It was a pleasure to talk to New York-based musician Kaveh Haghtalab, a musician who has mastered the eastern instrument of Kamancheh and the western drums, and fuses the music of the two worlds into one very soothing fusion of Persian music and jazz. Born to musician parents, Kaveh was about 10 years old when he began learning the Kamancheh, and studied with distinguished traditional Persian music masters such as Ahmad Mirhashemi, Saeed Farajpoori, and Majid Kiani. By the time he was 14, he had started playing with different ensembles, and later became a member of the Center for Preservation and Propagation of Iranian Music ensemble. Later, he became interested in playing the drums and started learning it as well. As a drummer, he played Jazz, Rock, and Flamenco music with groups such as Dook, Proshot, and Andelusia. In 2012, he moved to New York and began studying at the Collective School of Music. Also, in New York, he played the drums and the Kamancheh with various musicians and groups, including performing traditional Persian music in the Rubin Museum of Art and at Asia Society, and performing in the 2nd Annual Broadway Charity Songs.
Question: You specialize in a traditional Persian instrument, the Kamancheh, and a western instrument, the drums. How did you manage to find two such vastly different instruments and musical genres to play?
KH: I was fortunate to grow up in a family in which all its members played traditional music. At the beginning, I became interested in the Tar musical instrument, but when I heard the sound of Bagher Khan Rameshgar’s musical instrument, I became fascinated with the Kamancheh and began learning it. Later on, I became interested in Rock music and I was attracted by rhythm, which led me to begin playing the drums. At first, when I started playing the drums, finding the balancing point was difficult for me. I couldn’t focus on both instruments at the same time. But now, I have reached the conclusion that knowing the two kinds of music from two different perspectives, meaning rhythm and melody, has highly helped with my understanding of music. This must also be considered that although drums, in its present day form, was created in the USA, it does not belong to any particular nation or country. Cymbals and drums have been and are still being used in different parts of the world and today’s performers, according to their preferences and the type of music they play, use different drums, cymbals, and other percussion instruments.
Question: What Iranian or western musician have influenced you the most in your craft as a musician?
KH: Of the Iranian traditional musicians and masters, I would like to mention Bagher Khan Rameshgar, Majid Kiani, Vahid Bassam, Noorali Boroomand, and Abulhassan Saba, and among the Persian music players who have a more modern approach to music, I would like to mention Hossein Alizadeh and Pouya Mahmoodi as a musician whose music is deeply influenced by the Iranian regional and folk music. Among the western musicins, I would like to mention Ian Froman, Brian Blade, Jack DeJohnette, Ken Filiano, and Keith Jarrett.
Question: Traditional Iranian musicians and audiences sanctify the Persian music and behave very respectfully towards their music and performances. This has led to many young Iranian audiences, especially those living outside of Iran, to shy away from traditional Persian music because of its perceived seriousness and rigidity not only for the musicians, but also for the audience. What do you think should be done to generate more interest in traditional Persian music among the younger Iranians?
KH: Every musical performance has a certain decorum and traditional form in which it is performed and listened to, and it is upon both the performer and the audience to observe this decorum as much as they should. As far as I can see, this issue has been resolved in the music world outside of Iran. Indian musicians sit on the floor while playing their traditional music. Classical musicians wear formal clothes and they have pre-planned ways to enter and leave the stage and how to take a bow. Opera audiences sit down. Audiences at Rock concerts follow it standing up and shake with the music. And, in our traditional music, respect and silence during performances is part of our audience’s culture and decorum. These types of music have their own place and their own followers, and essentially society does not make a value judgment on the music based on these reasons.
In my opinion there are other reasons for the young generation’s lack of interest in our traditional music. The number of instructors who are experts in traditional music, its teaching methods, and its theoretical topics are very limited, and most people do not have access to them. Many instructors teach without regard for the student’s character and unique interests. I think it would be better if instructors familiarize their students with styles of different musicians and discuss their playing styles in order to create knowledge and motivation among students, so that the students can follow one or more musicians, until they can ultimately find their own style and voice. At the same time, the lack of an integrated traditional music training system in schools is apparent and in the hundreds of programming hours the domestic and foreign media offer, there is a very limited supply of traditional Persian music.
Question: In recent years, fusions of Iranian music with western instruments, played by well-known groups, such as Yo Yo Ma’s Silk Road or The Brooklyn Rider, has created a nice platform for Iranian instruments and musicians to perform to other audiences. What do you think about fusion music and its potential for Persian music?
KH: The Silk Road and The Brooklyn Rider groups are very interesting developments, as they are successful projects at an international level. But, in my opinion, Iranian Kamancheh master Kayhan Kalhor does not play traditional or classical music. The fusion music’s inherent conversation, or perhaps I should say the world music’s inherent conversation, takes shape when the musicians set aside their instruments’ mother tongue and just begin playing music together.
In the area of fusion music, I am working with various groups, including Norbert Stachell, with whom I am collaborating on production of his new album. I perform in the Open Music Ensemble, in which many players of native, Jazz, and classical instruments collaborate, and I also participate in free style improvisations, performances for choreography, and music and meditation performances. I have started a two-man recording project called “From Far Away” with Iran-based musician Mohammad Azmand, which is a collaboration with musicians from inside and outside of Iran. At this time I am busy with musical arrangement of works based on native Iranian themes, of which one work has been recorded, and once it is completed, I hope to put together a band and start recording and performing.
Listen to an excerpt of "Navaee," an improvisation based on theKhorasan folk song, arranged by Kaveh Haghtalab and Sean Conly. Drums and Kamancheh by Kaveh Haghtalab; Piano by Isamu McGregor; Bass by Sean Conly.