Monday, August 31, 2015

Award-winning Kurdish musician in Iran persists with career despite hurdles and harassment

Photo courtesy of Roham Sobhani
Photo courtesy of Roham Sobhani
LOS ANGELES, USA - Three hours before the start of his concert in Sina (Sanandaj), Roham Sobhani was called into the office of the Etela’at, the Iranian intelligence agency. Having official permission from the culture ministry in Tehran and Sanandaj, he confidently showed up at the intimidating building in Khasrawa Blvd and presented the documents.
“You have to cancel the concert,” he was told by the secret police. 
The show was a tribute to Mazhar Khaleghi, the prominent Kurdish singer, and authorities had decided that “Khaleghi was a royalist” and a concert in his honor would be an insult to “the pure blood of the Islamic Republic’s martyrs.”
Sobhani explained that the concert posters had been given to the officials two months in advance and the objection could have been raised then, not after hundreds of tickets had been sold. 
“We will let you go on with your plans if you change the banners and brochures and instead hold the concert in honor of Imam Ali’s birthday,” was the compromise solution he was presented.  
Sobhani and his musicians had been rehearsing for months and had travelled long distances to hold the event. “Besides, the advertisements were everywhere already,” he explained. “I said I would agree to that if they thought it was not too late to change the occasion,” Sobhani told Rudaw in a phone interview.
The secret police sent out its men to change all the posters and banners from Mazhar Khaleghi to Imam Ali.
Ironically, the move only motivated more Kurds to attend the concert, curious to see what the big deal was and what had caused the big last-minute change.
When Jwan group members, founded and organized by Sobhani, appeared on stage, they were surprised by the large attendance, among them many looking like they were from the Basij, the regime’s volunteer militia.
“The theatre was packed. At least 40 big men with long beards or stubbles and in black shirts and formal pants had surrounded the crowd to stop people from having a revolution while listening to music!” smirked Sobhani.
The event went well that night, but the two remaining shows were cancelled without any logical reasons and despite Sobhani’s government-issued permits. 
“That was a hard blow to musicians who had devoted their lives to art. Naturally, musicians lose hope,” Sobhani said.
Sobhani is from Saqez, in Iran’s Kurdistan Province, but he was raised in Tehran. He was six when he started playing the Tonbakand, and at age nine he realized that the stringed Tar was his favorite instrument, which he has been playing ever since.
Sobhani is an award-winning composer and musician with formal training from the Fine Arts University in Tehran. 
To showcase innovative Kurdish and Iranian music, Sobhani founded “Jwan” in 2004, a group that went on to win the 2008 Fajr Music Award, which celebrates the anniversary of the 1979 Islamic revolution.
“As part of our award, we were supposed to be given permission to hold concerts for three years in Iran without having to ask for new permits every single time.” Sobhani said. “But that was a lie.”
Sobhani’s next scheduled concert was in Bokan, another city in Iran’s Kurdistan Province.  “We are not like Sina,” the governor of Bokan reassured Sobhani. But the promise was an empty one.
“Again our concert was cancelled a few hours before the start of the program, even though this time our show was a tribute to Hasan Zirak and not Khaleghi,” Sobhani said. “My whole life I have faced discrimination and prejudice, partly because of my ethnic background and partly because of my career as a musician who strives to be a voice for his society,” Sobhani explained.
“But, at the same time, being socially engaged and sympathizing with my nation has been the reason for my success,” he confessed.
Sobhani has composed for singers Haleh Seifizade, Hasan Sharghi, Hosein Safaimanesh, Hosein Alishapour and Maryam Khalaf, among others.
Working with female singers in Islamic Iran, where women are not allowed to sing in a male audience, has been another reason for Sobhani’s condemnation by the Iranian government.
Sobhani has produced four albums, including Pir Meikhane and Magham Atash. But none is available because the Ministry of Culture decided after publication and distribution that the recordings were illegal. Sobhani is also banned from holding concerts for four years.
“I am tired of Tehran, this busy, polluted city which is always full of tension. I look forward to being able to go back to Kurdistan, even though I have never felt too far away from it,” said Sobhani.
The type of music he is interested in is neither traditional Iranian music nor folklore: it is modern academic music and Iran’s national music.
For the past 12 years, Sobhani has been working on improvising Kurdish music, away from the repeated patterns heard everywhere. 
“I want to reproduce music from all parts of Kurdistan. The diversity is really necessary and people are tired of hearing the same old melodies over and over again. We should keep our fans thirsty for more and fresh Kurdish music,” he said.
“In Rojhalat (Iranian Kurdistan) alone, there are 300 to 400 unknown amazing songs that have not been introduced yet. In their obsession with repeating fashionable songs, Kurdish musicians have failed to showcase the magnificence and diversity in Kurdish music of the four parts,” he complained. 
“Bakur and Rojava music, for example, are quite fascinating, progressive and authentic. But to achieve this goal, I can’t really work in Iran.”
Sobhani believes that musicians who want to work in Iran have to make compromises, such as avoiding politics, which to him means a disinterest in what people want and need. He complains that, in order to work, artists must just bow their heads and say “yes, sir” every time the culture ministry orders them to ruin lyrics by deleting phrases. The officials, he believes, do not appreciate art; they kill the spirit of music and musicians.
“According to the censor board officials, 80 percent of Kurdish poetry is made up of banned words. If I replace them with meaningless words I kill the nostalgia in them. Also, Kurds will understand right away that the lyrics have been modified,” he explained.
Yet, Sobhani is not giving up. Although he finds it impossible to continue working in Iran, he is busy composing new music and doing research for planned concerts in Germany, France and Holland in spring 2016.
Despite all the hurdles, Sobhani is not discouraged. And he does not discourage other young Kurds from following their passions.
“Music is a painstaking profession and financially not so rewarding. It is a labor of love that requires patience, persistence, honesty and awareness of social matters. Yet, I recommend it to anyone who wishes to live a fulfilled life.”

