The young Iranian-born composer, multi-instrumentalist and vocalist talks about his pioneering and innovative music.
Composer-musician-vocalist Hafez Nazeri
Tavis: Without question, music unites people, breaking down barriers that might otherwise exist. Hafez Nazeri, the Iranian-born composer and singer, has spent his career doing just that, including having the distinction of being the first Iranian composer to headline Carnegie Hall.
His latest CD is titled “The Rumi Symphony Project: Untold,” and features some 38 Grammy-winning musicians and engineers from all over the world. Hafez Nazeri, good to have you on this program.
Hafez Nazeri: Thank you for having me.
Tavis: Tell me about this project, how this one came to be.
Nazeri: Well I started Rumi Symphony project when I moved to United States from Iran, and it’s been nearly, like, 10 years that I have the project. “Untold” is the first cycle of this mentality that I call the Rumi Symphony project.
Tavis: What do you hope to communicate, want to communicate, through the music, this project with these four different chapters?
Nazeri: Yes, well, with the recording is a different story. “Untold” is the first cycle of my Rumi Symphony project, but Rumi Symphony is the main umbrella project that holds “Untold” as the first cycle. I have different goals and ideas with Rumi Symphony.
One of the main ones is to bring the music in East and West together with a different sort of interpretation, to be able to create a new one, sort of a new creature of integrating these two cultures together.
Music is monophonic in the Eastern world, especially if we’re talking about Indian music, Persian music. What we have in classical and Western world is harmony. So I think it’s a great idea to be able to bring the best of two together and create something new.
Because western harmony and with western orchestration has evolved for nearly 600 years. Music of East basically has remained the way it is for thousands of years.
So why not mixing it, why not to use the best part of each and to create something new that can, sort of relates to people from all over the world, rather than just one geographic country or map or something.
Tavis: I wonder how much of your – this is my phrase, not yours – how much of your pushing the envelope musically has to do with not wanting to be boxed in? I think it was “The New York Times” who probably said this first, and everybody says it now.
Your father’s been referred to as the Iranian Pavarotti, so people have said that a thousand times now about your father. So he is an icon in his own right. How much of this, again, your innovating and pushing the envelope has to do with a generational thing of not just wanting to be boxed in, musically?
Nazeri: Yeah. Well I don’t know how exactly to answer this question. My father is also, since you spoke about my dad, my father also was an innovator. He’s the first person who sang and set Rumi’s poetry into music 35 years, 40 years ago.
So in order to do that he needed also to break some of the boundaries that Persian music has inside it. So for me, I grew up in a family that my father was a very, very, a person with so many ideas, so many new visions and dreams. For me to grow up in that family, that also helped me to have a vision to create and open boundaries and things. So I think it’s like, it just comes from the family (unintelligible).
Tavis: I assume by your answer now, Hafez, that your father must have first exposed you to Rumi and the poetry, certainly. But it’s one thing for your father to expose you to it.
What has been your experience with it? You’ve named your symphony that. What’s the take-away of his work for you?
Nazeri: Rumi was an amazing, amazing I don’t know what, like, human. I don’t know what I should call him. It’s so amazing that a person who lived 800 years ago has said things that we are still, it’s hard for understand and truly observe.
So yes, my father introduced me to Rumi.
I’m coming from a Kurdish family in Iran. We are from the west side of Iran, and it’s basically a lot of Kurdish people. They follow Sufism, and they are special. Rumi has been a very significant part of my life since the moment I opened my eyes.
Not only through my father, through my grandparents, through all the generations. So I think it’s also, it was one of the most important things in my life that gave me this sort of a vision, that I should not only look at the box.
There is an ocean of endless opportunities, and there are so many things that one can do. I’m so fortunate that I’ve grown up with this sort of a philosophy and mentality.
Tavis: When one thinks of Iran, one thinks of food and culture and music, even fabric. (Laughter) But one also thinks of politics. As an artist, how have you decided where you, how you walk that line of your artistry and the politics that take place in your native country?
Nazeri: I will start with the fact that it really makes me sad sometimes that Iran is such an unknown country to the world. Iran is an amazing country. Iranians are the most hospitable people, loving people.
We have one of the safest countries in the world. We have four seasons in Iran. Most people think Iran is like very warm and like it’s mostly desert. We have one of the best ski resorts on the world in Iran.
