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Weekend Spotlight: Hamed Nikpay

by ARASH KARAMI in Washington, D.C.

08 Oct 2011 21:04Comments

[ Q&A ] Hamed Nikpay has made a musical career out of interpreting the 13th-century Persian poet Rumi. "He describes the most complicated questions about the universe, humanity, love, and creation with just a few words that are elegant, and eloquent, yet simple and meaningful," he says. He immigrated to the United States six years ago to "explore a new world," he says. He took time between shows to answer a few questions by email.

When and where were you born?

Tehran, 1977.

Are there other musicians in your family?

I do come from a musical family. My father, my mother, uncles, and aunt all sang beautifully, but never professionally. My mother was the first one who taught me the technical aspect of traditional music and how to sing.

How old were you when you started playing music?

I started at the age of seven.

How many instruments do you play?

I play tar, setar, tanbor, oud, baghlama, and daf -- I guess that is six instruments. Most of them are from the same family of instruments but they require different techniques.

Are their specific teachers you studied under, or artists, who influenced your style?

My influences were Ostad Zeydollah Toloui on tar and setar; Ostad Farhad Fakhreddini, conductor and founder of Iran's National Orchestra; and the late Seyyed Khalil Alinezhad, who was a great master of the spiritual instrument tanbur and is recognized as one of the best tanbur players ever known.

Can you talk about the process you have of interpreting Persian poetry and name some of your favorite poets to interpret for your songs?

It is all about what best interprets the melody, and moves me; old or contemporary makes no difference. It is however true that I am partial to some poets more than others such as Rumi, Emad Khorasani, Sohrab Sepehri, and a few others.

How many albums did you record in Iran? What are the differences when recording in Iran versus in the States, from both the technical and creative standpoint?

I recorded one album with [the] Rumi Ensemble in Iran. We have a lot of creative and talented musicians and sound designers in Iran, but limited resources when it comes to recording equipment and studios. Recently I've heard the new generation of Iranian musicians who have started to make hundreds and hundreds [of] recording studios with high-end equipment in [the] public and underground scene.

Given that when you were in Iran, your songs wouldn't have necessarily caught the attention of Ershad [Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance], did you ever have difficulty acquiring permits to perform?

Yes!

In your first years in the United States were you able to quickly form a band and continue your music or did you have other more immediate concerns?

Like any new immigrant, I faced all the difficulties of establishing my legal residency in the United States, and making sure I held legal status before exploring my artistic inspirations. Simultaneously, I made friends with as many artists I had the opportunity to meet and participated in any and all small and large gigs I could take part in. As I grew professionally, so did the musicians I could work with, and I began to make my own music. In the early days, I played with the musicians I had access to in different small venues, or just by myself. I did get invited to many poetry reading gatherings and professional events where they would invite me to perform. And in a short time people started noticing me as a musician, multi-instrumentalist, and especially as a vocalist. You know good musicians look for other good musicians to work with, and I was fortunate to possess musical and vocal talents musicians appreciated and which audiences admired.

You have described your music as a kind of a fusion. This combination of traditional and modern music is difficult to do well. It can sometimes come off as neither traditional nor modern but you have had a large success with this. Can you talk about your feelings and approach to this fusion and why, in your opinion, you have been so successful at it?

My music is not planned and does not follow a discipline or a genre. What I write comes natural to me. But what we think is natural is the promulgation of our life's personal, professional and artistic experiences. Of course, like any good music, collaboration is essential in writing and performing songs and the direction the arrangement takes. But usually it begins with a melody in my head, and it takes form and matures as I choose the words which I think best describe my feelings in that melody. If I have succeeded in my musical approach it is because both my songs and performing comes from my heart and soul. They are not technical reiterations; rather they are sentimental and passionate renditions.

You have an extremely eclectic style in that you combine not just traditional and modern music but styles from many different countries. Even within Iran you are familiar with many provincial forms of music. Do you have a favorite province in Iran musically, and a favorite country musically?

I always go with what touches my soul and what sounds real and comes from the pains, agonies, happiness, and everyday lives of ordinary folks. That is why I am attracted to flamenco, but at the same time to Khorasani, Kurdish, Bakhtiari, and other folksy styles from different regions of Iran.

You said that when you first started you searched for an instrument that would complement your voice.

Yes, I was looking for it [at] that time...and I found it in [the] lute family (like tar, setar, and tanbur). Mostly in Persian music, vocal lines and the instrument parts are the same, so I thought it will be better if I sing and play at the same time and it will be more effective.

When you record or play live, do you typically have the same band? Is it difficult to find musicians who have a similar or complementary approach? Are they all Iranian?

Sometimes they are the same musicians I have recorded with, and sometimes not. I have always performed with musicians of different nationality, not because of where they were born, but because they are most accomplished in their own genres or the instrument they play.

Are you in the process of making any new albums?

Yes. I am working on my next album and I have some ideas about what I like to do, but music has its own way, and often we end up with something different than what we had planned.

Hamed Nikpay will be performing at Columbia University in New York tonight and in Washington, D.C., tomorrow. Check here for future dates.

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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