Founded in 1998 in Quebec by brothers Kiya and Ziya Tabassian, Iranian expatriates, the group has evolved a reptoire including unique examples of long-lost early Persian music rediscovered through years of digging though libraries and archives across the world.
The afternoon’s ensemble included Kiva Tabassian, playing the setar; Sepideh Raissadat, vocals; Didem Basar, kanun; Patrick Graham, percussion; Mavrothi Kontanis, oud; and Pierre Yves-Martel, viola da gamba.
The setar might be a relative of the Indian sitar, with some similarities of tone, but they are very different instruments. The setar is a small instrument, about three feet long overall, with a small gourd-shaped soundbox. It has four strings, and is plucked with the index finger. I was interested in the way Mr. Tabassian held the instrument, with the fretboard and sound hole facing down, so that his hand was underneath it. The kanun is a lap-harp/zither, shaped like a large auto-harp, but without the chord bars. It is played by striking the strings with the fingertips. The oud is a twelve-stringed fretless cousin to the lute.
The pieces presented in “Paths to the Summit” were found in manuscripts dated from the 16th to 18th Centuries, and were written in the maqam system of modes, which was generally supplanted by a system of modes called dastgah in the 19th Century. The maqam modes use complex, cyclic rhythms that were abandoned in the dastgah system.
Being modal, rather than using western scales, the music has a very distinctive sound, and the repeating motifs make it very hypnotic. The vocals by Ms. Raissadat demonstrated that the musical style favors the lower female voice, with bluesy-sounding half-tones and micro-tones that we hear echoes of in Arabic and Egyptian music, and in the Moorish influences in tango and fado singing.
This was a fascinating concert to attend, with much beautiful music that was totally new to us.
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