Voices And Bridges

Story of a Cross-Continental Collaboration during the Pandemic

The spread of the coronavirus had a devastating impact on people around the world. While the damage done to various different sectors was enormous, the performing arts sector was especially hit with a strong blow. Countless cultural, academic and artistic events were cancelled globally. In the United States alone cancellations and closings took place at thousands of organizations and institutions, with two-thirds of the nation’s artists left unemployed. The human and financial impacts of the crisis on the arts became a topic of a number of premier research studies. Amidst this traumatic experience of uncertainty, a group of people from various backgrounds with overlapping interests chanced to meet in Denton, Texas, on the sidelines of an academic and cultural event on the poetic traditions of South and Central Asia organized by myself and colleagues at the University of North Texas.

Qaisar Nizami, a musician from Kashmir, was on his first visit to the US to perform and present at the event to be held on March 20 2020 at the UNT College of Music — a premier institute for music education. With a travel ban imposed by the Government of India for an indefinite period soon after his arrival, Nizami was stranded in the country for the next two and a half months. Amidst continuing frustration and helplessness, I introduced him to my friend, Ehsan Matoori, a US-based musician and composer of Iranian origin. Matoori was held back in Texas after the cancellation of a series of his upcoming concerts in New York and California. The two joined hands with my colleague Dr. Vivek Virani and Ali Montazeri, a graduate student, at the UNT College of Music for a live virtual performance which was broadcast from my residence after the University was shut down for all in-person events. The encounter led to a series of further meetings and an unusual collaboration, the first of its kind, which brought together a large team of accomplished artists, musicians and choreographers from different countries, including India, Iran, Lebanon, and the United States.

The result of these meetings was a musical composition Nāznīnay ‘O beauty!’ — arguably the first ever such collaboration. Matoori arranged and composed the multilingual musical piece with the vocalists Qaiser Nizami and Alireza Ghorbani. Ghorbani is a foreground singer of the Persian song and a master of numerous scales of Middle Eastern music. An artist of great caliber, flawlessly controlling the rarest vocal techniques in singing, Ghorbani is deeply rooted in the Iranian musical tradition. Nizami, a highly versatile artist with a strong command on various Indian languages including Kashmiri, his native tongue, specializes in the Indian classical and light sufiyana čhand of Kashmir. “It was an amazing experience to perform with the great santoor player Ehsan Matoori who skillfully brought together a Kashmiri and an Iranian singer,” said Nizami weeks after having gone through the ordeal of repatriation.

Nāzninay, composed and produced by Ehsan Matoori, was partly inspired by a Kashmiri folk melody Pur Mah ‘full moon’ (click here). Matoori crafted the story using excerpts from the Kashmiri ghazal written by Ibrahim Miskeen and a Farsi poem Beneshīn Marā ‘Stay with me’ by Fereydoun Moshiri. Video direction was provided by Afshin Hashemi, an award-winning Iranian filmmaker. “The music was very powerful and the poetry was full of beautiful imagery,” Afshin said about the composition. Choreographers from three different ethno-cultural backgrounds, viz., Indian, Iranian and African-American, were chosen for the dance. The shooting was done in Tehran and in Chicago.          

The collaboration became part of a larger project “The Voices and Bridges” composed and produced by Matoori in collaboration with renowned musicians from many parts of the world including Alireza Ghorbani, Bombay Jayashri, Celia Woodsmith, Qaiser Nizami, and Grammy award winner Mike Block (cello player). Matoori’s love of learning about different cultures and languages inspired his musical compositions which represent various cultures and bring new words to the world. The Voices and Bridges project was announced by the BBC world, BBC Persian (click here) and the Silk Road Project in July 2019 and took off with the first song El Sueño with Ghorbani as the lead vocalist. 

Exploring diverse musical and poetic traditions around the world, Matoori invited me to provide linguistic advice on the Voices and Bridges project which brings together languages as diverse as English, French, Spanish, Italian, Turkish, Arabic, Kashmiri, Urdu and Bengali. A strong believer in the transformative power of language and performing arts, working with Matoori is personally exciting for me. For Matoori, musical traditions from different cultures across the globe provided an inspiration to carve soul-touching and mellifluous compositions, with each piece in the series having a story. The lyrics were based on texts of different time periods from various parts of the world by prominent poets such as Borges, Nima Youshij, Pablo Neruda, Rabindranath Tagore, Nazim Hikmet, Pierre Reverdy, Allama Iqbal, Margot Bickel and Lal Ded. Each linguistic component and device was thoroughly analyzed; the texts were transcribed, reviewed and translated over many meetings with the help of native speakers.

“The world needs more music than war,” said Ghorbani, the lead vocalist on the project team. By bringing together different linguistic and musical traditions and artists from around the world, The Voices and Bridges project crosses borders and builds bridges in times where travel is restricted and people are living in self-isolation, times that are stressful and uncertain.

© Sadaf Munshi (originally published on July 13, 2020)

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