Flying Fingers

There are very good reasons why Mohammad Reza Mortazavi is known as the drummer with the "fastest hands in the world"; listening to him perform, one gets the impression that one is listening to an ensemble of drummers playing a variety of instruments. Marian Brehmer reports

By Marian Brehmer

It is not exactly the most likely of settings for an Iranian solo drummer. The trendy "Lido" club in the Kreuzberg district of Berlin is the type of venue that is more usually frequented by indie or electro bands. With no seats for the audience, it is standing room only.

On the stage are four drums – two Iranian frame drums, or dafs, and two tombak hand drums – silently awaiting the animating touch that will give them life. The daf is the rhythmic heart of traditional Sufi music and is also used to accompany prayer and chanting in many Muslim countries, while the goblet-shaped tombak is the most important percussion instrument in traditional Persian music.

There is tension in the air; the concert is late in starting. The "Lido" is packed, the atmosphere stuffy, and the sense of expectation almost palpable. It is amazing how many young people have come along. This is a very different gathering from the usual Iranian exiles that so often make up the lion's share of listeners at a concert of Persian music.

A ripple of applause suddenly greets the appearance on stage of a slim, almost inconspicuous man. When he says a few words into the microphone, Mohammad Reza Mortazavi seems shy, perhaps even too shy for the stage. Once he has a drum in his hand, however, a transformation takes place and he begins to work his magic, mesmerising his audience.

Amazing talent

"When I play the drums, I push myself to the limits, until those limits completely disappear," says Mortazavi

​​The life story of the drummer with what the German television channel ZDF referred to as the "fastest hands in the world" is true storybook material. Mohammad Reza Mortazavi grew up in Isfahan, Iran, and took drum lessons from the age of six. His amazing talent astonished his tombak teacher, who, after three years, felt that there was nothing more that he could teach his prodigy. At the age of ten, he won the national tombak competition, the annual gathering of Iran's finest percussionists.

Nowadays, Mortazavi is very different from traditional tombak players, having developed many new drumming techniques as well as his own very distinctive playing style. In the past, he routinely filled concert halls in Iran and his appearances in Tehran were invariably sell-outs. His most recent album, in German Geradeaus (straight ahead), came out in November; the Kreuzberg concert is being held to mark the official release of the CD.

Amazing just isn't the word to describe what Mortazavi manages to do with his drums during the course of the evening. Listening to him, it is difficult to believe that the sounds are being produced by a solo drummer rather than an ensemble of several instruments. There are the rapid, melodic runs of the tombak – proper melodies twisting and turning, sometimes doubling back on themselves. But there are also the resonant hollow beats on the daf that Mortazavi so playfully tosses into the air. It all seems to come so easily, so naturally, even the flashing blur of those incredible flying finger movements.

Defying the laws of nature

In the quick interplay of the stage lights, his music seems almost to defy the laws of nature. "That's not possible," one listener is heard to remark more than once. It is clear from the faces of many in the audience that they had not expected to see such a display of virtuosity. Some of the less inhibited are dancing, shaking their hair loose to the rhythm; others just listen, spellbound.

"In the rhythm of my music I find a pulse that I share with my audience. Then I can feel my audience, there is no longer any distance between us," says Mortazavi. Though his compositions are all conceived and planned in advance, Mortazavi responds to the atmosphere he picks up from his audience when he is on stage and improvises continually.

The title of Mortazavi's 2010 album "Green Hands" is an allusion to Iran's Green pro-reform movement of 2009

​​When he is playing, Mortazavi appears to be in a world of his own. His hands take on a life of their own, his eyes, as though in trance, gazing out to some undefined point in the crowd. "When I play the drums, I push myself to the limits, until those limits completely disappear," Mortazavi says.

Ten years ago, Mortazavi made the decision to leave his native country, Iran. A successful concert in Munich gave him the motivation to move to Germany, where has since appeared many times on TV and last year played a solo concert at the Berlin Philharmonic, one of the high points of his career. Mortazavi is now more famous in Germany than he is in Iran. Unlike many other exiled musicians, though, he often travels back to his home city of Isfahan.

The album Green Hands

The title of the album he released in 2010, Green Hands, is also an allusion to Iran's Green reform movement of 2009. "Green is the colour of growth and of nature. It is a positive colour. I associate green most of all with freedom," Mortazavi declares. "Many of the traditional musicians in Iran have aligned themselves with the Green movement. But their music is not free."

For Mohammad Reza Mortazavi, freedom is also about a willingness to experiment and to create new music on historical instruments. Mortazavi's way of doing things, however, does not meet with universal approval; many musicians of the classical school do not really like what he does.

In the second half of the concert, Mortazavi really casts off the musical shackles. One moment, the beats of his drums sound like techno beats, the next like a rock drummer letting off steam. For his final number, Mortazavi plays Eine kleine Nachtmusik on a mini-tombak.

The crowd goes wild, refusing to let him go. Again and again he is called back on stage by their rapturous applause. Even after an hour and a half of continuous playing, he is still prepared to reward the reception he has been given with four encores. After the concert is over, as we converse on the couch, Mortazavi is once again his quiet, introspective self. It is hard to believe that this is the same man whose dynamic performance, just a short time ago, so electrified his audience.

Marian Brehmer

© 2011

Translated from the German by Ron Walker

Editor: Aingeal Flanagan/