Saturday night at Roulette was date night. Classical Persian music is romantic! There were a lot of couples in the crowd for California-based setarist Amir Nojan and the Nava Ensemble’s two sets of poems by Hafez, Rumi and others set to dynamic, often impassioned, artfully improvised themes. Taghi Amjadi sang affectingly and poignantly in an expressive, melismatically nuanced baritone, the brother percussion team of Sina and Samandar Dehghani propelling the songs with a hypnotically boomy groove.
The first part of the show was the soul set; the second half was the dark night of the soul. The concert followed a typical Persian classical trajectory, improvisations giving way to conversations – between voice and instruments, and among the instrumentalists themselves – followed by a long, lively drum break and then a couple of darkly bristling, concluding dance numbers. As the long opening crescendo peaked, Amjadi rose to an imploring intensity against a steadily marching, jangly groove that built agitatedly to match the vocals.
The early part of the concert illustrated an ancient poem by Hafez. Here’s a rough translation: “If the army of sadness invades to destroy the lovers, the bartender and I will take care of the troops with sweet wine.” Even the nation whose language was the lingua franca of the educated classes for centuries throughout the Middle East had to cope with invaders and fascist dictatorships. As with so much of classical Persian poetry, the subtext screams quietly.
When he wasn’t trading bars or verses with the other musicians, Nojan closed his eyes: he’s the rare musician whose command of the fretboard is so complete that he can play anything by touch. His flurrying, chord-chopping crescendos both built an riveting intensity, evoking both surf music and Sonic Youth noiserock, even if the melodies and the method he was using went back six centuries beforehand – that’s how evocative this music is. The second set built to an angst-fueled call-and-response with the vocals over a hypnotic, relentless dirge. The Roulette sound system had smartly been set up to catch all the nuances in the music, because when Nojan went down to the most whispery, delicate phrasing, the awestruck audience was still able to hear every note. A twin frame drum solo gave way to a couple of hauntingly fiery dance numbers at the end to send the crowd out into the street, literally singing along to the bitingly catchy four-chord hook of the night’s final number.
Much as this blog takes a very, very cynical view of promoters trying to piggyback on the artists they book for fortune and fame, the promoters of this show, Robert Browning Associates continue to build on an astonishingly good track record that dates back to the 70s. If first-class esoterica is your thing, these people have something for you. Their next concert is here at Roulette on May 3 at 8 PM with visionary Turkish multi-instrumentalist composer Omar Faruk Tekbilek and his hauntingly danceable ensemble; tix are $25 and worth it.