Rare, Hauntingly Intense Kurdish Music from Bahar Movahed

You’ve heard the depressing stories before: Malian guitar genius moves to Philadelphia and becomes a cab driver; young Jamaican hitmaker moves to Maryland and ends up working on assembly line. That was Bob Marley. Persian-Kurdish singer/multi-instrumentalist Bahar Movahed’s story has a happier ending: she moved to Los Angeles, where she now practices dentistry. But she never gave up on the centuries-old Kurdish traditional music she’s pursued rigorously since her childhood in Teheran, a fascinating and often haunting repertoire that’s unfortunately little-known outside Iran. Happily, she’s teamed up with her mentor, tanbur lute virtuoso Ali Akbar Moradi, for a new album of rare classics and new versions of ancient songs titled Goblet of Eternal Light. She sings in Kurdish dialects: by any standard, her vocals are exquisite. Informed by Persian classical music, her style is restrained, minutely jeweled with understated, microtonal melismas that convey longing, angst, grief or passion, but from a distance, as she takes a phrase and lets it resonate with a gentle but resolute fullness as it trails out. The drama here, when there is drama, is typically conveyed by Moradi’s frenetic, insistently impactful tanbur riffage, or his vocals – he duets on several tracks and cuts loose a lot more than she does. A vestige of the 1979 counterrevolution, when the role of women in music – and much else in public life – was crushed? Perhaps – or simply because women have not traditionally sung this repertoire. Where Persian music often sounds like a blend of intricate Arabic improvisation with hypnotic Indian drones and rhythms, the Kurdish styles that Movahed mines are a lot closer to the Arabic side of the equation with their smoldering chromatics and emphatic percussion. These songs aren’t just haunting and intense: they’re extremely catchy!

Moradi’s role here is every bit as compelling: he alternates between fiery rhythm, plaintive lead lines, introspective variations on a theme, or crescendoing improvisational introductions that build from a smolder to a full-on blaze. Poetry is inseparable from music, and vice versa, throughout the Middle East, so the duo (plus an uncredited percussionist) pillage the centuries for a historically rich mix of lyrics. Like African-American spirituals, these songs are loaded with subtext, sometimes a revolutionary undercurrent. English translations are provided in the cd booklet: “The flood water of the interior has uprooted the soul and stolen the hoard of patience,” goes one particularly loaded line in the powerful opening anthem, written by Mowlavi E Kurd, who was considered the Kurdish counterpart to Rumi. For his part, Moravi begins with a Persian counterpart to the eerie Arabic hijaz mode and then moves to another which approximates the western major key but is a lot more interesting. They give a bitter, absolutely defeated lament by famous Kurdish freedom fighter and poet Mamoosta Guran a spacious atmosphere and an almost nonchalant sway, then add a mystical, riff-driven insistence to a death-obsessed lament by 19th century poet Mamoosta Mahwi. With unexpectedly wary vocals and a meandering melody, Mowlavi E Kurd’s Song of Waisy essentially tells the dervish that it’s time to get the party started: subtext, anybody?

Moravi’s new arrangement for a popular Sayyed Saleh Kermanshahi poem about lovesickness takes on a steely, stately, minor-key intensity, followed by another Mowlavi E Kurd lyric where Movaved finally lets loose a fullscale wail over Moravi’s dusky drone: “My beloved, I have been awaiting your visit while on my death bed, so I can pave your way through my dear life.” The album ends with its loudest and most musically interesting number, a surreally hypnotic love anthem that artfully and methodically shifts from apprehension, to dread, to triumph, yet ends unresolved. Released earlier this year by Traditional Crossroads, it’s one of the most hauntingly beautiful albums of the year in any style of music.