Iran Chat: Interview with Sufi musician Amir Vahab

Welcome to our interview with Amir Vahab – one of New York’s most celebrated and distinguished composers and vocalists of Sufi and folk music.  The interview includes a discussion of Mr. Vahab’s background, how he got interested in music, some advice for aspiring musicians, a description of Persian music, as well as a special demonstration of some traditional Persian instruments, which begins about halfway through our conversation.

In addition to speaking with us for this series, Mr. Vahab was also kind enough to provide the music for the podcast, which you will hear at the beginning and end of each episode.  To learn more about Mr. Vahab and his music, or about the Persian instruments featured in this interview, please visit Mr. Vahab’s website

Some highlights of our conversation are below:

On how Mr. Vahab became interested in music:

“Rumi, the 13th century mystical poet, believed in successive lives…  and so I believe in my past life or lives I have been a musician.  Music is something that I was automatically drawn to.”   Mr. Vahab explains that while music was ingrained in him from an early age, it was not always easy to be a young person growing up in Iran with an interest in traditional music.  “Everybody mocked me to play an Iranian instrument because we were so westernized.  It was only cool to play the piano, guitar…  If you played the setar they would look at you!  But, I had a very strong soul, so you know these things did not affect me in the least. “ He adds, however, that all music and all instruments come from a common place: “Even though my specialty is Middle Eastern music, particularly Persian music... all instruments and all music is related just like a large family.  Good music nourishes the soul.”

On Persian music & its connection to poetry and Iranian culture:

Mr. Vahab expresses his fascination with a linguistic curiosity of Persian—that the Persian language, as it was spoken over a thousand years ago, can be understood by people today.  Meanwhile, “if I speak the English from 1150 years ago you wouldn’t be able to understand a single, simple sentence; same goes for French. Because languages are living beings and they are not stagnant; they are constantly moving and evolving.”  However, Persian from long ago can be understood by people today “because of our ties to poetry.  There is not a day that goes by in Iran that people don’t recite poetry.”

He also expresses his belief that people can learn about Iranian culture by listening to Persian music.  “I think it’s Rumi that says ‘not everything that is in one’s chest can be transferred like a lesson.’  It’s very deep… When you listen to the music of a culture, you can tell a lot.  Sometimes not at the intellect level or [level of the] brain, but definitely at an internal level of feelings, psyche and even further deep in your soul.”

On music and politics: 

Mr. Vahab laments the ongoing decline in funding for music and the arts, and expresses his enthusiasm for the system of the ancient Greeks: “Over 2000 years ago the Greeks had music chambers that would function under the cost of government.  They would have several times a day music provided free to the public for the citizens to just go there and expose themselves, just like you take a sunbath.”

Compare this to the rules about music immediately following the revolution in Iran.  “At first [the Iranian government after the revolution] said ‘No music!’ Then they realized it’s ridiculous… it’s like saying no breathing or no drinking water.. you can’t stop everyone from doing that.  Then they couldn’t control it then they said ok, but play only spiritual music.  The next move was to play only Persian instruments.   But now, as you know, every instrument is allowed, every corner instrument shop they sell guitars violins, cellos, silver flute.. there is no restriction at this point.”

On learning Persian music:

Mr. Vahab firmly believes that everyone can learn music.  “Rather than focusing on the students, I focus on the teacher; it is the job of teachers to teach; not everybody is cut out to be a teacher. You have to have a lot of patience, and you have to put yourself in their shoes to be a good teacher.  It’s the job of the teachers to make sure that what they teach is absorbable and could be assimilated by the students.”

On composing music:

“Before we get [melodies], I believe they are in the spiritual world up there.  I don’t want to take credit... My humble belief is these melodies are out there, in that vast world of existence.  I believe it’s there, and when you are ready, you can absorb and capture these melodies.  That’s why I refrain from saying I created these melodies, but.. I had the honor of receiving them.”