Iranian percussionist creates fusion sounds with ‘mesmerising’ Persian drum

Ali Nourbakhsh, the percussionist in NoName Trio performs the daf at Asia House

Ali Nourbakhsh, the percussionist in NoName Trio performs the daf at Asia House

Iranian percussionist creates fusion sounds with ‘mesmerising’ Persian drum

17 November 2014

By Naomi Canton

Ali Nourbakhsh, the 33-year-old percussionist in NoName Trio, speaks to Asia House about what drew him to learning traditional percussion from Iran and elsewhere in the world and how he formed one of the world’s few Persian, world and jazz fused bands, based in London. NoName Trio, who have created an exciting original rendition of the famous jazz composition Caravan among many other creative accomplishments, performed at Asia House on Thursday, 20 November.

You were raised in Tehran, Iran and moved to London aged 19 to study computer science and artificial intelligence at City University. Tell me about your upbringing?

From an early age, I was interested in percussion. I grew up with lots of Iranian traditional musicians around me and I played with Sufi musicians too.  I’m self-taught but I also played with a lot of great musicians. I learnt from many masters, one of whom was Hakim, who is very well-known in the Iranian music community.

I learnt the daf which is a Persian drum. It’s a very simple instrument, just a single drum, it’s kind of very primitive, but the sound you get out of it when played live is unbelievable. People get really impressed by it as it’s such a simple instrument and yet the outcome is mesmerising.

I also play the tombak, which is a Persian traditional drum used in Iranian classical music ensembles.  Unlike the tombak, the daf is a relatively new instrument on the scene in Tehran. It was traditionally played in the Western parts of Iran by Kurds and was introduced to the mainstream music scene in Iran when the Tehran-based Kurdish singer Bijan Kamkar started playing it.

You also know the udu which, when I googled it, looks exactly like a water jug! Tell me more.

Yes, it’s an old instrument used in places like India, parts of Asia and North Africa. It’s a jug with a hole on the side. When you play over the hole it sounds like you are playing on water so it’s a beautiful instrument.

And you also play the cajon which is an interesting box shaped instrument too?

Yes, it is a South American instrument which was brought to the flamenco tradition in the mid-20th Century. Now everyone sees it that way but it originated among Cuban and South American slaves because they were not allowed to play music and so they used to just drum on the square food boxes or whatever they were given and it gradually grew from there.

Where did you learn these instruments?

Like the daf, I taught myself the cajon and the udu. On Thursday night I will be playing the daf and cajon. Ceri will be on keyboard and Saleh on bass guitar and we will have a guest on saxophone and flute, namely Damian Hand.

So are you a full-time musician or do you work in IT now?

I currently work as a manager in IT. I spent four years aged 28 to 32 working as a musician full-time, touring with various famous Iranian singers round Europe and America including the legendary Iranian singer Simā Binā. But I came back to IT last September. When I finished my degree I entered the workplace and worked in gaming, app development and ecommerce, before going full-time in music. Becoming an artist is very difficult financially. Of course, if you are a pop musician then that’s different.

How did NoName Trio come about?

When I came to the UK it was very difficult for me at first to find some other traditional Iranian musicians.  I just had to search online and through word of mouth I met some other musicians. I co-founded various bands in different musical genres such as Radif Ensemble, Simogh and Magham Ensemble.

I have always been interested in discovering new forms of music so then I got interested in jazz.

About five years ago, I formed NoName Trio with Ceri and Saleh and we decided to mix Iranian music with jazz. Saleh, our bass guitarist, is from Iran. Although he grew up in Iran, he plays in the Western discipline but when he was in Iran he played in a lot of fusion bands and he has also played with some of the most famous Iranian musicians. He moved to London to study music and then he wanted to do fusion music.  He is also very interested in jazz. Ceri, on the other hand, is Welsh but raised in London. He is a prominent jazz pianist and won a MOBO Award for Best Jazz Act in 1997 for Sunship.

What kind of audience do you attract?

Most Iranian bands working outside Iran are still attracting just an Iranian audience but one of the things I am really happy about is that our crowd has a lot of non-Iranian people in it.

What do you think the Persian and other global instruments contribute to the sound?

I guess that’s what you need to ask the audience but for me I think the main thing is that the daf and cajon are not the usual instruments you would have in a jazz trio – they totally change the tastes of the sound and the dynamic of what we play – we play different grooves and rhythms that are not usually used in jazz.

How common is jazz and Persian-fused music?

There is a lot of African-jazz fused music and South American-jazz fused music but Iranian-jazz fusion is pretty unique. Recently jazz has become popular in Iran but not fusion jazz, yet. I can think of just two or three bands that are playing Persian and jazz music in Iran but what they do are totally different flavours because they all have musicians with totally different backgrounds and instruments so for example none of them play Iranian percussion like me – one of them fuses Iranian melodies into jazz with the guitar so it’s a totally different sound.

Your music is a fusion of traditional Iranian rhythms and beats with jazz?

I don’t think you can stereotype our music. I guess if anything it’s world music and jazz. We use modern and traditional elements of jazz. In the jazz tradition you tend to play covers of old melodies so for example we played Caravan (1936) by Duke Ellington, a pivotal figure in the history of jazz. The way we did it was totally different. We used the tombak and a 6/8 Persian rhythm.

To watch NoName Trio perform their exciting version of the extremely famous and popular Duke Ellington composition Caravan click below:-

Where have you played?

London Jazz Festival, Stockholm Jazz Festival, Edinburgh Fringe Festival. In September we played at The Vortex Jazz Club in London, our favourite jazz venue. We haven’t ever performed in Iran.

To watch some of the studio recordings of  NoName Trio’s debut album Nothingness click below:-

For more information about Ali Nourbakhsh see his website here.  Check out NoName Trio’s Facebook page here.

NoName Trio performed at Asia House on 20 November. 2014. To listen to part of their live performance click below:-