“We spent about a year rehearsing the material for the new album,” explains vocalist Hesam Abedini, whose group Sibarg Ensemble features three Iranian musicians and three Americans, who play a fusion of traditional Persian music and western improvisational jazz. “Mostly because we are now really far apart geographically — Niloufar Shiri (Persian violin) and I are up in Irvine, our rhythm section (Kyle Motl, bass; Joshua Charney, piano; and Andrew Munsey, drums) are down in San Diego, and Ebrahim Poustiinchi (who plays an Iranian stringed instrument called the Tar) lives in Ohio. So getting together is a challenge.”
Most of the group met as grad students.
“It took us a while to find our common ground. I sing in Farsi so we use poetry that goes back as far as the 12th Century to create melodies. Poetry is very important in Iranian culture. The American side of the group doesn’t imitate Persian music — they listen to us and then create their own parts. I like the balance of elements — we might sound traditional, but the bass, piano and drums take us into different areas.”
I asked Motl how this collaboration feels to a guy steeped in Western classical music and jazz.
“I’m always trying to learn more about world music, so it’s been great. Their tradition is so tied to melody and I feel closer to that, really, than playing standards from the Great American Songbook. At the end of the day, good music is universal and as long as I’m doing that, I’m happy.”
What unifies the two traditions, according to Abedini, is the human voice.
“In jazz, you need to be able to sing what you want to play. The same is true of Iranian music—the voice is our first instrument, and the voice is connected directly to your soul.”
How has this cross-cultural collaboration fared in the post-Donald Trump world?
“The election hasn’t affected me directly. I’ve been here 10 years and I’m an American citizen. But when I got married, my brothers were not able to get visas because of the travel ban. That hurt, but I’ve never experienced any discrimination personally. We see music as a bridge to heal these fractured communities.”