Tuesday, January 30, 2007
Birthdays generally cease to be celebrated upon the advent of death, the latter occasion conventionally seen as an effacement of the former. But there are always figures whose works have elevated them above mere corporeality and whose births are thus justifiably celebrated, even centuries after their deaths.
Such is the case of Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi, better known simply as Rumi, a 13th-century Sufi poet whose literary and spiritual vitality has endured to the present day. His works include the Masnavi-ye Manavi (Spiritual Couplets), a six-volume poem whose importance for many Sufis approaches that of the Qur'an itself.
He is also the progenitor of a spiritual inheritance claimed by the Mevlevi Order, better known as the Whirling Dervishes.
It is no great surprise then, that the 800th anniversary of Rumi's birth is being celebrated across the globe and that the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization declared 2007 an "International Rumi Year."
Here in Montreal, the birthday of the great poet is being celebrated with a performance of Persian classical music by the Chakavak Ensemble, a Toronto-based group of Iranian extraction. Formed at Tehran's Sharif University of Technology in 1998, the group re-formed in Canada in 2004 and has since performed several major concerts, including a benefit for the Canadian Cancer Society.
According to Chakavak musician Amaan Mehrabian, a PhD engineering student at McGill and the only member of the group living in Montreal, the traditions of classical Persian music, poetry and Sufism go hand in hand.
In fact, he relates, the use of traditional Persian music in Sufi meditation has helped it spread outside of the Persian community, a phenomenon reflected by diverse audiences at Chakavak shows.
In Iran, as in most other parts of the world, traditional and classical forms of music have been overshadowed in recent history by more popular forms. Mehrabian acknowledges the difficulties that his chosen genre faces, but remains optimistic.
"It's hard times for Persian traditional music nowadays," he says, "but it's going to survive, I'm sure."
The tradition of Persian classical music is an ancient one and according to archeological records, goes back to the Elamite Empire, which existed from 2,500-644 B.C.E.
Though for most of its existence Persian music has been preserved by oral rather than written methods, Western-style notation has been dominant since the early 20th century. Still, says Mehrabian, there are many traditionalists who continue to teach using the "ear-to-ear" approach through which the music was handed down for many centuries. Learning the full repertoire according to this method, he says, can take as many as 15 years.
Mehrabian began his own musical education at the age of 12, when he first picked up the Santour, a 72 stringed hammered dulcimer.
He became involved in Chakavak as an undergraduate student in Tehran after meeting the ensemble's director, Reza Manbachi. In its current incarnation, the ensemble consists of seven members, all of whom play traditional Persian instruments such as the Oud and the Tar, with the addition of the violin.
The music of the Chakavak Ensemble is both traditional as well as innovative. While only about a fifth of the group's repertoire consists of traditional pieces, even the newer compositions follow conventional structures.
The traditional works, in turn, have been given new arrangements.
It is clear that for Mehrabian, as well as for the other members and fans of the Chakavak Ensemble, classical Persian music has great personal as well as national cultural resonance.
"It's not only our music," says Mehrabian, "but it's also our history and our culture."
No doubt, Rumi would agree.
[To hear a sample of music, click here: http://www.chakavakensemble.com/Newsletter.html]