Portrait of Iranian musician Kayhan Kalhor

Cultural emissary and grand master of the kamancheh

These days you might be forgiven for wondering whether international relations would be better served by artists than politicians. Iranian Kayhan Kalhor, a bridge builder from the world of music, holds both the 2019 WOMEX Artist Award and the 2018 Isaak Stern Human Spirit Award. By Bernd G. Schmitz

Kayhan Kalhor was born in 1963 in Kermanshah to a Kurdish family. At the age of seven, he began his musical education on the kamancheh, a traditional Persian bowed stringed instrument. At twelve, Kalhor first performed with the radio and television orchestra of his native city. Six years later, he was already playing in the Shayda Ensemble under the tar master Mohammad Reza Lotfi, who directed the ensemble at the renowned Chavosh Institute in Tehran.

Many music enthusiasts at the time regarded the young virtuoso as a prodigy. In addition, he was ambitious and keen to learn more about Persian music and its origins. As such, he did not only study the radif, the rules and taxonomy of traditional Persian music, but also travelled throughout the Iranian provinces of Khorasan and Kordstan, where he was fascinated by the local folk music. In an interview he gave in 2012, Kalhor said, ʺThere is no traditional Iranian music without folk music. It is the grandfather of classical Persian music.ʺ

Kayhan Kalhor’s interest was not only limited to Iranian music. In 1984, when he was 21, he left for Rome, where he would study at the Conservatorio di Musica Santa Cecilia. He continued his studies in Western classical music in 1986 at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. One year after graduating, Kalhor settled in the USA, where he lived from 1993 to 2017, with the exception of long concert tours and stays in Iran.

Homage to Shajarian and Nazeri

While in Iran, Kalhor performed with many leading exponents of classical Persian art music and composed works for well-known singers, such as Mohammad Reza Shajarian and Shahram Nazeri. In 1991, Kalhor co-founded the Dastan Ensemble, a traditional Iranian orchestra, which, in various formations, continues to this day.

Kalhor remained a member of the group for only a few years. Looking far beyond the horizon of Iranian music, he discovered affinities in neighbouring musical cultures. As a result, in 1997, Kayhan Kalhor founded the Ghazal Ensemble with the sitar player Shujaat Khan, thereby melding North Indian and classical Persian music.

At about roughly the same time, the American cellist Yo-Yo Ma had the idea of forming an international network of musicians, which he called the Silk Road Project. Kayhan Kalhor soon became a member of the collective and remains so to the present. In 2017, the group received a Grammy Award in the category of World Music for its album ʺSing me Homeʺ.

Joining the Silk Road Project marked the beginning of a series of very successful collaborations with exceptional instrumentalists, such as with the Kronos Quartet (2000), the New York string quartet Brooklyn Rider (2008 and 2012) and the Turkish saz virtuoso Erdal Erzican (since 2013) – to name but a few.

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