The article was originally published in Rudaw

Monday, August 3, 2015

What Kurds think about Rouhani’s visit and promises in Kurdistan

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani during on his first visit to the country's Kurdish province. Photo IRNA

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani during on his first visit to the country's Kurdish province. Photo IRNA
LOS ANGELES, USA - In his country’s Kurdish heartland, Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani made new promises to his country’s millions of Kurds last week. He promised they would receive long-awaited permission to study in their own language at state universities, and better infrastructure in what are Iran’s most neglected regions.
Speaking in Sanandaj (Sina), the capital city of Iranian Kurdistan on his first visit to the province after two years in office, Rouhani promised 11 dams built over the next two years, and said he would look into building new roads.
But Kurdish commentators note that the new promises came as old ones – made to Kurds during Rouhani’s election campaign -- remain unfulfilled.
“Surprisingly, Rouhani won over 70 percent of the votes in Kurdistan, a sign of naive optimism that people felt but soon realized that these were empty promises,” said Amir Sharifi, a professor at California State University.
He noted that no Kurdish officials were given even local posts, not even as a governor, and recalled the government had added insult to injury by claiming it could find no qualified Kurdish candidates for any of the important posts.
“Even though Kurds in Iran supported Rouhani, ever since he has gained power my people have only seen more executions and terror,” said Golrokh Ghobadi, an Iranian in Sweden who has recently published her memoirs, Poppies on Rocks: Life and Time of a Kurdish woman in Iran.
“For no crime other than demanding their basic human rights, Kurds continue to be arrested, tortured and killed,” she added.
“He is only bribing the Kurds to gain their trust, to distract them from the realities of Kurds’ situation in neighbouring countries,” said Toronto-based activist Minoo Homily.
Kurdish commentators note the history of broken promises and suppresson of the Kurds by successive governments in Iran.
“Given the history of untrustworthiness demonstrated by the Persian regimes toward the Kurds, it will be a full-hearted naiveté by the Kurds to believe in such a promise,” said Ardishir Rashidi, president and founder of Kurdish American Education Society, referring to Rouhani’s newest pledges.
“Any credence to his comment must be viewed from the perspective of the Kurdish-Persian history and relations, and the past and present policies of the Iranian governments toward the Kurds,” he added.
The timing of the Rouhani’s visit – which follows an important nuclear deal Iran signed with world powers last month – is also important, commentators note.
“Choosing Kurdistan province as the first place to visit right after the nuclear deal with the West shows the importance of Kurdistan and its people during the Islamic Revolution and their role in protecting Iran,” Rouhani told the press upon his arrival at Sina airport.
“The trip has internal, regional and international objectives,” said Sharifi, the US-based scholar and human rights activist. “After the nuclear deal, regionally Rouhani is attempting to downplay the role of Kurds in the fight against ISIS and magnify the Islamic Republic’s role as the major force to fight terrorism,” he added.
“Iran feels threatened by the momentum the Kurds have with the relative autonomy they have gained in Iraq and Syria. Rouhani is trying to lure Kurds to trust the Iranian government and not other Kurds,” according to Homily.
“The Iranian regime fears the rise of the Kurdish awakening toward national rights, more than the danger posed by Israel or the United States,” said Rashidi, commenting on the reason Rouhani picked Kurdistan as his first destination since the nuclear deal.
Kurds say they have seen no improvement in their community’s situation since Rouhani became president two years ago. The only change is that Iran is now more aware that Kurds sympathize with other Kurds across the border, they say.
“The Iranian regime is fully aware of the affinity of the Kurdish kinship toward their brethren in other parts of the Greater Kurdistan than their taken-for-granted kinship toward the Persians on the basis of Islamic brotherhood as Mr. Rohani has stated,” Rashidi said.
“If Rouhani really cares about Kurds, he should start by attending to their biggest issues such as unemployment, poverty and substance abuse and not by allowing a few hours of Kurdish literacy in a post-secondary level. The least he could do was to allow it in kindergarten and elementary school, not university,” Ghobadi told Rudaw
Besides a history of suppression, Iran’s Kurds have other reason’s to mistrust governments in Tehran.
In July 1989, Iranian Kurdish leader Abdulrahman Ghassemlou was assassinated in Vienna during secret negotiations with Iranian government agents. Three years later his successor, Sadegh Sharafkandi, was assassinated in a Berlin restaurant by suspected agents of the Iranian regime.

