Listening to Hamed Nikpay’s new Album, Spellbound, many times over I finally found a brief respite to stop feeling the art and start thinking the craft. But like the spellbound lover in Persian poems I could not find fault with it. The singing, the setar, kamanche, sax, oud, guitar, bass, and percussion materialize into a lovely vessel of rhythm and melody containing intoxicating Persian poetry by Rumi, Emad Khorasani, and Fereydoon Moshiri.
Nikpay’s earlier album, Gozar, proved the artist a virtuoso of Persian string instruments tar, setar, tanbour and oud. In his next album, Asoudeh, along with several standing room only concerts he dazzled us with his powerfully emotive vocals and surprised us with his energetic compositions fusing Persian music with flamenco. His third album, Spellbound, completes the young virtuoso’s artistic sojourn. He is finally home as a mature and confident master, unafraid to be fully himself. Having played for so many large audiences, Nikpay revisits tradition-inspired Persian music and delights the listener with new orchestral sounds and melodic innovations. Notably Nikpay’s bringing Shervin Mohajer’s inventive kamanche playing to the ensemble has added a flavorful string sound that is sometimes hard to distinguish from the violin and cello.
Since the Spellbound musicians clearly offer an international sound, and the production quality of the album ranks respectably anywhere in the world, I wondered if others on the planet besides Persians could now appreciate how exceptionally refined is our art of classical music. Among the challenges the art poses is how to phrase the melody to embraces the lilt and meaning of Persian poetry. This is true of all music and lyrics, but in classical Persian music it is a particular challenge because the ‘lyrics’ happen to be by poets like Rumi. No degree of technical voice mastery can make up for inadequate highlighting of the poet’s complex suggestions; conversely the audience ignores flaws in the singer’s voice if the poem is delivered with heart, soul and understanding. Perhaps a bit of insider info may still be helpful. When in track 2of Spellbound the poet Rumi says:
بر گردن و بر دست من بربند آن زنجیر را
(From my neck and hands unbind that chain)
Any singer in the world would normally place the emotional notes on “chain” or “unbind”. Only the cleverest turn of melody would rescue the performer from disaster if he places the verse’s precise moment of feeling on “neck” or “hand.” In this case, Nikpay does not take that risk and phrases the verse in the traditional way; yet he does deliver a surprise later. Towards the end of the song, Nikpay suddenly lets go of classical decorum, allowing emotion to quiver his voice while pleading with the “healer of lovers” to pass a caressing hand over his head. In this brief passage, Nikpay, pained and almost whimpering on the verge of tears, disengages the lyric-melody coupling in a devastatingly artistic recklessness that would make Rumi proud. During Nikpay’s vocal free fall into meditative depths, the instrumentalists seem to realize that the singer is irretrievable and carry a quiet rhythm, waiting for him surface. I hadn’t noticed this “what the heck” moment before because I was busy crying with the song. This brilliant passage of astonishing musicality does not lose its goose bump power even after repeated rewinds.
In the same way, as we listen to each track of Spellbound we find the young master gently pushing each boundary of classical Persian music into the modern and international realm. Instruments, rhythms, melodies, and even state of mind are coaxed until the art begins to complain. The classical poet Rumi, and the semi-classical Fereydoon Moshiri, and Emad Khorasani mingle seamlessly with the upright bass, soprano sax, cumbus and flamenco palmas (clapping). The result is novel, yet still quite pure Persian music that may be ready to invite a worldwide audience previously denied its perfect ecstasy.
Farzin Farhadi: Soprano Saxophone
Dimitris Mahlis: Oud, Nylon Guitar, Cumbus
Shervin Mohajer: Kamancheh
Greg Ellis: Percussion
Alfredo Caceres: Flamenco Guitar
Dan Lutz: Upright Bass
Hamed Nikpay: Vocals & Setar
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