Iranians are amazing people. Unfortunately, after the revolution, because there has not been so much communication with the West, media have – like maybe I don’t know, like anyway, they have misinterpreted Iran for so many things, for so many ways.
I’m not saying that there is no issue in Iran, I’m not saying – it’s like everywhere. We always have problems in any country we look at. But Iran is like a very interesting country that the world can really learn and discover a lot from, from our tradition.
We have like 7,000 years of history. Our music is still unknown to the world. A lot of things about Iran is still unknown to the world. One of my hope has been through my music, if I really deserve it, I would love one day to be able to show another side of Iran to the world.
Politics, it’s inevitable. I’m Iranian and no matter what I do, I’m dealing with politics because especially my music, that it’s a music that talks about peace, love, unity.
That could be somehow another side of politics, because it’s unity, loving everybody. Yeah, that’s really my hope, is that this recording, that can bring a little bit of that side of Iran to the world as well.
Tavis: Do you think even in 2014, do you think music is still pregnant with the power to do all that?
Nazeri: Absolutely. I think music has a power that nothing else has that sort of power, because looking and talking about modern cosmology, we all know that the whole existence has created a vibration, and vibration is sound and it’s music.
So we’re all, as we are sitting here, everything is vibration, and so music is the most powerful instrument, thing that we can have. No matter where you’re from, if you hear a music that touches your heart, no matter what it is, no matter what language it is, no matter what instrument, you’re touched.
But it’s much more difficult with other sort of art. If I bring you a painting, if you don’t have that much of knowledge about painting, you might not going to really connect.
Or even with film, even with theater. But music, if you touch that one chord, it’s done. (Laughter)
Tavis: Speaking of touching chords, I see you have your instrument with you.
Tavis: Why don’t you pick that up right quick? Like most artists, I suspect you don’t leave home without it.
Tavis: It’s always close by.
Tavis: For those who’ve never seen one of these, you want to give us a quick lesson?
Nazeri: Yeah. This is the new instrument that I’ve created. We have a Persian, very well known, one of the most famous Persian instruments, a sitar, which is basically the mother of this instrument.
Since I’ve grown up I really wanted to be able to create something different. In Persian music, opposite, again, to classical music, that the instrument developed and evolved over, like, hundreds of years, our instrument all remained the same.
So growing up in that family and the way I was since I was playing this instrument since three years old, I always wanted to do something different with it, because that’s my character.
I always wanted to bring change. So when I was 19 years old I released a recording in Iran where for the first time I did a solo on this instrument, which was totally changing the whole concept of the instrument, with the technique.
Not this instrument, the traditional Persian sitar. When I moved to New York, I still felt like did that recording and I did that solo, but that’s not fully allowing me to do what I want.
I was looking at the instrument and I was easily could see the issues on how to evolve this. So the Persian sitar has four strings. I added to this new instrument two more lower strings. (Plucking instrument)
Tavis: Oh I see, yeah.
Nazeri: So now this instrument can help Iranian music to bring more harmony to the music, rather than the monophonic sounds like are mostly like (plays instrument). Now it’s going to be like (plays instrument).
So I can do harmony with it, and it’s going to really help the future generation to even come up with more possibilities. This instrument has over 17 chromatic pitches compared to the Persian sitar. (Unintelligible)
Tavis: It’s a gorgeous piece of –
Nazeri: Yes, it’s beautiful, this one is –
Tavis: That back side is amazing.
Nazeri: Yeah, and this is also, yeah, very special. This is the root of the pine. So they, it’s very, very a special root, and they work so hard to make it like this and everything. This is a beautiful instrument. I’m so happy to have it.
Tavis: Well I’m glad you brought it so we could see it.
Nazeri: Thank you.
Tavis: We’ll get used to seeing it –
Nazeri: Yes, I hope so.
Tavis: – courtesy of you. The new project from Hafez Nazeri is called “Rumi Symphony Project: Untold.” You might want to add this to your collection and remember that name, because you’re going to hear it, I think, many more times into the future. Hafez, good to have you on the program, man.
Nazeri: Thank you.
Tavis: Thanks for coming by to see us.
Nazeri: Thank you very much.
Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching. As always, keep the faith.
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