Improvisation is the essence of Persian music, says Iranian musician

Adib and Mehdib Rostami pictured performing Reflection of Silence. The duo will put on a concert of classical Iranian music on 18 February at Asia House

Adib and Mehdi Rostami (pictured performing at Kings Place) will put on a concert of classical Iranian music on 18 February at Asia House

Improvisation is the essence of Persian music, says Iranian musician

16 February 2015

By Mehvish Arshad

Twenty-six year old Iranian musician Adib Rostami moved to the UK just four years ago, but he has already produced his debut album, performed during the 2013 BBC Proms Season and been broadcast on BBC Radio 3, as well as made a name for himself in the London music scene.

Mehvish Arshad caught up with him before his performance at Asia House on Wednesday, 18 February as part of the British Council’s UK-Iran Season of Culture.

Tell me a bit about yourself. What kind of music do you play?

I was raised in Iran and came here four years ago to study Music Industry Management at the University of East London. I started off playing in Iran and now I perform Iranian music all over London.

Growing up in Tehran, I learned about all the different types of Iranian music from various masters when I was a kid. That’s when I wanted to find out more and learn how to play the tombak, a Persian drum which was my first ever instrument and after that I learned how to play the kamancheh, a three-stringed bowed musical instrument. I always think back to when it all began in Tehran when I started to learn about Iranian music – the earliest memory I have as a child is of listening to Iranian music!

For my performance on Wednesday at Asia House, I’m just going to play the tombak. The performance will basically be a setar (a Perisan lute) and tombak. This type of duet using two instruments is the traditional way that Iranian music is performed. Usually one of the instruments is percussion, like the tombak, and the other one is melodic, like the setar.

Your cousin Mehdi Rostami will also be performing with you at Asia House what does he play? Do you always play together?

Like me, Mehdi also learned about Iranian music and the setar from a very young age when he grew up in Iran. Being family and close cousins we’ve always played together, and we’ve played many times both in Iran and the UK. We’ve also produced one album together called Art of Improvisation in Iranian Music, which is a duet between the setar and tombak, but we’re working on another album right now so hopefully I can tell you more about that soon.

Together we have performed at places like the annual Buxton Festival held in Derbyshire and we have also created a collaboration called Reflection of Silence which took place at Kings Place in March last year as a collaboration of four musicians performing Iranian and Kurdish music. This project was selected as one of the Top 10 Live UK events by Songlines magazine.

The first part of the Reflection of Silence programme was an improvisation between the setar and tombak and for the second part we had the  guitar, harp, setar and vocals. This year we have another great collaboration lined up called JazzEast, which will involve us improvising Persian music with jazz saxophonist composer and internationally acclaimed virtuoso Gilad Atzmon, on 7 March in Kings Place. Improvisation is at the core of both jazz and Persian music.

So we’ve got a lot of different things going on at the moment but our true love as a band, as performers and cousins, is performing and improvising at concerts.

Is your music more popular in Iran or is your audience mainly London-based?

Iran is the home of my music and it’s where everything started so it’s very popular there. The UK and other countries have welcomed this music too and so it has become music for anyone interested in Persian culture but also we have established fans that enjoy going to our gigs.

The improvisational kind of music that I perform is a very unique version of music, but I feel fortunate that Iranian music has always been very interesting not only to Iranians but also to non-Iranians.

Who are your musical influences?

There are lots of Iranian maestros and musicians from the olden days that inspire me. If I was to mention one of the most influential people in my musical career then it would have to be Iranian kamancheh player, composer and master of classical Kurdish and Persian music Kayhan Kalhor. He is an international musician who is very successful and who has collaborated with lots of international musicians from across the world such as French-born Chinese-American cellist Yo-Yo Ma, Indian sitar player Shujaat Husain Khan and Zazaish folk music musician Erdal Erzincan.

I’ve always been inspired by the way Kalhor uniquely presents Iranian music to other cultures around the world.  He is one of the best musicians in the history of Iranian music so far. It is inspiring for me and other young musicians to watch his performances because we learn from him, we see how he views Iranian music, and so when it comes to looking at my own music, I can add my own contemporary twist.

Adib Rostami

Adib Rostami

What should people going to the Art of Improvisation in Iranian Music event on Wednesday expect?

Improvisation! Improvisation is the core essence of Iranian music. It’s called improvisation because on the day of a performance there are always new additions that come to mind. It’s a very long process to be an improviser; you have to practise at home and play traditional materials as well as create your own pieces. When it comes to the concert, 70 per cent of what an improviser plays is what they have already practised at home but depending on the day and the atmosphere, it will change.

