It isn’t easy to find live music in Iran. Apparently, musicians need government permission to play in public places in Iran. I am not put off that easily.
Finding Traditional Music in Iran
One morning when walking down a main street on the search for coffee, I pass a small music shop. Traditional instruments hang on the wall opposite a glass counter displaying smaller instruments and instrument parts. A sign in the window advertises music lessons.
Hesitantly I push open the glass door and approach the serious looking man behind the counter. He has little English and I have no Farsi. Using hand gestures, I manage to explain my wish to attend a local music ‘concert’.
A few words and plenty of gesturing later, we have an understanding. At least I think we have an understanding. At 5pm tomorrow, I and three guests will visit his shop for an hour-long folk music demonstration with traditional instruments.
Four of us arrive at the music shop at the appointed time not quite sure of what to expect. The proprietor, wearing a freshly ironed blue shirt and dark trousers greets us. He introduces himself as Hamid*.
Closing the front door of the shop, he flips the ‘open’ sign to ‘closed’ and leads us into a small back room. There we are surprised to find a woman dressed in a black tunic edged with broad gold trimming and black pants. A maroon scarf drapes loosely over her shiny bouncy black hair. Hamid introduces the woman as Leda*.
The two men in my party sit on a bench seat covered in Persian carpet pushed against the back wall. I and my female friend sit in chairs at right angles to the men. Leda sits in a corner to our right hidden from the street while Hamid sits on a chair opposite us in full view of the street. Hamid intermittently watches the door.
Initially the situation is awkward and uncomfortable. With almost no language in common, the usual small talk is impossible. Attempting to break the ice, Hamid hands round a bowl of sliced apple and small bunches of grapes. From a thermos, he pours us each a cup of sweet milky coffee.
Thoughts fly through my mind. Could Leda and Hamid get into trouble for playing music together in front of strangers? They obviously aren’t married. What is the relationship between this man and this woman?
Describing the Traditional Iranian Instruments
Leda, whose limited English is better than Hamid’s, explains that Hamid owns the music shop and teaches singing. His son is a well-known tar player. She describes her work as a psychologist with children who have autism and ADHD. Leda explains that they will play a selection of folk music using the traditional Daf (Leda) and the Tar (Hamid).
A circular tambourine like instrument, the Kurdish Daf, has a hardwood frame and skin membrane. Behind the skin, attached to the rim is a series of metal rings. There’s an indentation for the left hand to hold the instrument.
The Tar is a long-necked lute with a double bowl. Using her hands and the odd English word, Leda describes show it is carved by hand in four pieces. With a “baaa” she explains that the skin stretched over the double bowl is sheepskin.
Soon the awkwardness dissipates. Leda’s friendliness and openness enables everyone to relax. The melodious traditional Iranian music delights us all. Having previously visited the tomb of Persian poet Hafez, we sit enthralled at the beauty of what we are hearing when Hamid sings a poem of Hafez.
Not particularly musical myself, I especially enjoy how Leda and Hamid ‘talk’ to each other through the music. Leda closes her eyes, feeling the emotion of the music and allowing her scarf to slip revealing rich black wavy hair cut in a loose bob.
A string on the tar breaks and the guitarist in our group watches fascinated as Hamid restrings his instrument.
Creativity Paid Off
At first it seemed that it would be impossible to find, let alone enjoy typical Persian music in Iran. But with a little creativity, I managed to experience something really unique. A private concert in the back room of a music shop. An unforgettable evening of traditional Iranian music with two special people.
*Names have been changed just in case.