Few artists are widely regarded as the master of their art during their lifetime but Kayhan Kalhor is so synonymous with the kamancheh that there is little argument over his status. His recordings are considered some of the greatest of the Persian classical canon, whilst his diverse collaborations with artists including Yo-Yo Ma, Toumani Diabete and the Shujaat Husain Khan have cemented his reputation as a true innovator.
Born in Kermanshah (or Tehran according to some reports) in 1963 into a Kurdish family, Kalhor showed prodigious talent from a young age. By the age of 13 he was a member of the National Orchestra of Radio and Television of Iran. By the age of 20 he was studying under the renowned Persian classical musician, Mohammad-Reza Lotfi.
After travelling widely in Iran, building a comprehensive understanding of the diverse musical cultures of his homeland, Kalhor spent time in Italy before studying at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada.
The Kamancheh and its Place in Iranian Culture
The kamancheh is a bowed stringed instrument which dates back to at least the Safavid dynasty (1501-1736) and may well have been played as far back as the 10th century. Originating in Iran it also features in the music of Azerbaijan, Armenia, Turkey and within Kurdish communities further afield. The name comes from the Persian ‘little bow’, not to be confused with the Turkish kemençe which share its etymology but refers to a separate stringed instrument.
Kamancheh players, often female, are depicted in many court paintings and the instrument features in both classical and folk music of Iran. In 2017, through a joint application between Iran and Azerbaijan, successfully applied for inclusion of the kamancheh on the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. The entry reports “In the Islamic Republic of Iran and Azerbaijan, it constitutes a major element of classical and folkloric music, and performances occupy a central place in a wide number of social and cultural gatherings.” This official international status should help to safeguard the kamancheh’s future and acknowledges the status of the instrument in Iranian and Azerbaijani culture.
The traditional instrument had three silk strings, whereas the modern kamancheh, as played by Kayhan Kalhor has four metal strings, tuned like a standard violin (G,D,A,E). Although often compare to the violin, the kamancheh’s ethereal, nasal qualities are distinct from any other stringed instruments and create a unique haunting sound.
Pushing the Kamancheh beyond borders in the Twenty-First Century
Although an icon within his native Iran, Kalhor’s international reputation has been secured through his many collaborations with other performers across styles and cultures. Kalhor has been performing as a member of The Silk Road project since its foundation in 1998. The Silk Road Ensemble is an acclaimed super group of musicians from across the world, led by virtuoso cellist Yo-Yo Ma. Kalhor’s involvement in the project has undoubtedly promoted the kamancheh to internationally audiences, which has in turn reinvigorated pride in and enthusiasm for the instrument in Iran.
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A Master Iranian Musician Plays Cultural Ambassador – New York Times