Intriguing Encounter: New Sounds from Iran at Asia Society

sound the encounter large

Basel Rajoub (Saxophone), Saied Shanbezadeh (ney-ban) and Naghib Shanbezadeh (son of Saied) on drums

At first glance, they seem a study in perfect contrast.  The one on the right, he of the black jeans and the artfully, but not ostentatiously, manicured facial hair, is crouched on the ground, blowing on a gleaming tenor sax.  With his gray-blue – or is that lavender? – scarf and the roguish glint in his eye, he looks the very picture of slick, suave urbanity.  The one on the left, the one hopping about, rocking back and forth in a sort of vanilla-hued kaftan and a sheer, robin’s egg vest gives off the outward impression that he might feel as equally at home in the seventh century as in the twenty-first.  He too is a playing an instrument, the neyanban, an Iranian bagpipe that might strike American eyes as being more than a little reminiscent in appearance to a carpetbag.  Seated between the two is a third man, his denim clad limbs draped rather impossibly around a trio of fairly sizable drums over which his fingers  are dancing with astonishing rapidity.  Three musicians, each seemingly separated from the other two by barriers of era and culture, and yet… the music they’re making is all of one helluva great big wild wonderful piece.

This is Sound: The Encounter.  Or rather this is Sound: The Encounter as it appeared at Lisbon’s Ismaili Center in September 2013. Why is that distinction important? Because experimentation and reinvention are the heart and soul of this relentlessly innovative and almost inherently indefinable musical enterprise. So indefinable is the enterprise, in fact , that it’s a little difficult to describe exactly what Sound: The Encounter is.  In the simplest possible terms – using the language employed by the group’s publicity materials – it’s a “project that seeks to bring together adventurous artists from Iran and Syria who seek to reassemble diverse expressions of their shared musical heritage in contemporary forms.” The men described above are three of these adventurous artists. The one on the sax was Syrian Basel Rajoub, acclaimed both for his improvisatory gifts in the medium of American jazz, and for introducing his instrument into the Syrian folk tradition. On the neyanban, was Iranian Saeid Shanbehzadeh, an equally celebrated virtuoso who also, by virtue of his Zanzibari heritage, incorporates an East African influence into much of his music. His son Naghib was the one playing the tombak, the Iranian drums.

All three performers possess a solid foundation in the folk traditions of their respective homelands, but Sound: The Encounter is unquestionably not a “folk” group. As Shanbehzadeh pere put it in a recent interview: “The music is made by the three of us: Basel, Naghib and me –  but it’s been inspired by a lot of traditional themes, and by music from the south of Iran, Bahrain and Syria, and also jazz.”

Nevertheless, Rajoub’s background notwithstanding, The Encounter’s output is certainly nothing like orthodox jazz either.  Rajoub explains: “We didn’t go the easy way which [would have been] just playing jazz solos on the saxophone in the middle of this [folk] music… because we have, because I have this folk music inside, so I [play it] in my instrument, in the saxophone….Even when you improvise, you just improvise in the way that you have it in the folk music, [since] both [kinds] of music, jazz and oriental music…have [these] feelings of improvis[ation] which is the most important things in the music.   So I started to add…oriental bass lines with the saxophone [to the folk songs],  [or] sometimes I played the melody, which is really folk with microtones and with the things that do not exist with the saxophone, [on my instrument].  So it’s like a conversation between the saxophone, the physical instrument and this [traditional] music.  It’s like getting new sound, which is the encounter.”

So what exactly does The Encounter sound like? Well, that’s another difficult question to answer. The single most distinguishing feature of the group’s work is its overwhelming eclecticism. Many American listeners might struggle to identify the basic tenets of so-called traditional Syrian and Iranian music.  To the uneducated ear, the point where Iran and Syria end, and Zanzibar or jazz begins might be difficult to recognize. Yet, as Shanbehzadeh and Rajoub both argue, that’s precisely the point; in The Encounter’s music, there are no clear-cut divides.  As the Shanbehzadeh makes clear, “Here we are, three artists – with three different mindsets.  We have to try to understand what we can do together with our musical knowledge.  In this project we don’t have to restrict ourselves to playing exactly Iranian music or exactly Syrian music.  We have created this thing – which is simply music.”

The remarkable variety of instruments employed by The Encounter is indicative of this synthesis of influences.  In addition to the saxophone, Rajoub also acquits himself on the duclar (an instrument somewhat similar to a clarinet), while the elder Shanbehzadeh alternates between the neyanban, the neyjoti (an Iranian flute), the boogh (an Iranian horn), singing, and dancing. His son supplies the percussive element on the tombak and the zarbuka. For their upcoming American tour, the noted Syrian oud player Kenan Adawi will also join the group. For Naghib Shanbehzadeh, this versatility has been a constant fact of life.  “I started playing music when I was three years old.” he says,  “I started playing with my father, and with his group.  They used to rehearse at home and I’ve listened and played since I was little.  I was very interested, and then, when I was 11, I started to play tombak, the traditional Iranian drum.”

Obviously, Naghib still plays alongside his father.  Banning Eyre has described their work together as “mesmerizing” and “transfixing.” Both adjectives certainly come to mind when one attempts to distill the peculiar product of The Encounter into words.  The music – and the senior Shanbehzadeh’s fleetness of foot –  has an astounding vitality, an electric joie de vivre, that is often infectious, but much of it also projects a poignant melancholy, exquisitely embodied in the wistful groan of Rajoub’s wind contributions.  It should not be forgotten that due to a combination of factors, many of them the product of political realities, none of these musicians feel able to return to the nations of their birth  As Rajoub says, “It’s always interesting to explore the music, the connections that cross the international borders.  I mean, neither of us can go back to our home countries, but at the same time, it’s so nice to return to our home countries through playing this music.”

Creating those kinds of connections will be exactly what The Encounter does over the course of its current US tour.  The Aga Khan Music Initiative (AKMI), the organization by which the group “is conceived, curated, and produced” as part of “its quest to revive historical connections among artistic communities and support musicians who develop expression of their heritage in contemporary forms,” is certainly counting on it to do just that.  New Yorkers will have the opportunity to experience The Encounter’s work firsthand at one-night-only engagement at the Asia Society on Manhattan’s Upper East Side (725 Park Avenue) at 8:00 PM on Saturday, December 7th.   The best way to gain a sense of what the Encounter is doing, and the exhilarating cultural cocktail it concocts is to hear the group live in performance.  In that setting, the elements that elude linguistic description, become crystal clear.

Sound: The Encounter will take place at Asia Society’s Lila Acheson Wallace Auditorium, on Saturday, December 7 at 8 pm. Asia Society is located at 725 Park Avenue (at 70th Street, New York City). Tickets are $22 members; $26 students/seniors; $30 nonmembers. For updates and details, please visit or call 212-517-ASIA.

Stephen Mrowiec has written widely on a variety of subjects ranging from the evolution of the Egyptian legal system, to the apocalypse in Jewish religious and legal texts of the Hasmonean period, the Faust legend in Western drama and opera, Cairo’s red light district in the First World War, and the Ottoman Criminal Code. His theatrical criticism has earned him numerous accolades, and, in 2012, he was a Critic Fellow at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center in Waterford, CT. A native Chicagoan by birth, he currently resides in Manhattan, where he works at the Asia Society. He is a graduate of Middlebury College.

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