Hamed Nikpay speaks Farsi the way he plays his music: rapid staccato syllables held together by slow melodic interludes. Maybe this is why he favors the setar when he speaks his heart. The instrument comes to life at the flick of the index finger over the strings, followed by a trilled sustain detailing the life of the tone. Nikpay’s new CD album, All Is Calm (Asoudeh) seems to follow the emotional biography of a young artist sparked to life by a devastating early romance whose lament still haunts him in the sustain.
In the first track, Deceit, (Fareeb), he sings “You bestowed kisses from my lover’s lips to the other man.” I ducked the temptation to ask Nikpay who she was and what happened. Instead we chatted a little about the man who penned those lyrics. It turns out Nikpay was proudly brought before the esteemed Emad Khorasani a couple of years before the poet’s death in 2004. The young musician had sung a Khorasani lyric (track 5) at a university concert in Iran, and the sage was so impressed by Nikpay’s interpretation that he gave the young musician his artistic blessing on the spot.
We will never know what the late Khorasani would think of the second track in the CD. In this instrumental piece, Nikpay isn’t satisfied with just carrying the mantle of tradition. He lays out a sing-song melody over a guitar A minor chord. Such tunes can charm the Persian ear, as many Iranian composers have previously discovered. But Nikpay’s brilliance manifests when he begins his free-form contemplation in the Persian dastgah tradition, astonishingly without leaving the Western tonal texture. Suddenly Nikpay shows us that the difference between the structured melodies of the West and classical Persian free-form meditation is not a matter of tonal intervals; it is in the poetic transcendence.
Nikpay is sad to note that listeners tend to neglect instrumentals, often skipping to tracks where there is singing. I think this is because popular singers are rarely masters of their instruments, using them primarily as accompaniments. In Nikpay’s case this assumption would be unfortunate. His instrumentals not only showcase his skill as a composer, they single him out as a master of the setar. What we would miss if we skipped the trumpet instrumentals of the great jazz singer Louis Armstrong? Ironically, this link to the great artist highlights another problem listeners have with traditional Persian compositions. Armstrong tunefully lectures us that “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.” [see note 1]
Begging to differ with Armstrong, some Western musicians side with their Persian counterparts. They find great musical payoff in brooding. After you listen to track 2 of Asoudeh, check out the second movement of the Concierto de Aranjuez by the Spanish composer, Joaquin Rodrigo. Here’s the inimitable Paco de Lucia’s performing it [see note 2]. It is worth going back and forth between Aranjuez and track 2 (Moments-Lahzeha). You may think that Nikpay is influenced by Rodrigo’s popular concerto. Actually it is Rodrigo that has borrowed from Nikpay’s Eastern musical heritage. Recall that Spain was once part of the Persian-Arab cultural territory. Nikpay makes this explicit in track 3 where he sets Rumi verses to a lively guitar by the accomplished flamenco guitarist Daniel Fries (pronounced free yes). To my knowledge this is the first time Rumi has been sung to flamenco guitar, and in the light of the recent American interest in both Rumi and flamenco, Nikpay could expand his appeal by developing this fusion in future works.
A hint of a Nikpay career move beyond the Iranian community appears in track 4, in the person of Kai Eckhardt. This internationally sought after bass player worked with John McLaughlin. The star bass player’s appearance in the album is an endorsement of Nikpay by an elite member of the Western music scene. Eckhardt performs as part of an ensemble with Nikpay doing the vocals and setar, Daniel Fries on flamenco guitar, Myra Joy on Cello, Heshmat Ahmed on tabla, and Micha Patri on cajon. The ensemble performs Nikpay’s exuberant arrangement around Moeni Kermanshahi’s Madhoosh.
Continuing the flamenco fusion, in track 6 we hear the Kurdish tanbour play a gypsy tangos! Despite the similarity in name, tangos is not the same as the Argentinean tango, though it can be every bit as sensuous and dramatic. Louis Armstrong would enjoy this track because it “got that swing.” The track is called Cordoba to Kurdistan, a nod to Kurds who are one faction in the cultural war to own the Phrygian mode--the musical mode tangos inhabits. Memo to nationalist Kurds: buy Nikpay’s CD; track 6 is a beautiful contribution to the cause, as it advances your claim that Kurds invented flamenco.
With its awareness of global musicology, Asoudeh establishes Nikpay as the rare artist with both scholarly pedigree and musical originality. But the young musician is clearly still on the ascent, his peak in the future. Which is as it should be. For example, Nikpay may yet go on to show what his tanbour or setar can do with other flamenco forms. He has already tipped us off that he’s got the chops to deal with flamenco’s tendency to push the instrument to absurd technical limits. So why not go after the rowdy bulerias, or the wistful solea?
Among the problems he will have to solve towards a mature fusion of flamenco with Persian classical music is that flamenco lyrics (letras) are less philosophical than the best of Persian verse, often emoting through toil and poverty:
If I had an orange
I would share it with you,
But I do not have one
And that is my pain.
This ain’t Rumi, though it devastates just the same. The difference shows up in fundamentally distinct musical temperaments that go beyond tonality and rhythm. I expect Nikpay will need the considerable resources of his flamenco mentor Daniel Fries to sort out this issue. Modern flamenco has blazed exciting trails towards more abstract frontiers. Nevertheless, the setar and tanbour must negotiate an artistic haftkhan to avoid seduction by flamenco’s easy path to our Bedouin brotherhood, staying the course to our classical Persian refinement. Impressively, Nikpay seems sensitive to this point. Which may be the reason why so many of Asoudeh’s lyrics are by the earthy, uncomplicated, yet highly polished Emad Khorasani:
My head rests on my beloved’s bosoms
What more do I want in the world?
The lyric appears in the last track of the CD, my favorite. It is the kind of song you listen to over and over again, hoping it will become a permanent part of who you are. I don’t know if Nikpay ended with this song because he has finally found his salve in another woman, or because he saved his most mature work for last, promising more to come. Either case, in Asoudeh the artist has shown both attitude and altitude. What more do I want in the world?
Here's a link to excerpts from the CD tracks.
Here's a video of the complete first track.
The original composition is by Duke Ellington, lyrics by Irving Mills.
After hearing this Paco de Lucia performance, Rodrigo declared that no one has played his famous piece as brilliantly.
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