Persian-violin master Kayhan Kalhor performs with string quartet at SFJazz

03.27.09
Kayhan Kalhor & Brooklyn Rider
Mercury News

Kayhan Kalhor has spent much of his adult life introducing Western audiences to the seductive subtleties of Iranian music.

An unsurpassed master of the kamancheh, the ancient four-string Persian spiked violin, Kalhor is a founding member of Yo-Yo Ma's Silk Road Ensemble and the driving force behind the esteemed groups Dastan, Ghazal and Masters of Persian Music.

After more than two decades of living in Europe and the United States, Kalhor moved back to Iran several years ago. As a player and composer he is still devoted to his work as a musical ambassador, a role he's taken to new heights with his latest project, "Silent City," an extraordinary collaboration with the string quartet Brooklyn Rider released last September on World Village. He performs the Bay Area premiere of the "Silent City" project with Brooklyn Rider at the Palace of the Fine Arts Theatre on April 5 as part of the SFJazz spring season.

"I've been around really first-rate musicians, Yo-Yo Ma, other classical musicians who made me aware of things I might have just disregarded," says Kalhor, 46, speaking by phone from a motel in upstate New York. "Living abroad for almost a quarter century, I always wanted to learn about other cultures. We live in a world where we can't just be one-dimensional in anything we do."

Born into a Kurdish family in Tehran, Kalhor was still a child when he started attracting attention with his preternatural talent on the kamancheh. He spent his teenage years as a featured soloist with the National Orchestra of Radio and Television of Iran. While immersing himself in the Persian classical repertoire, a body of music stretching back thousands of years and known as the radif, he also studied Kurdish folkloric music, which became a launching pad for his cross-cultural collaborations with musicians from India, Turkey and beyond.

"I believe the radif is the bricks to build the building, not the building itself," Kalhor says. "I think the radif is a pure form to learn music, a musical alphabet. When you learn that, you're just in the beginning of the journey."

"Silent City" is his most powerful album yet. The title track is a nearly half-hour piece he created in response to Saddam Hussein's destruction of the Kurdish Iraqi city of Halabja at the end of the Iran-Iraq war. Starting with a devastated hush, it slowly builds to an incantatory lament on the kamancheh based on a traditional Turkish melody.

"There are very few pieces in life that affect you like this when you first hear them, maybe Mahler or Miles Davis or 'Rite of Spring' - it's that kind of revelation," says composer Osvaldo Golijov, who first got to know Kalhor in 2000 when they both contributed to Kronos Quartet's Nonesuch album "Caravan."

Golijov has looked for opportunities to work with Kalhor ever since, and the composer featured Kalhor's haunting kamancheh on his score for Francis Ford Coppola's 2007 film "Youth Without Youth." When Golijov first tried to describe Kalhor's sound to the director, Coppola was unimpressed.

"But when he heard it he wanted to use it all over the place," Golijov says. "It has a tenderness that's not personal; it's anthropological. Kayhan is the master of that instrument. He's taken the kamancheh to places it has never traveled before, musically, emotionally and culturally. The civilization that he represents is very powerful, and he's at the top."

Since moving back to Iran in 2003, Kalhor has been seeking to stitch together generational relationships severed by the 1979 revolution that transformed Iran into an Islamic republic that greatly restricted musical performances.

"There's a young generation of musicians who grew up after the revolution, and the relationship between them and the previous generation hasn't been great," Kalhor says. "All of the old masters left Iran around the revolution in search of better situations and more concerts. I'm very fortunate to be in between that old generation and the new one."