Arguably the best concert in any style of music in New York this year took place when the Dastan Ensemble brought an alternately stately, somber and exhilarating mix of new and ancient Iranian music to Roulette Saturday night. The esteemed four-piece group, which has been through a few lineup changes over the years but remains undiminshed in vision and intensity, was joined by up-and-coming singer Mahdieh Mohammadkhani, making a riveting and powerful New York debut.
Throughout the show, the group’s acerbic, often biting riffs and fiery flourishes were simple and vivid, closer to the tonalities of the western chromatic scale than the exotic microtones of Arabic music, although those appeared from time to time when the sound became the most ghosly and otherworldly. Hamid Motebassem, on tar lute, fired off bristling volleys of notes when he wasn’t trading licks with kamancheh fiddle player Saeed Farajpouri, whose own lines were more allusive and airy. Percussionist Pejman Hadadi got the crowd roaring both with his dry wit and his colorful but carefully crafted, intricately individualistic playing on a six-piece kit composed mainly of boomy tombak drums. Hossein Behroozinia played barbat (the Iranian oud) with a judicious, often white-knuckle intensity, like-minded consideration and purpose.
Motebassem contributed the absolutely haunting suite A Window, an epic, plaintively cresendoing work utilizing poetry by Forough Farrokhzad. Hadadi explained the 1960s firebrand poetess’ lyrics as embodying an ultimately hopeful vision for the equality of men and women:. Baseline prerequisite for human civilization, maybe, but not a concept one might necessarily think of originating in Iran. Then again, for centuries during the Middle Ages, that nation was the intellectual capital of the world.
When Mohammadkhani first joined in, she was so quiet as to be practically peeking in from the mix. Was this a fault of the sound system? No. She was establishing herself on the whispery end of a vast dynamic range, her meticulously melismatic inflections finally rising to a dramatic, explosive peak during the final minutes of the show. Throughout her many rises and falls, poised on her chair with a gentle confidence, she was impossible to turn away from. Meanwhile, the music rose from a stark, wounded dirge to an uneasy gallop. Long, slinky, downwardly trailing passages gave way to gripping round-robin solos, a purposeful stroll, then back to severe and up again, Mohammadkhani channeling raw outrage, defiant triumph and just about every emotion in between.
The second half of the program featured a similarly dynamic set of instrumentals by Behroozinia, livened with plenty of interplay, Farajpouri often delivering shivery swirls in the same vein as Kayhan Kalhor, Mohammadkhani projecting with a gale-force power that drew the loudest applause of the night. They closed with the closest thing to a catchy pop song that they had – the expat contingent sang along – and encored with a brief, elegant improvisation on an enigmatic folk theme. Robert Browning Associates, who have been booking a terrific series of concerts by artists from around the world, have several other enticing shows coming up at Roulette. On October 3 at 8 PM there’s one of Spain’s leading flamenco guitarists, Antón Jiménez, On the 24th, also at 8 PM, west African kora virtuoso Foday Musa Suso – a one-man orchestra of circular rhythmic riffage and intricate ornamentation – plays a rare solo show. Cover for each show $30/$26 stud/srs.