There comes a time in a performance when Farhad Bahrami leans into his tar, the small but expressive Persian stringed instrument, plucks it gently and seems to float above the music. Then, there's an almost imperceptible nod to the other players and he's back, right there for the chord change, ready for the drums to make their entrance.
“You know,” Bahrami says, “I'm never going to be a virtuoso—a master of Persian music. I never wanted to be. But I can play in a group.”
But he is the go-to guy in San Diego for Persian music. A Qualcomm software engineer by day, he has a vast repertoire and knowledge of the music from his native Iran. It's a musical tradition he's shared with San Diego since moving to the city almost 30 years ago.
Bahrami's been the musical director of several groups, including Jazmahalis and now dornob, and has served on the board of the Center for World Music in Carlsbad. He's collaborated with dozens of local musicians, such as Ellen Weller and Trummerflora and now Omar Lopez of B-Side Players, as well as international artists like Al Andalus from Morocco. dornob are regulars on the SDSU Music Department concert roster.
“Persian music follows the rhythm of the Persian language,” Bahrami explains. “It's essentially a vocal tradition with instruments overlaid.”
But more than that, the hallmarks of Persian music include a distinct tuning style, beat and a repertoire, or radif, that goes back hundreds of years.
Going to a Dornob concert is like being dropped into the Putumayo World Music record label's territory. Persian tuning, syncopation and time signatures are unique, and the music sounds very different from western music. Remember Sting and Cheb Mami on the song “Desert Rose”? Hold that in your mind for a moment and you'll start to get the idea.
Classical Persian music, Bahrami says, is the product of seven modal systems, or dastgahs, and a competent player is expected to be able to move between all of them, improving in each style as he or she goes.
Then there's Persian folk music, which is mostly anonymous and can include musical influences from the various invaders that crossed Persia over time.
“There's a lot of folk music that falls within the system that we call Persian music,” Bahrami says.
Dornob finds itself in between all these, but it also builds on the genre. “We're not preserving Persian music, because Persians expect us to further the music by improvising within the system,” he says.
Dornob plays standards from the Persian classical and folk repertoire, as well as some of Bahrami's own compositions, many of which use poetry by the Persian Sufi poets Rumi and Hafez. The point, he says, is to have fun and adhere to the traditions while living outside of Iran, which means adding Persian-tuned keyboards and a fretless bass and using non-Persian players.
Bahrami first started playing as a teenager in Iran before the Iranian Revolution. Back then, he listened mostly to The Beatles but had plenty of exposure to other music. His father's family tended toward traditional Iranian and classical music, while a young aunt would sing pop.
“My mother is Azerbaijani, so my grandma constantly spoke Turkish and listened to classical music,” he says.
Bahrami taught himself guitar and, later, the tar, a small, guitar-like Iranian instrument. In the late 1970s, he left Iran to study at Sacramento State University, only to find himself a year later cut off from the new Iran emerging from the Iranian Revolution of 1979.
“I quit going to classes,” he says. “I had a semester of Fs to show for it. It seemed irrelevant to study engineering when there was a revolution going on.”
He eventually came south to SDSU to audition for the music department. “I failed, took classical guitar lessons for six months and got accepted,” he says.
Bahrami soon found Iranian music was taking on a deeper meaning for fellow nationals now estranged from family and home. Caught between the twin pillars of the revolution and the Iran-Iraq war, Bahrami says the community needed to “feel Iranian.” With Iranian musicians and performers unable to tour the U.S. and local Iranians unable to go back, they turned to Bahrami's newly cofounded group, Darvak, to hear familiar sounds.
“We played the La Jolla museum—we did a very big show,” he recalls.
As soon as Iranians in the U.S. could go back and forth, Bahrami started bringing top music masters from Iran to San Diego, such as master tar player Ostad Mohammed Reza Lotfi, to play and give classes. But by then, Bahrami had started shifting to a different approach to Persian music.
“You know, after awhile, we didn't have the same identity [as younger musicians coming out of Iran] because we're away—geographically away,” he explains. “I'm on the freeway in the morning; I have a day job. There's a line, which is from a folk poem, ‘From here to Birjand, it's a long way.' I feel like we're light years away from Birjand…. I am not sure why, but I didn't want to play nostalgia for Iranians.”
What Bahrami wanted to do was create a style of his own with a collective of players to explore the Persian repertoire and keep it alive by passing it through additional instruments and non-Persian players.
Among Bahrami's core players are his son, Kamron, and nephew, Nima Heydari, who started playing as young boys. In college now, they both come back to play frequently. Although neither Kamron nor Nima grew up in Iran, Bahrami has been surprised by their ability to play Iranian rhythm and tuning.
“The ones with Iranian genes can magically play those notes on a fretless instrument,” he jokes. “Being an Iranian is a disadvantage everywhere else except for playing this music.”
Dornob plays El Tango Del Ray (3567 Del Rey St., Pacific Beach) at 9 p.m. Dec. 20. $10.