Expanding the horizons of the kamancheh

German-Iranian Misagh Joolaee was recently recognised for widening the scope of playing the Persian spiked fiddle with the German Record Critics’ Award. Mariam Brehmer listened to his new album

By Marian Brehmer

The kamancheh, also known as the Persian spiked fiddle, is a mainstay in Iranian art music and has been popularised on the international stage by the virtuoso Kayhan Kalhor. This delicate bowed instrument, native to Iran, Azerbaijan and other countries of Central Asia, surprises listeners by its distinctive full sound – this despite its tiny resonating body, which is traditionally made from the wood of the mulberry, walnut or maple tree.

Kamancheh music is suffused with its own distinctive melancholy, it is rich in overtones and possesses a thoroughly breathy sound that is always sensitive, plaintive, and – inevitably – slightly vulnerable.

In February, the new album by this Iranian kamancheh virtuoso was included on the renowned German Record Critics’ Award list of the year’s best recordings. Misagh Joolaee moved from Iran to Hannover in 2006 to study electrical engineering and information technology, nonetheless devoting a large part of his time to music. He has remained in Germany for the past 14 years.

This intense preoccupation with music is evident on his first solo album entitled Ferne, which is marked by a high level of energy and a great deal of ingenuity. Ferne features 11 tracks, all composed by Joolaee over the past few years. He is accompanied on the album by Sebastian Flaig, a rhythm virtuoso from Freiburg. He performs on a variety of percussion instruments on the album, including frame drums, a darbuka and the cajon, a South American box drum.

Innovative double stops and challenging a musical tradition

Joolaee begins by slowly plucking his strings, as is customary with Kamancheh performances, only to then present a series of innovative double stops on the piece entitled "Companions". These idiosyncratic chords lie beyond the typical range of sounds found in traditional Persian music. In fact, they challenge a musical tradition that is not exactly known for its flexibility.

With "Acuteness", the fourth track on the disc, the music forges ahead with an almost irrepressible drive. Flaig’s drumming provides the rhythmical accent, while Joolaee sets the mood with his rapid-paced melody lines. The listener constantly encounters innovative harmonic intervals, which, in addition to pizzicato and bowing techniques, were developed by Joolaee himself for the kamancheh. Joolaee’s intense engagement with his instrument can be heard in every piece. His explorations of the possibilities offered by the spiked fiddle seem inexhaustible.

On "Night of Separation", the seventh track, Joolaee sings lyrics from a poem by Fakhr al-Din Iraqi and accompanies himself on the kamancheh, while Flaig gently strokes a cymbal. The lyrics, the only spoken element on the CD, are the poet’s melancholy meditation on separation from the object of one’s love and the resultant sense of despair.

It also raises questions on the meaning of life. "I find this poem truly moving and it takes hold of me every time I read it. This is why I felt the need to set it to music," explains Joolaee.

Ferne is likewise a personal work of expression by an expatriate, who has not only found a new physical home, but a musical one as well. "If you carefully listen to Ferne, you can clearly hear an emotional thread running through the whole work," says Joolaee while discussing the conception of the solo album, which took him ten years to complete. "My time spent in Germany has allowed me to view the culture of my homeland, and especially its music, in a more objective light and thereby to discover new perspectives. This distance gives me the opportunity to engage with the music of my heritage much more intensively than had I stayed in Iran."

Playing the kamancheh an "inner necessity"

During his live performances over the past few years, Joolaee has observed a greater interest in non-European musical traditions. "The challenge consists in conveying the finer and complex aspects of this music, despite its unfamiliarity, with a high degree of interpretative sensitivity so that it becomes accessible to the audience," says Joolaee.

Joolaee grew up in the northern Iranian province of Mazandaran. He began playing the kamancheh when he was eight and learned the obligatory radif repertoire upon which Persian classical music is based. In addition, he was also taught to play other traditional instruments, such as the setar and the tar. And he has played the piano for years.

Ultimately, Joolaee felt drawn to the kamancheh. He found in the spiked fiddle the instrument through which he could express the music that was deep in his soul. Today, he regards his choice of the kamancheh not as a deliberate decision, but rather as an "inner necessity".

In recent years, Joolaee has worked as a lecturer at the Center for World Music at the University of Hildesheim. He frequently plays with musicians from other musical traditions. Such encounters have led to the emergence of new musical constellations. In 2011, Joolaee established the Anatolian-Persian musical duo with Levent Ozdemir, a virtuoso on the baglama. Four years later, he co-founded a Flamenco-Persian ensemble with musicians from Andalusia.

On a number of tracks in Ferne, the listener can clearly hear Joolaee’s expanded horizons resulting from his cross-genre musical interests. On "Ecstasized", the last piece on the album, Joolaee embraces a dance-like mood reminiscent of Latin American music. It features a variety of plucking and bowing techniques and is supported by beats on a clay drum. With his debut album, Joolaee has shown himself to be an artist who has found his own voice and we should certainly expect to hear more from him in the future.

Mariam Brehmer

© Qantara.de 2020

Translated from the German by John Bergeron