, Afshari, Mahur, etc. Furthermore a panjeh of setar, also santour and occasionally kamancheh and recently some violin, and piano performances which compared with other Western instruments more or less at times can cohere with our music. The effect of this music on us is deep, visceral and inbred.

How sadly susceptible my nature has been
To this love so enduring, endearing and keen

Of course one needs to have been brought up here, at least until one's twentieth or thirtieth birthday and nurtured from this soil and water and air and passed through the same educational treadmill that is customary in this land. In such a case, no matter how much we play dumb, as children say, we cannot deny the influence this strange music exerts on us. Is such a denial indeed necessary? A requirement for being modern and advanced?

Unfortunately we have to admit that this notion albeit affected has been prevalent in many people's minds, (snobbishness that is, that gangrene that destroys authenticity and gnaws away at true national character of peoples and races). It originated long ago in our history, when first we encountered Western civilization and gambled away all that was significant in our lives:

Since that day did the barefoot Oriental lose his head
That the bareheaded Occidental to our homeland was lead

This by now old attitude has been even attributed to people in whose patriotism and emotional roots in the community one cannot entertain any doubt.

I had heard that even someone like Sadegh Hedayat also at times feigned a kind of disgust for our national music. He lead some people to believe that he was instead enamored with European music. To my chagrin I had heard this but refused to believe it. I could not believe that someone who has been in the forefront of scholarly work on Iranian popular culture and had been an expounder and compiler of our folklore, could hold such a view. I could not take this story as credible. I could not believe it then, I am not believing it now and will not in the future, because...

A story was related to me by Dr Taghi Tafazoli, who plays the setar beautifully and is a man of free spirit and a genuine human being - it goes like this: I was in Paris, years ago, and Hedayat was also in Paris. We met from time to time, and once it happened that I saw him in the street near my home. We started chatting and walked together for a distance, in spite of me being distraught and weak and him dejected.

We reached my house, I invited him in. He accepted and entered. We relaxed for a while, had some nibbles and spoke in a desultory manner. I had a decanter of European wine and brought it out. Leisurely sipping the wine, gradually we became inebriated and transported by its effect. We both became conscious that our conversation had run its course. I had some records of songs and melodies of European music at home, from every sort and quite a collection. I made a move to fetch the gramophone.

Observing the rules of hospitality and in deference to my distinguished guest I enquired whether he likes such and such a musician or has a higher preference for another and I mentioned some first-rate master vocalists of Europe, for he knew them all very well and had thorough knowledge of their work. I saw he was not giving any answers. I mentioned some others, some newer and more contemporary ones, again he did not say anything. I kept quiet to see if he would make any suggestions.

Without uttering a word he got up and cup in hand opened his collar and untied the European tether from around his neck and quietly went to the storage room of my house for he knew the place well, and came back holding out my setar to me. Without a word he then went and resumed his seat. I was amazed for I had heard the rumor that he did not enjoy such instruments and their sound. I was delighted to see with my own eyes that such was not the case.

The saz was tuned for Bayat-e-Tork and I started playing it. First he gently swayed his body to the rhythm of the music and then more and more moving with all the gosheha, heights and lows. My fingers were becoming nimbler for the instrument was nice and the tune fabulous, and we were young and the wine had taken possession of us altogether.

The air was charged with an indescribable sensation. I could see Sadegh slowly undulating his head as if humming something. After a while he got up filled up my cup, holding it in one hand and in the other hand he held some noghl. Coming forward, he offered them to me. I drank to his happiness and the memory of few dear people who were asunder and the noble men of Iran.

As everyone knows, drinking a toast in such a manner dates back to the time of Fereydoun the son of Atabin (Abetin) and has continued to this day:

To drink to the memory of those afar
Or the happiness of drinking mates and those nearby

Has been the custom of toasts amongst the noble men of Iran
From the time of the son of Atebin (Fereydoun)

He took my empty cup away, refilled it and gave it back to me with some noghl and nibbles and then said "Afshari" and went back and resumed his seat silently and expectantly. I confidently shifted into another rank of music and bravely proceeded with smoothness and gusto. I was negotiating in the twist and turn of a subtle tune, playing delicately and plaintively when I heard Hedayat wailing "That is enough! Enough! Enough!" He broke into sobbing and crying for he had a heart more tender and sensitive then an orphan who has heard someone insulting the memory of his father.

I put down the saz and ran towards him. He held out his hand and bid me to leave him to himself. I obeyed and let him be. After a while we started drinking again and resumed our rambling talk. I was however eager to lead our conversation to a direction that would give me a clue to the cause of his agitation of a few minutes ago.

It seemed that with his keen perception he sensed what I was after and said: "All that you have heard of me denying this wonderful world, this marvelous, great and deep music, is all hearsay and most hearsay is untrue. If however sometimes I have created such an impression, it was not to gainsay the depth, purity, superbness and value of such a music. No, never. Its magic overwhelms me. It wrecks havoc with my emotions and reawakens all my latent pains and heartaches. It drives me to the edge of insanity. It kills me. I cannot bear it."


