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Bridging the Persian Gulf

Iranian composer Hafez Nazeri has spent the past decade shaking up traditional Persian music. This month, he brings his signature style to New York.

Author Jenny Eliscu Photography Tom Betterton

HAFEZ NAZERI takes the idea of cultural fusion very seriously. The 30-year-old Iranian composer-who brings his modern version of Persian classical song to Carnegie Hall on November 14, becoming the first Iranian musician ever to headline a show there-has spent the past decade persuading audiences around the world to explore one another’s traditions. “To Western ears, our music is the sound of this unknown country, which has seven thousand years of history,” Nazeri says over tea at a Midtown Manhattan bakery. “I want to be the new face of the country, to show people that through music we are all becoming one.”

Growing up in Tehran as the son of celebrated vocalist Shahram Nazeri- “the Pavorotti of Iran”-Hafez began performing with his father when he was only three. By 10, he’d already invented a new way of playing the daf, an ancient tambourine-like percussion instrument. In Nazeri’s household, musical rules were meant to be broken: During the early ’70s, his father was the first Persian singer to interpret the ancient verses of Sufipoet Mawlana Jalal-al- Din Rumi. “Because of the vocabulary Rumi used, his verses didn’t match with Persian classical music,” Hafez explains. “But my father wanted to have his own signatures, and this was what he taught me. He never let me become an imitator.”

A decade ago, after Nazeri, then 20, wowed his countrymen with his Rumi Ensemble-which toured the country and attracted a record-breaking 140,000 concertgoers in Tehran- Nazeri moved to New York to attend the Mannes College of Music, where he began studying Western classical music. “In Iran, everyone thought of me as just the son of this famous singer,” he says. “When I came here, I thought, ‘Nobody knows me anymore. I can do whatever I want,’ and I knew I had the potential to create more excitement here.”

Nazeri began his Rumi Symphony Project in 2007 “to create a universal music using Rumi as a symbol of peace.” Eight hundred years after the renowned mystic died, Nazeri notes, he has become the best-selling poet in America. “Rumi’s poems are part of our background in Iran, but they don’t belong to anybody,” says Nazeri. “The whole message is to first just close your eyes to the outside and go find that diamond inside you. If you find it, let it shine, because the more it shines, the more you can do important things for your life and others.”

JENNY ELISCU hosts a show on Sirius XMU, Saturday through Tuesday from noon to 6 p.m.


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