There are a lot of materials you can use to learn Iranian music – we call them radifs (collection of old melodies that have been handed down over the generations) and dastgahs (tonal spaces within radifs). All of the musicians have to learn dastgahs and several dastgahs make a radif.  Learning Iranian folk melodies means that you can then start to make your own melodies based on what you have learned.

Will all of your performance this week be improvised?

Our performance will be 40-minutes long and all of it will be improvised. Sometimes Mehdi and I talk beforehand about how we’re going to start and how we’re going to finish, but usually we have no idea how it will develop during the performance. Most of the time we don’t talk about it at all and we just wait and see what we can do on the night.

Your music fuses the traditional with the contemporary – what does that mean?

We play what most people call ‘clichéd traditional Iranian’ music – but what tradition are we talking about? Is it 10 years ago? 100 years ago? Or 1,000 years ago? We don’t know. It’s not traditional music in that sense, the closest thing to labelling it would be to say it is Iranian classical music.

Is the contemporary element in it Iranian or Western?

The contemporary concept is more about the approach. The approach is down to me being 26-years-old and Mehdi being 34, so we can’t play Iranian music like our masters or our heroes in Iranian music who lived 100s of years ago, or even those who lived 30 or 20 years ago. We can’t play like them. We’re living in the 21st century so what we play is based on the Iranian music we grew up with, but how we’re going to play is more focused on our own approach – which, by default, is contemporary.

What sort of sounds will we hear – is it more meditative or rock and pop?

The tombak is a percussion instrument – it’s got a drum skin round it. And the setar has got four strings and it’s very similar to the guitar, but I think it’s better if you come to the concert to hear how it all comes together and sounds on the night! It’s not really rock and pop but definitely more meditative. Lots of the Iranian diaspora and non-Iranian people in London, when they first listen to improvisational Iranian music straight away mention the fact that it is very relaxing and very meditative.

This event is in partnership with British Council Iran as part of the UK-Iran Season of Culture. Why are you taking part?

I was approached about the UK-Iran Season of Culture and was told that they would be very interested in having musical performances as part of the programme, which interested me personally. It is the first time the British Council, who curated this programme, will include music and film as part of the Season. It is very interesting for me to be involved in this project and to see it all happening for the first time, and it’s nice to be part of the celebration of Iranian culture.

In the four years I’ve been living here, I’ve been trying and I’m still trying to attract non-Iranian people to my music. Living in the UK allows me to focus on all kinds of audiences from different backgrounds and this upcoming event should suit everyone who likes music.

You’ll be giving a talk before the concert too – what will that be about?

I will give a talk about Iran and the UK and the relationship, which will take place before the performance, where I’ll also talk a bit about what’s to come. As an Iranian, without getting into political issues, it’s always important when two countries use cultural programmes to collaborate and get two nations together, and this type of programme allows a look inside both cultures and allows people to understand each other better. It is not only about Iran and the UK, as people all around the world are interested in learning about different cultures, music, languages and food, now more than ever because of the Internet and social media.

You performed at the BBC Proms in 2013, what was that like and how did the opportunity arise?

I heard from a fellow musician in London about this opportunity to play at the Proms, which was fascinating so I went for it and played at the Royal Albert Hall, which was broadcast on BBC Radio 3. I enjoyed these events because I like sharing my music with non-Iranian people and specifically those who come to events like the BBC Proms or listen to Radio 3 as they are more likely to be listeners who follow music professionally. However, it is always a challenge for me each time we play at these kinds of events as I always feel under pressure to give my best performance and then I have to wait and hear the feedback of how people feel about my music. The feedback helps as I’ve always wanted to see how people connect to my music and I hope events like this continue.

From the Proms to Asia House! Are you looking forward to your performance next week?

When I heard there was an opportunity to play at Asia House I said “Yes, confirmed!” straight away, because it’s a great place to share music and meet people. When you’re programmed to play at a place like Asia House you’re going to have new audiences and non-Iranian audience so it allows me to develop my work and audience at the same time. I want to be connected to as many people from around the world as possible and Asia House is one of the most interesting places that Mehdi and I will get to play at, and since it is part of the UK-Iran Season of Culture, it’s even more exciting.

Below is a video of the duo performing Reflection of Silence at Kings Place last year.

For more details on Reflection of Silence and to see other videos of the duo performing on the tombak, kamancheh and setar click here.

Mervish Arshad is currently doing an internship at Asia House.

Adib and Mehdi Rostami will perform at Asia House on Wednesday, 18 February from 18.30. For more information and to book tickets click here.