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Persian Classical Music in Diaspora

  • 7 Sep 2007
  • The Churchill, Hyatt Regency London 30 Portman Square London W1A 4ZX

Persian Classical Music in Diaspora: 

Persian classical music is thriving in the Washington, D.C., area, thanks to the efforts of Dr Nader Majd, a former World Bank economist with a passion for the traditional music of his homeland and a desire to share his cultural heritage.

The son and nephew of dedicated musicians, Majd is "born a musician." But because the environment in Iran was not particularly encouraging for musicians when he was a young man, he pursued a degree in English literature and in 1968 went to the United States to study economics. He earned a Ph.D. from Georgetown University and spent 22 years as an economist at the World Bank in Washington.

Still in his fifties when he retired in 1998, Dr Majd decided to return to his first love -- music. He founded the Centre for Persian Classical Music in Vienna, Virginia, a Washington suburb, and began a second full-time job teaching, composing, and performing. His main objective, he says, is "to make Iranian classical music known to our American friends as a means to increase understanding between our two countries.

Although some Iranians in the United States teach music in their homes, Dr Majd believes that a formal centre dedicated to the study of Persian music and culture may be unique. In addition to offering classes, the centre holds concerts, publishes books and newsletters, produces CDs, tapes, and videos, and exhibits Persian art and handicrafts. Dr Majd personally instructs more than 60 students ranging in age from 6 to 75 in vocal music, violin, and traditional Iranian instruments, such as tar, setar, kamancheh, and santur. A percussionist teaches classes in daf and tombak. Although the majority of students are Iranian, there also are some Americans who are married to Iranians or who learned to appreciate Middle Eastern music in college.

In his classes and on his web site ( ), Dr Majd emphasizes the rich cultural heritage and somewhat difficult history of Persian classical music, which dates back to the 5th century B.C. During the time of the Achaemenid Empire (550-331 B.C.), music played an important role in prayer, royal festivities, national ceremonies, and in spurring soldiers into battle. Classical music reached its peak during the Sassanid dynasty (100 B.C.-630 A.D.) when 100-piece orchestras performed at the royal court. With the coming of Islam to Iran around 600 A.D., public performances were abolished and music survived mainly as part of religious ceremonies. It was not until 200 years ago, Dr Majd notes, that music was once more performed in public. He is pleased that classical music, after a period of hiatus, post revolution in 1979, is flourishing today throughout Iran.

The Centre also schools students in Iranian thought and philosophy and the classical poetry whose themes, structure, and rhythms inspire the music. "Poetry is the most important art form in Iran. It's the backbone of our culture," Dr Majd says. "Our music is totally tied to our poetry, so in order to learn Persian music you should be familiar with the structure and message of classical Persian poetry."

To provide a showcase for his students and to reach out to the community, Dr Majd formed the Chakavak Ensemble, a group of 30 musicians playing primarily traditional instruments. For some performances, which include a mix of traditional music and Majd's own compositions, the group is augmented by as many as 16 Americans on strings and wind instruments. In addition to one major concert a year, the ensemble performs at local universities and the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, typically attracting a diverse audience.

Dr Nader Majd has written several articles in the areas of macroeconomics,
international trade, and music which are published as the World Bank working paper series, in economic journals and, university publications. In addition to the Chakavak Ensemble, Dr Majd has been a founder of the Iranian Cultural Society and Saba and Rouholah Khaleghi Ensembles.

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