On Top of the World
Kayhan Kalhor is a master of the Iranian Kamancheh. Prior to receiving the WOMEX Artist Award, he speaks to Nigel Williamson about his various collaborations and why he’s never had any ambitions but has always played simply for the enjoyment of making music.
On social media you will sometimes find Kayhan Kalhor listed as ‘kayhankamancheh’. It is a fitting handle. Like Ravi Shankar and the sitar or Toumani Diabaté and the kora, Kalhor is one of those rare musicians whose name has become synonymous with his instrument – in his the traditional four-stringed Persian spike-fiddle known as the kamancheh.
Kalhor has largely made his name and reputation with an impressive series of adventurous collaborations, some-times with other Iranian musicians but also on a series of cross-cultural adventures with the likes of Kronos quartet, Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk road ensemble, Turkish saz and baglama player Erdal Erzincan, the string quartet Brook-lyn Rider, Kora player Toumani Diabaté and the Dutch jazz pianist Rembrandt Frerichs among others.
Yet he insists the kamancheh with its delicate, plaintive sound – which he calls his voice – is essentially a solo instrument. “I always wanted to collaborate with musi-cians from other cultures, but my main purpose as an Iranian musician is as a soloist,” he says via Skype from his home in Tehran. “I’m representing a traditional culture and the ultimate production in that culture is a solo record. I’ll never abandon that.” After years of endless travelling and dividing his time between the US and Iran, he is now spending most of his time back home and as a result playing more solo concerts than ever – 41 concerts in different cities around Iran this year. “Believe it or not there are millions of people pursuing Persian music here”, he reports encouragingly.
“The younger generation are crazy about good music. They are thirsty for it”.
His return home was in part and forced by the election of Trump as US president. “After the new administra-tion took over there was a lot of hatred and intolerance towards immigrants and my wife cannot travel to the US”, he says. “That’s why we live mostly in Iran. To tell the truth I’m not sorry about that. I think immigrants bring a lot of value to US society and if they don’t appreciate it, then let them have it. We don’t appreciate them at the moment, either.” Twenty years ago the kamancheh was little heard in the West but through Kalhor’s endless touring and collaborations he has put his instrument on the world music map. That the art of playing the kaman-cheh was added to the UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list in 2017 is in no small part down to Kalhor’s ambassadorial role as its foremost exponent, although he modestly plays down his own significance. “I cannot say that – but you can and I thank you for it,” he says. “I play 100 concerts a year around the world so I suppose that has helped to attract attention. I work hard because I love Persian culture and I love kamancheh.”
In reviewing Kalhor’s debut album 20 years ago, Songlines wrote, “The magic of the performance lies in the apparent ease with which Kalhor weaves together tradition and innovation.” The words still ring true for his approach has continued you be guided by a potent combination of virtuosity and vaulting imagination ever since. “I strongly believe that our generation has to have its own language and musical vocabulary in Persian music”, he says. “In order to have a healthy tradition you have to let it breathe and renew it every now and then.