Interview with Iranian percussionist Habib Meftah

Analogue "electrofolk" from southern Iran

Percussionist Habib Meftah has made an international name for himself with clubbable, acoustically altered folk music. But he also works with dancers and musicians from other genres. His versatility is based on the traditional musical culture of his southern Iranian origins. Interview by Bernd G. Schmitz

Your full name is Habib Meftah Boushehri – what does the last part mean?

Habib Meftah: It refers to my origins in the southern Iranian town of Bushehr, and thatʹs the name in my passport. But I havenʹt used that part of my name, as an artist, for a few years now. "Habib Meftah" on its own is catchier.

When did you start making music?

Meftah: At the age of ten. It wasnʹt easy for my family because I wanted to play traditional music. With a beginner, that doesnʹt sound as nice as classical Iranian music. My first instrument was the dammam, a drum with goatskins on either side, worn across the body. I was familiar with it from religious ceremonies in the mosque.

Why werenʹt you interested in the tombak or the daf, the central percussion instruments in Persian music?

Meftah: They werenʹt very widespread in Bushehr. The technique for playing them is also completely different than that used for southern Iranian percussion instruments. They were what fascinated me the most, from the very beginning – although I do like listening to a good tombak player.

What was your musical education like? Did you go to an ostad, a master like in Iranʹs classical music world?

Meftah: No, that kind of thing wasnʹt usual where Iʹm from. I drank music in through my heart, as they say. I just listened to and watched the older men playing – and didnʹt ask anything.

What makes southern Iranian music special?

Meftah: The sounds have a lot of very different roots. Two hundred years ago, Arabs from the Gulf region and Indians came to the south, along with black slaves from Africa. Thatʹs why we play different music there, eat different food and look different to other Iranians. When Iʹm abroad, many people refuse to believe Iʹm Iranian – partly because of my Arabic name. Habib means "beloved", Meftah means "key".

How did your musical development progress into adulthood?

Meftah: I soon realised I wanted nothing else in life than to be a percussionist. But not with a large orchestra – because of the organising and all the other things that are part of that life. Iʹm not the right type of person. My musical development eventually took me to the duo Iʹm now in, with my colleague Nicolas Lacoummette. Heʹs been working with me as a sound designer for five years now; Zak Cammoun is our sound engineer.

Youʹve been living in Paris since 2001; you canʹt go back to Iran. Whatʹs behind that?

Meftah: I was 23 when I moved to France. The Compagnie Montalvo-Hervieu had invited me and my colleague, the ney-anban player Saeid Shanbehzadeh, to work on a dance project with them. We had a four-year contract for about 180 shows a year. After that my wife and I went back to Iran, partly to bring out a new album. That was at the start of Mahmud Ahmadinejadʹs presidency. It was a time when the Basij militia was gaining influence and wanted to show off its power. And the dance show sealed my fate – it had been shown on ARTE and French television. The problem was exacerbated because Iʹd accompanied a woman singer in the show who sang a Baroque religious song.

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