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How the pandemic led an Iranian and a Kashmiri to make music

When Kashmiri singer Qaiser Nizami was stranded in the US during the lockdown, it led to an unusual collaboration with Iranian composer Ehsan Matoori

Ehsan Matoori (centre) has composed a bilingual song with Iranian traditional vocalist Alireza Ghorbani (left) and Kashmiri singer Qaiser Nizami.
Ehsan Matoori (centre) has composed a bilingual song with Iranian traditional vocalist Alireza Ghorbani (left) and Kashmiri singer Qaiser Nizami.

On 20 March, on the eve of Persian New Year Navroz, Kashmiri singer Qaiser Nizami was scheduled to hold a concert at the UNT College of Music in Denton, Texas. The event got cancelled because of the pandemic. In the meantime, India announced a lockdown from 25 March and international flight operations were suspended. Nizami was stranded in the US till the end of May.

During this time, his host, Prof. Sadaf Munshi of the University of North Texas, introduced Nizami to Ehsan Matoori, a US-based Iranian music composer and santoor player. Their interaction on music and their different/similar cultures led to a collaboration: Nāznīnay (‘O Beauty!), a bilingual song composed and produced by Matoori, with Nizami singing in Kashmiri and Iranian traditional vocalist Alireza Ghorbani in Farsi. The music video has been shot by Iranian film-maker Afshin Hashemi in Tehran and Chicago. The audio and the music video are scheduled to be released on 27 July.

Prof. Munshi, who specializes in language documentation, with a special interest in the endangered musical traditions of South and Central Asia, is the linguistic adviser on the project. She says Nāzninay is a story of love, loss and longing, built around and based on the lyrics of two songs: Ibrahim Miskeen's Pur Mah (Full Moon) in Kashmiri and the late Iranian poet Fereydoon Moshiri's Beneshin Mara (Stay With Me) in Farsi. The two songs talk to each other, with the composition alternating between Farsi and Kashmiri lyrics, she adds. Nizami says the song is in praise of mehboob, who could be your beloved, or even your guru.

Nāznīnay is part of Matoori’s The Voices and Bridges project, started in July 2019 to explore musical traditions from different cultures. The first single released under this project last year was El Sueño, with vocals by Ghorbani and New York-based American-Argentinean mezzo-soprano Solange Merdinian. The project consists of eight tracks that will be collated into an album. In an email interview, Dallas-based Matoori talks about the role technology played in piecing together this single, and how he wants to build bridges across cultures. Edited excerpts:

Tell us about your Voices and Bridges project.

It is an ongoing multilingual creative project which I am composing and producing in collaboration with artists such as Mike Block, Greg Ellis, Poovular Sriji, and singers such as Alireza Ghorbani, Bombay Jayashri, Celia Woodsmith, Solange Merdinian and Qaiser Nizami. The compositions represent different musical cultures and languages, and hope to bring them closer in an attempt to build bridges across cultures. In July 2019, we took off with El Sueño.

What is ‘Nāznīnay’ about?

In this track I have created rhythmic beats from Indian and Iranian musical traditions with the help of the electronic medium. You can hear the rhythmic and percussive instruments of both countries. This is the common bridge that ties the stories, the poetic expressions, together. The anchor of this bridge is the melody of Pur Mah, which inspired this composition.

Nāznīnay is a common word in both Farsi and Kashmiri poetic diction and is used to refer to the "beloved". Musicians Ali Montazeri and Hesam Naseri helped me with the arrangement section. Mike Block, one of the pioneer cellists from Yo-Yo Ma's The Silkroad Ensemble, recorded cello; Meysam Marvasti was on viola; Milad Mohammdi on tar; and Ronnie Malley on oud.

Do you find any similarities between Kashmiri and Persian music?

There are quite a few cultural similarities, and these are also represented in language and poetry. One of the striking similarities is in the musical instruments themselves but there are also differences. Another similarity is in the musical scales called maqāms. You will hear more instances of Kashmiri music and poetry in another upcoming track in this project.

The video was shot in both Tehran and Chicago. How did that happen?

A portion of the video was shot in Tehran while Afshin was still there, and the rest of the video was shot in the US, primarily in Chicago, during Afshin’s visit earlier in June. We collaborated with choreographers and artists both in Iran and in the US and made that happen.

The collaboration for 'Nāznīnay' happened during the ongoing pandemic. How difficult was it?

It wasn’t very easy. We had to do a lot of planning and work around the lockdown. But it kind of also worked in our favour as we literally had a clear scene (no crowded streets) for shooting. Technology played a strong role as we were able to record and perform in different places and then piece things together. It did take some resources, thanks to the Kashmiri and Iranian communities in the US.

Do you have collaborations with other Indian artists? You mentioned Carnatic singer Bombay Jayashri....

One of my dreams was working on (Rabindranath) Tagore’s poetry⁠—he is one of my favourite poets. Since I met Sadaf Munshi, I have heard about (Kashmir's mystic poet) Lal Ded and her amazing poetry. One of the upcoming compositions (with Jayashri) starts with a melody inspired by vanvun—a genre of Kashmiri poetry and performance. Here I have used bansuri (by Kalyan Raman) as a bridge to connect the Kashmiri, Bengali and Persian languages. Another one is with Nizami: It has an Urdu ghazal alongside Farsi. The dates for their publication are yet to be determined.

Is Tehran-based Ghorbani the lead singer in all these collaborations?

Alireza is the lead singer in The Voices and Bridges project primarily. We have used Farsi in almost all the compositions in the project, and Alireza is committed to performing the Farsi songs. He uses some of the rarest vocal techniques in singing and is deeply rooted in the Iranian musical tradition.

The Nāznīnay audio, scheduled to be released on 27 July, will be available on digital platforms and the music video will be released on BBC Persian.

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