On the edge of Tehran lives a soulful singer named Shahram Nazeri who is largely responsible for popularizing the poetry of 13th century poet Rumi (full name: Mawlana Jalal ad-Din Balkhi Rumi) not only in Iran but throughout the world. Here in North America Rumi has earned a significant following with his timeless Sufi message of letting go. In this 800th anniversary year of Rumi’s birth, Nazeri and his son, composer Hafez Nazeri, release The Passion of Rumi on September 25, 2007 on QuarterTone Productions.
The 13th century poet Rumi has garnered an upsurge of devotees worldwide in recent years and has sold more books than any other poet in the world. Shahram Nazeri—dubbed the Persian Nightingale by the New York Times and Iran’s Pavarotti by the Christian Science Monitor—was the first to put Rumi’s words to music, starting in the 1970s. His soulful voice buoyed him to the top echelon of performers in Iran. Not only does Nazeri sing the words of Rumi, the passion of his voice, his very creation of vocal sound embodies Rumi’s message, which marks a turning point in Persian classical music.
Poetry is central to traditional Persian music. In Iran, poetry is not only considered the highest form of art, it is a colloquial tool used in everyday life. Imagine you go to your local grocer and ask a question and the man behind the counter responds with a thousand year-old poem. Would that happen here in North America? Not likely. When Islam arrived, music was forbidden, but poetry flourished. And when music did emerge, it was closely tied to this long poetry tradition, both in terms of the lyrics used, and in terms of the musical form, which had a monophonic, narrative-like structure.
For decades, Persian singers have sung the poems of such great 13th century poets as Hafez and Sa’adi. Many times, when Persian people need to meditate and want to find peace of mind, they read poetry. The poet Hafez has a special effect, because he puts two contradictory meanings in one line. This allows the reader to project their own meaning into it and discover their own feelings about the problem at hand. But Nazeri found that Rumi had a stronger emotional effect on him. Nazeri, like most Rumi devotees, are drawn to the selfless approach of Rumi and the idea that if you let the self go, you gain freedom. By letting material attachment go, you find peace and security.Thus Nazeri was the first to invent new song forms for adapting the poetry of Rumi in Persian classical music When Nazeri began singing Rumi poetry, he brought Iranians closer to Rumi through music, and exposed many Westerners to the words of and philosophy of the Sufi poet.
Several years ago, Shahram Nazeri’s son, Hafez Nazeri, decided to launch a project featuring his father’s songs set to the poems of Rumi. But Hafez decided to scour the horizon for some of the greatest instrumentalists under the age of 20. What emerged was one of the most highly-attended tours in the Middle East, and whose fruit is featured on the new CD, The Passion of Rumi. The album features the powerful songs of the elder Nazeri, accompanied by Hafez’s Rumi Ensemble playing the younger Nazeri’s compositions and arrangements that merge Eastern musical structures and Western orchestration techniques.
The Passion of Rumi finds Hafez Nazeri—fast-becoming the new voice of the younger generation of the traditional music of Iran—planting the seeds of a marriage of East and West. Under the tutelage of his father, Hafez learned to play and sing traditional Persian music. Without speaking a lick of English, Hafez moved to New York to study at the Manhattan School of Music, where he made the leap from an oral musical tradition to a highly notated one. This month, Hafez led his Rumi Symphony at Los Angeles’ Walt Disney Concert Hall in a concert that the L.A. Times called “an ambitious collection of cross-cultural music.” The performance featured the senior Nazeri who the Times says “brought a transcendent quality to every note he sang.” Other observers noted that Hafez’s use of written music presented a challenge for his father, whose main idiom is improvization. But the two were able to combine the rhythms within Persian music and orchestrations of Western music to create an entirely new sound. The Passion of Rumi is also scheduled to be performed at the Barbican Hall of London on October 15, 2007, produced in association by Serious and Royal Albert Hall.
Father and son carry on the family legacy of innovation rooted in Persian tradition, whereas typical “ethnic music” innovation frequently finds its basis in Western structures. Surprisingly, both have found strength in their own personal musical voices by following the words of Rumi and letting go of the structures that bind them, without letting go of their cultural heritage.