The piece was originally published in Rudaw

Saturday, August 1, 2015

All-star musicians dedicate concert to women of Kobani

Renowned line-up of musicians to perform in support of Kobani's women. (Photo supplied)

Renowned line-up of musicians to perform in support of Kobani's women. (Photo supplied)
LOS ANGELES, USA —Kurdish singer and women rights advocate Rojan Feyz is in Los Angeles for a much-anticipated concert of Kurdish folk songs and Persian classical music to be held Sunday at the Wilshire Ebell Theatre.

Feyz said the performance, which includes musicians and dancers are from Middle East, Europe, Latin America and North America, will be dedicated the to the female fighters who battled ISIS in the ethnically Kurdish area of northern Syria known to Kurds as Rojava.

“Kobani women made every Kurdish woman proud. They are inspiring,” said Feyz, referring to the Kurdish town on the border with Turkey that became a powerful symbol of Kurdish resistance when the extremists were driven out earlier this years after months of fierce fighting.

The event was organized by Shahin Yousefzamani, a Kurdish musician and composer.
“The purpose for this concert is to further introduce the liveliness and beauty of Kurdish music to the international audience,” Yousefzamani told Rudaw.

Yousefzamani is the son of the renowned violin-players and composer Hosein Yousefzamani, who is from Iranian city Sina, also known as Sanandaj. His uncle Hasan Yousefzamani was also a musician.

The Sunday concert will include 15 songs, 10 of which will be Kurdish. A diverse dance group will perform three innovative choreographies.

“To a Western ear, Kurdish music might be a reminder of the music often heard in horror movies, instigating fear. To me, Kurdish music has so deeply resonated that I feel I must have been a Kurd in a past life or something. It runs in my blood,” said Greg Ellis, an American drummer and percussionist.

Ellis’s collaboration with Kurdish musicians started 12 years ago with Alireza Bashipoor, the tambour player from Iranian Kurdistan.

Hajar Zahawy, the acclaimed Daf player has travelled from London to join this diverse group for the performance. Born in Khaneqin, in Iraqi Kurdistan, Zahawy has been praised for his impressive skills as a Daf player.

“With its strong specificity, the enchanting rhythm and melody, there is nothing not to like about Kurdish music,” said Pedro Eustache, the world famous flautist, keyboardist, and composer.

“The rhythm of Kurdish music feels so natural and familiar to me. I think in Venezuela we got our music from you guys,” said Eustache.

Greek-born Oud player Dimitris Mahlis said he found the energy and melody in Kurdish music to be irresistible. He was first exposed to Kurdish music through Kamkars, a musical group consisting of the seven Kurdish brothers and a sister from Sina.

“Of all types of Kurdish music, I think the Iranian Kurds’ music is much more developed, more so than Turkish or Iraqi music,” said Mahlis.

Nazanin Badiei, a choreographer, performer and dance instructor, and her group of Persian and Latino dancers will perform three Kurdish modern rhythms for the concert.
Badiei started her performances of folk and modern dances in the Talar Vahdat theatre in Tehran. She has performed Kurdish, Azeri and Gilaki dances in addition to authentic and modern Persian dances.

“After the Islamists took over in Iran, people felt supressed and disillusioned. That’s when they clung to Kurdish music for the upbeat rhythm,” said Mehrdad Arabifard, a Los Angeles-based percussionist and fiddler.

“Many talented Kurdish musicians who resided in Tehran did a great job introducing and blending Kurdish and Persian music. Nowadays, Kurdish music has a significant influence on Iranian music,” Arabifard added.

Navid Kandelousi, a New-York-based musician will play Kamancheh at the concert. He was born in Mazandaran, Northern Iran, and learned violin at a young age. He is a performer, composer and instructor of Setar, Tar, Violin and Kamancheh.

Other musicians in this concert include Ramin Yousefzamani on violin, Hamid Saeidi on the Santur, and Ali Sanaei on bass.
The article was originally published in Rudaw