An Iranian Tanbur Master is Celebrated at the Met Museum

Ostad Elahi (1895-1974), an Iranian judge and a tanbur master. Photo credit: Nour Foundation.

Ostad Elahi (1895-1974), an Iranian judge and a tanbur master. Photo credit: Nour Foundation.

Honoring an Instrument of Few Strings With the Strength of a Symphony

Ostad Elahi, a Tanbur Master, Is Celebrated at Met Museum

August 29, 2014   |   The New York Times

Most mystics begin their lives in the wider community and then retreat into seclusion, but the musician and philosopher Ostad Elahi (1895-1974) followed the opposite path. After a sequestered youth perfecting his skills on the tanbur — a long-necked lute — in the company of mystics like his father, he moved to Tehran, became an influential judge and helped establish a new legal system in Iran.

Elahi also made substantial contributions to the art of the tanbur, an instrument that has existed in various forms for 5,000 years. It has been considered sacred since the 14th century, when it was adopted by the Kurdish Ahl-e Haqq order, also known as the Fervents of Truth.

On recordings, Elahi’s music can sound startlingly modern and dissonant, and strikingly beautiful, interwoven with complex rhythmic patterns and so richly polyphonic that it sounds as if multiple instruments had to be playing.

His achievements are now being explored in a Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition called “The Sacred Lute: The Art of Ostad Elahi.” A concert next Saturday at the Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium at the Met features Chahrokh Elahi, his son, and pieces for double bass and lute that fuse Eastern and Western melodies.

Ostad Elahi, however, never played in public, turning down requests to perform in halls or on the radio and opting instead for more intimate and spiritual settings. While working as a judge, he played frequently at private gatherings for Persian speakers and foreigners. But outside these urban circles and mystical gatherings in rural areas, the instrument was unknown, despite its millenniums-long history.

The New York-based Iranian tanbur player Amir Vahab said that when he performed in a national music competition in Iran in 1974, none of the judges had even seen a tanbur before. For many years, he couldn’t find a case for his instrument and instead used a pillow case.

Mr. Vahab, who plays several instruments, at one point refused to play the tanbur in public (although he does now). “It’s too private and too holy,” he said. “I would still oppose playing in places that are not dignified. In my humble opinion, and Rumi’s,” he noted, referring to the 13th-century Persian poet and mystic, “it was made from Day 1 as a sacred lute, meant to connect one to the divine.”

One element that encouraged the current revival of the instrument in Iran, he said, is its alluringly theatrical strumming sound. He quoted a line from Rumi: “The sounds of the tanbur are the closest to the sounds of heaven.”

Elahi developed his own unique strumming pattern, enhancing the instrument’s potential as both a percussive and a melodic instrument. It sounds “like a drum with notes,” Mr. Vahab said. The tanbur is rare among Eastern instruments (which are usually microtonal) in its use of a chromatic scale.

Some of Elahi’s instruments, as well as other stringed and wind instruments, are displayed alongside his calligraphic manuscripts, musical notebooks and a judicial robe in the Met show. A small ornate ladle evokes the tiny instrument that he used when his hands were too small to grasp the grown-up version.

Born in a Kurdish village in western Iran, Elahi was taught by his father, Hajj Nematollah, a renowned mystic and tanbur player. Elahi was influenced by the musicians from Pakistan, India, Turkey and Central Asia who studied with his father; he integrated their eclectic aesthetics and techniques into his own interpretations. By the age of 9, he was considered a master of the instrument.

Elahi’s tanbur innovations include developing a technique that uses the five fingers of each hand instead of four, with a rolling motion of the right hand. He added a third string and modified the instrument to create acoustical beats. Combined with his elaborate ornamentation and improvisations, his developments resulted in a greater richness of sound, texture and polyphony. He also designed a five-stringed instrument that meshes elements of the setar (a Persian lute) and the tanbur.

Over the course of his lifetime, Elahi established a repertory of some 75 modes and melodic genres and some 100 melodies and hymns, which underpinned his improvisations. The Met is releasing a CD of Elahi’s music (on the  Harmonia Mundi label) to coincide with the exhibition, with tracks culled from recordings of his private performances in Iran in the 1960s and ’70s.

The music really is for meditation and transcendence,” said Kenneth Moore, curator of the department of musical instruments at the Met. “From a musicological point of view, it takes a while to get adjusted to it. The more I listen to the music, the more I hear the subtle changes: rhythmic and melodic and very subtle most of the time, but also jarring.”

According to Ebby Elahi, the musician’s grandson, a Manhattan-based surgeon who plays the tanbur, “This music is one where you are questioning the meaning of your life, or where you’re going, or a nostalgia for a higher state, for a more introspective view of yourself.”

“It’s not a historic tradition,” he said. “True mysticism has to be alive to respond to the needs of people.”

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