What was I saying?... Yes, I was saying that sometimes I have thought how superb and profound is our music and how its effects on us deep and visceral, but... Having said that I sometimes feel that in our music, melodies are like waves constrained in cramped spaces between embankments. These waves lack the expanse to freely hurl themselves in different directions and display their restlessness and movement. How little the transitions, flights and leaps resemble a powerful and furious sea storm. How little one can feel the sea in it, and how much it instead reminds us of a stream. A stream that sometimes even passes through insignificant and undeserving territories.

In our music there is more fatalism, inertia, a kind of humility which translates into sloppiness - than resolution, fury, firmness and fervent movement. It tends to be more the moans, and imprecations of an enslaved, afflicted, insulted human being than the chanting of a proud and brave conqueror majestically confronting the history of humanity. And also for someone who is interested and accustomed to its language, how easily and with an innate simplicity it can provide pleasure. Enjoying it is not complicated and limited to robust minds equipped with well trained and experienced tastes.

Some forms of it can even delight rustic people.The shepherd with his proximity to nature, brought up in fells and dales, mingling in the midst of sheep herds, dogs, imbibing myriad impressions of the green meadows, diversity of rains, pristine darkness and light, and in fellowship with primitive regrets and disappointments can also find it blissful. Some works of Beethoven and Tchaikovsky, on the other hand can not be enjoyed by all minds and tastes. They need a more urbane and complicated intellect and a more studious wit.

When I listen to our music, I think sometimes how dainty it is and how it is more suitable to be performed in banquets of the likes of Khosro Parviz and by maestros like Barbad and Ramtin. I can imagine Khosro leaning back and while he is being gently fanned he puts a grape in his mouth and nibbles on some tidbits undulating his head to the rhythm of the music in an splendid, carefree and gleeful manner while everything contributes to an exquisite ambiance.

And let us also imagine that the most superb of all the superb ladies, Shirin is also perching there in the highest imaginable manner of beauty, seductiveness, coquetry, and shrewishness and the verse:

From this femme fatale, this seducer of the most pious
This preening peacock shaped like a goddess

In such circumstances Barbad is in his elements and unrivalled in his art. It comes to the time for performance and in Dastgahe Shur he sets out to bring to Khosro's attention the gratitudes and complaints of Shirin. He wants to say bitter things couched in a sweet language and he sings:

I am the sovereign of beauty in the land
If the Shah holds the highest command

And we can see how well this recital, or as it has also been called tasnif is composed. The notes that accompany it are good. The lyrics are not bad also, and the music and the lyrics have been effectively matched and well coordinated to produce the highest possible degree of pleasure. And how soft and suitable this music is for that kind of banquet but... Do I or you have these kind of regales?

Proof of my poverty and lack of riches
Is in my worn out shoes and tattered breeches

That is why that sometimes one is hard pressed to identify with this music and find in it the sympathy and rapport one is looking for - this can be said at least of some of the performances of some of the goshehha - Faced with such a problem one then wishes that for the sake of the wellbeing of its present and the prosperity of its future our music could borrow some lessons and counsel from the wisdom of Western music and perhaps open itself to some of its noble influences, and viewpoints.

Thus far I have not heard anything from those engaged in the modernization of our national music that would lead to anywhere worth anybody's while. If I have heard a bit here and there, either the orchestration has been shoddy and tasteless - the scrambling and sounding together of a motley of instruments and mixing up some songs and things of this sort - or... let us not bother with the metamorphosing ventures of concocting an Iranian, European, Turkish, Indian, Arabic hodgepodge.

Let us not get into the subject of tasnif which frequently has come to mean the ill association of music, song and lyrics... This tasnif making is the only activity in our music that combines profuse production with so called creativity. Of course saying this I am not taking into consideration the truly masterly performances and recordings that takes place in our music and also the work of some who have taken refuge outside the country or those who are compelled to silence.

Perhaps efforts have been made and works created that we have not heard about, or it has not been published. And yet relatively speaking the modernizing work of some of our artists in contemporary poetry and at times prose has been more successful. Perhaps as indicated by some recent developments it is possible to entertain hope for the future of fine arts in our country.

That in what manner this fraternizing and opening up to the influences from Western music should be carried out and whether it will benefit our native music or not is another issue altogether and needs to be determined by experts, not me. As far as the historical evidence in various aspects of life has illuminated for us, never a sound and wise borrowing or imitation that is done with clear understanding and based on genuine principles has been to the disadvantage of a civilization. Indeed it seems that the real essence of civilization is this reciprocity of meaning and significance.


The Enclosure of green shadows: collection of articles, v.1 by Mehdi Akhavan Sales (M. Omid) With the supervision of Morteza Kakhi Tehran: Zemestan Publishing House, 1349 (1970), second edition 1372 (1993).

Does this article have spelling or other mistakes? Tell me to fix it.

Email your comments for The Iranian letters section
Send an email to Reza Bayegan

By Reza Bayegan



Beyond time and place
Sadeq Hedayat was a non-conformist in every respect
By Homa Katouzian



Book of the day

Sadeq Hedayat
Life and legend of an Iranian writer

By Homa Katouzian

Fly to Iran

Copyright © All Rights Reserved. Legal Terms for more information contact:
Web design by Bcubed
Internet server Global Publishing Group