The Shanbehzadeh Trio (from left): Habib Meftah Boushehri, Saied Shanbehzadeh and Naghib Shanbehzadeh.
The Articulate Pelvis, the Idiophones and the Goatskin Pipes: Trance & Dance of Bushehr, Iran, October 16, 2010, at Symphony Space
by David St.-Lascaux
One of the advantages of living uptown is proximity to Symphony Space, presenter of eclectic and international cultural delights. The Shanbehzadeh Trio’s percussive extravaganza, “Trance & Dance of Bushehr, Iran,” presented by the World Music Institute (whose 2010-11 offerings will include Brazilian, Caribbean, Hawaiian, Indian and Spanish dance), was a brilliant example.
The Shanbehzadeh Trio comprises leader, singer/musician/dancer Saied Shanbehzadeh and musicians Habib Meftah Boushehri and Naghib Shanbehzadeh (Saied’s son). “Trance & Dance,” drawing from Sufi, Persian, Arab, African and Indian traditions, was primarily a musical and cultural event, drawing an audience of which half by one estimate were Iranians. So the vocal music and evocative accompanying dance had far greater resonance and meaning to ears comprehending Farsi and Persian culture than merely Anglophonic ones. While much, no doubt, was lost in non-translation, the emotive energy of the music and dance was truly, as they say, universal.
Which is not to say that Shanbehzadeh didn’t accommodate the audience with English banter: he did, including the ironic anecdote that he learned the “International Language” – English, and then moved to Paris, where “English isn’t spoken.”
Of course, it was the trio’s multi-disciplinary combination of varied vocal and instrumental music and regionally unique, traditional dance that was riveting and ever-appealing. The program, without intermission, left the performers seemingly exhausted and the audience sympathetically awestruck. In fact, it would be difficult to say where Shanbehzadeh’s intimate embrace with the goatskin ney-anbān (bagpipe; sorry Scotland: “thought to have originated in Mesopotamia sometime in the first millennium B.C.E.”) – which seemed to play itself, actually by compression, when he stopped blowing – left off and his gesticulated singing and dancing began.
The program consisted of a broad range of music and dance from the Southern Iranian seaport and trading center city of Bushehr. Songs of work, mystical and mythical songs, music for trance, and mourning processions were performed. “Dancelike instrumental music,” the program explains, “is thought to represent the city’s oldest instrumental musical form,” explaining the eerily primitive sensations experienced watching Shanbehzadeh dance. Further, in regard to Shanbehzadeh’s distinctive and subtle trance dancing, “movement is used as an induction to (rather than being a result of) trance,” a testament to the clarifying power of dance over the mind.
The performance began with Shanbehzadeh playing a ney-jufti (double, or Indian flute, which requires the technique of circular breathing). Suddenly, seamlessly, the first drum – a zarbetempo (goblet drum) – segued in, played by the multi-talented Boushehri, then the bongo-like tombak (a unique drum with multiple voices: tom, in the center, and bak, on the edge) played by Naghib Shanbehzadeh, and the rhythm section was in full swing, making Shanbehzadeh’s hypnotic dancing feel entirely natural, and inevitable. Both Shanbehzadeh and Boushehri played a third drum, a dammâm, beaten with a thick stick or hand, most similar to drums used by marching bands, except smaller and hung at waist-height, to unique effect in its role as dammâm-ishkun, or “rhythm-breaker.”
Dancing, in the context of “Trance & Dance,” was integral, as opposed to being the focal point or premise. Easily recognized, it is more difficult to describe, characterized by thigh and knee raised to horizontal, then stomping, hand rotating gesticulation, and subtle-but-perfervid pelvic motions – all to the pounding beat of stereophonic percussion playing an improbably miraculous combination of simultaneously intricate yet driving rhythms. (What the dancing was not was that of the whirling Sufi dervish dance of Turkey, with its distinctive physicality and spinning-top entrancement; nor was the larger ensemble fijiri music of Bushehr’s pearl divers presented.) One could say with no exaggeration that the drummers’ fingers were dancers of equal magic to the full-body dancing of Shanbehzadeh, which would be no small compliment to both. Another noteworthy and remarkable element of the performance was the contrapuntal rhythmic handclapping by Shanbehzadeh and Boushehri, no doubt difficult to do, but exhilarating in effect, two pairs of jarring claves, dancing hands. A solo piece by Naghib Shanbehzadeh made clear beyond a doubt the importance of his instrumental role in the trio’s woven tapestry of mystery and magic.
In one of the final pieces, Shanbehzadeh removed his strange and shamanistic silver-winged black tunic and danced in trousers, glistening in ecstatic sweat, supplicating with his upraised, shaking arms, revolving on soft-stomping feet, and finally, abruptly, stopping.
Two small complaints: More dancing would’ve been more impressive and would’ve made the billing more accurate; and a larger role for the massive, crescent boogh (goat’s horn) would’ve beguiled the audience (unless its single, plangent orison was meant to mourn a soul). That said, Shanbehzadeh exudes presence and charisma, and the multi-talented Boushehri – who sang and played flute as well as several different drums – and the understated Naghib Shanbehzadeh are a perfect complement, making “Trance & Dance” a source of musical and choreographic energy worthy of being classified as a World Treasure.
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