In this town I do complain
Every person seems insane
In this place madness like rain
Washes wisdom down the drain.
In the tavern of my soul
Carpet of joy will unroll
My soul is out of control
When trapped in a soulless hole
Gypsy minstrel who must play
More drunk than me as I lay
Beside such drunk, I dare say
Mild is the story of my day.
At first glance, a reader might be surprised to learn that these words were written in Persian more than 700 years ago. They are a few verses from 13th-century Sufi poet Jelaluddin Rumi. Heavy with symbolism, the words can be interpreted on different levels: Are they referring to a person, a condition, society in general, or something more spiritual? Mohammad Reza Lotfi may include a recitation of this poem in his concert May 25 at N.C. State University's Stewart Theater. Maestro Lotfi is an Iranian composer, conductor, vocalist, teacher, scholar and master of the tar and setar, traditional stringed lutes.
Lotfi, referred to as the Ravi Shankar of Persian music, was born in Gorgan, in northern Iran. He learned to play the tar as a youth, and took Western art music at the National Conservatory in Tehran. "Dressed in free-flowing robes and simply sitting on the floor, he has tremendous stage presence," says Lotfi student and concert organizer Mark Neshat. Part of this presence stems from Lotfi's singing of Sufi poetry, written to communicate the supreme love of God. Lotfi moved to the United States in 1987, but he performs and teaches throughout the world. His rising pitch produces a hypnotic melodic arch, and his voice stays with the listener long after the phrases are delivered.
Not only is Lotfi's singing powerful, but he is a master of Persian instruments. The tar, the larger and louder of the two instruments he will play, is plucked with a metal plectrum. Its long fingerboard has 26 to 28 adjustable gut frets. The setar can be traced back to pre-Islamic Persia. It produces a more refined sound and is preferred by many Sufi mystics due to its delicacy.
The training of a classical Iranian musician requires the memorization and precise playing of an ancient repertoire. This repertoire is a collection of roughly 200 pieces collectively known as radif, which translates to "row" or "series." Truly gifted musicians dive further into their studies, seeking to master the fine art of improvisation. Radif is the foundation of skilled improvisation, which in Persian music involves many rules. It is similar to jazz in certain respects, but much more rigid. This makes the relationship between the student and master, or ostad, a crucial one.
Neshat, for example, first met Lotfi at a seminar in Washington D.C. Soon after, he began driving up from Raleigh for monthly tar and setar lessons. He says he's attracted to Lotfi's serious knowledge of traditional music and his improvisation technique. "He's on a mission to train as many lovers of Persian music around the world as possible. He combines the classical and folk element, injecting new vitality and emotional quality into the music," Neshat says.