"I used to go to this old viola player," a friend tells of his youthful years in…
- Posted on Jun 7th 2011 3:30PM by Steve Hochman
You'd never guess that this woman is one of the giants Persian classical and folk music. Sima Bina looms large over a challenging, male-dominated field for her intensive research into centuries of traditions spanning the dozens of regions and dozens more language dialects of what is now Iran, as much as for her affecting and entrancing voice, even if she's keeping it largely silent at the moment.
A few minutes later, though, the voice is heard in all its power and confidence as she rehearses with the others, members of the L.A.-based Lian Ensemble, all Iranian expatriates and arguably the preeminent Persian group in the US. Together they're preparing for a landmark North American concert tour and recording project that began in late May and continues into late June, focusing on the music and words of early 20th century composer-poet Aref Ghazvini, whose music reflected and commented on the transitions of culture into modern times under the first Shah. Starting the session with an instrumental, the evocative instrumental whose title translates as 'Limping Horse,' they segue into 'Ghaleh Peer' ('Old Fort') featuring Bina's expressive singing, entrancing and moving even without translation and showing the dynamics and promise of this combination of artists.
Before and after the rehearsal (the latter over a wonderful Persian meal prepared by Lian co-founder and tar player Pirayeh Pourafar), Bina doesn't need to speak -- her cohorts are more than happy to speak for, and of, her.
"We were talking about that element she has in her voice," percussionist Houman Pourmehdi, Pourafar's husband, tells Spinner of an earlier conversation between the Lian musicians. "It touches the being of humanity when we hear her. That's rare to find."
But what she's done with that voice is even rarer, and matched with an equal vision.
"There are many female singers in our culture, but she's the only one who can be in folk music and classical," says Pourmehdi, who teaches Persian percussion at the California Institute of the Arts. "The only one."
Her explorations of the great wealth and range of cultures within Iran, particularly those of her home region of Khorisan, redefined modern perceptions of Persian music as an inclusive form with deep and wide-reaching roots. As such, it stood in contrast to the quasi-Western orientation under the Shah and the tight reigns that were put on after his deposition by Islamic fundamentalists. That latter put Bina, and all women artists, in jeopardy, as public singing by females was and largely remains forbidden. That, ultimately, led to her self-imposed exile in Köln, Germany, where she has been based for 25 years.
And nowhere in her dozens of recordings drawing on all those roots is that humanity more evident than on 'Iranian Lullabies,' an unprecedented book and four-CD set that was released in 2009 following years of research. On it, she performs -- as the title implies -- lullabies from all parts of Iran, many that were part of oral tradition but never written down, collected personally by her from women in rural villages. To at once personalize them and provide aural context, she added various ambient and nature sounds, such as birds singing and water trickling. Opening track, 'Kerman Lullaby,' is fittingly a song that her own mother sang to her, here with the rising sound of a ticking clock as childhood slips by.
"She gathered all the lullabies in Iran, 30 states, everything together," says Pourafar. "Spent about 15 years putting everything together. Her voice was forbidden in Iran since she's a woman, and she put everything aside to research and collect these. Never done before."
Now Bina, with Pourmehdi translating, interjects a thought.
"She says that the book belongs to all the mothers in Iran," Pourmehdi says.
"A part of the lullabies project is documenting the oral history, what happened, what they are singing for the children is what happened to them," says Pourafar.
The project was both inspiring to the singer and, she believes, the people who preserve the music in everyday life. Speaking up for herself, again through Pourmehdi's translation, she notes that her trips to Iran, once or twice a year, have taken on increased significance to her through this work.
"After the ban of female singing in Iran, I've been more encouraged to work on this," she says. "I still keep contract in Iran, going and studying and traveling, finding more sources and unheard music in Iran is important."
The music being featured on the Bina/Lian collaboration is of a different nature, though. In some ways it's more traditional/classical than many of Lian's projects -- the group has engaged in some very rewarding cross-genre and cross-cultural projects, such as the 2006 album 'Pangea' with Armenian duduk giant Djivan Gasparyan, 2008's 'Dark Wing' teaming with L.A. jazz players and last year's 'Windows,' a magical collaboration with the Tuvan instrumental and throat-singing quartet the Chirgilchin Ensemble,
"Ghazvini was a pioneer of relating the political ideas in the country in relation to the music," says Amir Koushkani, the ensemble's tar and setar player and, for his day job, on the music faculty of York University in Ontario, Canada. "His works are among the most famous in Persian culture, Persian classical music."
But there are new twists in this presentation, not least being just who is doing it.
"We are presenting the most famous compositions by Aref, but with her voice," Koushkani says. "This has never happened, with a female voice."
Of course, this comes at a time in which Iran is still struggling with issues of the modern world, such as women singing. It's no coincidence that these musicians chose this material. They believe they speak just as strongly to the Iran of today as it did to the nation a century ago.
"Yes, of course," says Pourmehdi. "She wanted to bring that out to the community."
"We are seeing some things which existed in our culture before," Koushkani continues. "Unsolved problems. And the message is sometimes more clear with old material. Some people make new songs, but we are saying the problems already existed -- if we look at them. Still struggling with the same problems."
"She mentioned that the songs she's singing this time are because our people are always under dictatorship," Pourmehdi says on behalf of Bina. "No different between now and before. Folk songs are the same about being separated from the land."
He looks around this charming courtyard he's sharing with this mix of musicians, mostly living far from their roots.
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