I find it appalling that we in the West are willing to tar an entire culture with the brush of recent history, and in the process cut ourselves off from hundreds, if not more, years of beauty and intelligence. This is especially appalling when even the most casual perusal of history would tell us the size of the gulf separating our misinformed view from reality. The religious fascism practised in Iran and preached by their right wing allies these days is not only repulsive for the hatred it engenders, but for the corrupt and narrow view of Islam they present to the world. It’s bad enough they inflict this on those who come under their sway and force as many as they are able to abide by their perversions, but even worse is how they have succeeded in convincing so many that theirs is the true face of Islam.
The culture that brought us the sublime beauty of Sufi poet Rumi, the wonder of Shaherazade’s Tales Of 1001 Nights and scientific minds subtle enough to introduce to the world the concept of zero bears only a passing resemblance to the mind numbing totalitarianism being passed off as a religion in certain parts of the world today. However, as images and reporting of the latter are what dominate our media, other views have fallen by the wayside. While one can walk through reminders of the glories of the Ottoman Empire in Spain and Northern Africa (and revel to the assembled musicians in the market places of Algeria and Morocco), in North America opportunities for the non-Muslim to appreciate this side of Islam are almost non-existent.
Thankfully that situation is starting to change. While we may not be seeing examples of all the arts, the past few years have seen an increase in the number of CDs being released by Islamic musicians living in North America. With the fundamentalists claiming music is forbidden by their religion recording and performing music still isn’t something being widely done by Muslim musicians, which makes those discs available all the more valuable. Composer and multi-instrumentalist Loga Ramin Torkian is one of the most active members of a small but thriving group of ex-patriot Iranian musicians living in North America. As a member of the bands Niyaz and Axiom Of Choice as well as a collaborator on his wife Azim Ali’s solo recordings, he has shown his virtuosity on a multitude of traditional and newly created stringed instruments. Plucked, strummed, or bowed–it doesn’t seem to matter as each instrument comes alive in his hands to generate sounds and textures unlike any you’ve probably heard before.
While you’ve probably heard his music already without realizing it–he’s composed music for movies such as Iron Man, Deception and Body of Lies–he has only just now released his first solo recording, Mehraab, on the Electrofone Music label. Accompanied by classical Persian vocalist Kourosh Taghavi, Torkian has created an album of music inspired by traditional Persian poetry and themes. The eight songs on the disc are not only an example of the nearly sublime beauty of this type of music, but a sampling of Torkian’s amazing abilities as both a performer and a composer. For while he draws upon the history and cultural heritage of his native Iran for inspiration, they are the springboard he uses to launch forays into new areas of musical expression.
Unlike those who seem to think that the simple application of electronics and utilizing dubbing techniques means they are being innovative, Torkian isn’t interested in creating something for addled-minded club attendees to trance out to at the end of a night of raving. He has created a series of eight complex and beautiful pieces of music in which the various instruments, including Taghavi’s spine-tingling voice, interweave and overlap to form collages of sound that will take your breath away. Playing instruments specially built for him by luthier Jonathan Wilson including a bowed instrument called a Kamaan with six strings and movable frets and a guitar viol (basically a bowed electric guitar), which allow him to expand upon both the traditional tonal ranges of Western and Persian music, he pushes the music in directions most people wouldn’t even think possible.
At first it’s difficult to distinguish the various instruments being played because of each piece’s density. However, as your ears grow accustomed to the different qualities each of them are capable of producing, you begin to pick out each individual strain and become more aware of each composition’s complexity. So while initially the music might appear to share some elements in common with what is known as “trance”, the reality is Torkian’s music is far more sophisticated, with subtle changes in tone, sound and rhythm creating accents and crescendos you’d not find in music designed to send you to sleep. Of course when the glorious voiced Taghavi enters the mix, the dynamic changes again as the music works to support him as he sings in celebration of life and faith.
At least that’s what I assume he’s singing about, not being able to understand the lyrics, as his voice weaves in, out and around its accompaniment. Without being able to comprehend what’s being sung, the natural temptation is to slip into a quiet reverie while listening, but the combination of Torkian’s compositions and Taghavi’s voice are more than enough to keep anyone’s attention focused on trying to glean as much meaning as possible from what you’re listening to. I don’t know whether this music was divinely inspired or not, but its inherent beauty was one that I’ve long associated with the work of composers and other artists inspired by a power greater than themselves.
Music has long been one of the means at humanity’s disposal for expressing our belief in something greater than ourselves. If certain elements seeking to control Islam had their way, they would deny both their people and the world the opportunity to hear any type of music, no matter if it were divinely inspired or not. The combination of the attitudes expressed by those who espouse those views and those in the West willing to paint all Muslims with that brush have left the rest of us with a false impressions of the true nature of Islam. Thankfully there are musicians like Loga Ramin Torkian in the world who are doing their best to remind us there is more to their culture than is commonly represented. Music speaks to all of us on some level or another, and Torkian’s music has a beauty that transcends the boundaries of language and culture.