Clive Bell on plunging one's head into a brazier of burning coals, playing for the angels and the legacy of Ostad Elahi, reclusive tanbour master
In September I visited New York for a small exhibition of Persian instruments at The Metropolitan Museum Of Art. This roomful of long-necked lutes and calligraphy is from the family of Ostad Elahi (1895–1974), a mystical Kurdish musician who lived in western Iran. Elahi had a clandestine career – he never played in public nor on the radio, yet his reputation was so strong that in the 1960s luminaries such as violinist Yehudi Menuhin and choreographer Maurice Béjart visited him. They left astonished by his playing of the tanbour, an apparently simple instrument. Elahi sat and strummed for hours, integrating dervish hymns, his father’s compositions and even Kurdish popular dances into his lengthy improvisations. He employed all ten fingers in a restless, earthy style, a blur of delicate ornaments and hypnotic tremolandos.
After a career as a magistrate, travelling all over Iran, Elahi retired aged 62 and devoted himself to music and the spiritual life. He sat in his house and played to whoever was there – family, visitors, or the angels who never seemed to be far away, and who supplied his musical ideas. “When I used to play,” he explained, “every note would be transformed into a singing and dancing angel.”
In 2004 I reviewed a set of six CDs by Elahi on the label Le Chant Du Monde (The Wire 246). These were recordings made informally, in his home, towards the end of Elahi’s life, and this series has now expanded to around a dozen albums. As a result of this review, I was invited to New York to take part in a panel, one segment of an evening devoted to Elahi’s music. Also present was Jean During, authority on Persian music and author of The Spirit Of Sounds, a book that attempts to grasp what Elahi was up to. The book is a serious slab of musicology, but it has great stories, including one about the Tehran police officer who specialises in hypnosis. He challenges the young Elahi to a kind of super-powers contest. When Elahi starts to play, the policeman tips into an ecstatic state: he plunges his head into a brazier of burning coals. “The others, in a state of ecstasy as well, played with the coals. At first our host panicked and started picking up with tongs all the coals that were spread out on his carpet. But there were so many that he soon gave up… to his great surprise he saw that nothing had been damaged.”
Elahi offers a bridge between the pre-modern world – the medieval, if you like – and the modern. He lived most of his early life in a village with no electricity, where a sick person could be healed by biting on the neck of the master’s tanbour while it was played. But late in life, he used cinema as a metaphor to elucidate how he was inspired. “From the sound of the tanbour emanate particles that produce various scenes. If we concentrate our attention with our eyes closed, those scenes can be seen as if on a movie screen. Each melody corresponds to a particular scene. When I take my instrument in hand, I do not have the impression of playing; rather the music comes from those scenes. That is why I never play an air the same way, even if I play it a thousand times.”
The Sunday following the Met’s panel, I took the five minute ferry trip with friends to Governor’s Island, a former British military base now being transformed into an artists’ playground. Sprawled on grass in brilliant September sunshine, we listened to the six pianos of Grand Band perform Steve Reich’s “Six Pianos”. Constantly shifting forwards, drawing you into an ecstasy of structural intricacy, flirting with disco rhythms (like Chic’s Nile Rodgers playing Terry Riley’s “In C”) – this 1973 piece was recorded around the same time as Elahi’s family tape recorder was capturing his music in western Iran. Overhead, New York’s ever-present helicopters whirled back and forth. And the angels listened.
Elahi’s music is fascinating in its own right, but a musician who never performs in public raises questions – who is he playing for? A young musician asking how to progress was recommended by Elahi to play “chiefly for himself without thinking of the public or being concerned with material profit.” The purpose of such music is ethical and spiritual, a fiercely strummed drive towards self-improvement.
New York Metropolitan Museum of Art's Sacred Lute: The Art of Ostad Elahi exhibition runs to 11 January 2015