Mehdi Moshtagh brings the Radif to Mexico

In an interview with EL UNIVERSAL the Iranian musician talked about his projects, the superstition behind number 13, spirituality and poetry in Persian music and other topics.
Giselle Rodríguez / EL UNIVERSAL
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By Giselle Rodríguez

Mehdi Moshtagh is an Iranian musician who lives in Mexico City. Apart from being a setar and shurangiz teacher, he is the director of two ensembles (Didar and Setaristas Moshtagh), has a duet called "Encuentro de Cuerdas Iraníes con Percusiones del Mundo" and is a scholarship recipient of the National Fund for Cultures and Art (FONCA).

As part of his project "Perxico", that merges Persian with Mexican music, in 2015 he presented the 13 different modes of the Radif in Mexico City for the first time in a series of concerts at his house. His candid rendition of this collection of old melodic figures preserved through many generations by oral tradition was an enchanting musical experience.

1. Why did you decide to organize these concerts, Mehdi?

I started thinking about this project around five or six years ago, when I was living in Iran, but the idea took time to "ripen". In February this year I felt I was ready to do it. It was a personal experience in the first place,and I am grateful people accompanied me in this journey.

2. Is there a mathematical reason behind the dates and number of concerts? Can you please explain why did you associate a color and a specific hour to each mode?

Number 13 is from the "devil", in Persian culture and I believe in many others. For example in the past a house on the 13th of a street was marked as 12+1. The same happens in Persian music. Even though we have 13 modes, most books say there are 12 modes (7 dastgahs and 5 avazs). One mode is not counted in, even though it is taught and it exists.

As personally I like to demystify all these notions like the devil, I like to get right in there and prove that nothing happened to me, because I believe I am much stronger than the devil. Of course if I am right, if not I wouldn't waste my time. But in this case I am right, because there are 13 modes in Persian music, that is a fact. About the time of the concerts in the past each mode was played on a specific time of the day, so I only followed tradition. But the color yes, it was an entirely personal decision.

3. I understand those who want to learn the radif are supposed to undergo an asceticism that opens the doors of spirituality to them. Can you please elaborate on this practice?

Spirituality has always been part of Persian music, even though you can also see music as a worldly thing. But it has a spiritual component, especially some modes like Nava, which is famous for its mysticism. (In fact I rarely play this mode because it affects me deeply. However there are other modes that have a happy vibe).

In the past teachers not only taught music to their students, but became a role model for them. India has kept more this tradition of humility before your teacher than Iran.  In India students still have to serve their teachers and have many obligations to them, and this is supposed to "cleanse their spirit".

4. How diverse and receptive was your audience? Which comments impressed you the most?

I organized these concerts to get feedback from people, mainly, but I got more from the audience than what I expected.

This music is not so popular in Mexico, even in Iran not all people understand it, they cannot tell apart one mode from the other. So it impressed me that in each concert there was always a person or two who felt exactly the same way as I did about the mode that I had just played.

For example once a person in the audience said Bayat-e-Tork gave her hope. "Hope" is precisely the word that describes my feeling about this mode. When I am frustrated I play this mode, and it helps me. Sadness and happiness would be general words to describe the effect of music on your mood, but hope, passion... those are more specific words. I was happy that I was able to convey this through music. 

5. How much freedom is there in present Iran to make music? Would it have been possible for you to organize a series of private concerts at your house in your native country?

At home yes, I can invite friends over, but to play in a public space you need to get many certificates of permission from different government offices. It takes around two months to obtain these permits. The same happens with albums, you can record, but to publish an album you need to get the government's approval. 

6. At a 2014 conference about Iranian music at Mexico City's National Museum of Cultures you said that when Arabs arrived in Persia in 651 a.C. they prohibited music and therefore significant parts of Persian musical heritage were lost for good. Do you think Islam has done this throughout history?

That is a fact. Music is not dear to the Islamic world. Some extremists even destroy and burn musical instruments, others are more flexible and say that certain types of music can exist and there is a third group that respects other people's choices.

7. What effect do you think promoting musical learning would have in humanity?

I think it would be good if art in general was taught to children, so that they can discover the beautiful side of the world we live in.  However I don't think music should be a mandatory subject.

8. Do you think playing music from other eras can contribute to change the world? If so, what do you think is the effect of such practice on the collective unconscious

A simplistic answer to that question would be yes, but there are many things to be considered. Playing music by itself wouldn't make a difference; learning, understanding and experiencing it would. What nowadays humans are missing is reading more, knowing more about art, history, and I believe that all that would have a positive effect on the world.

9.What is the relation between poetry and Iranian music?

They are intertwined, there are several gushehs based on classical poems and there are other gushehs that follow the rhythmic system of classical Persian poetry (aruz). These compositions don't have rhythm, only time. Personally I like the poetry of H.E. Sayeh, a contemporary Iranian poet. I like the philosophy behind his poems.

10. How would you describe your personal evolution as a musician? How have your compositions and way of playing changed with experience, age and "transculturation"?

I think I am more mature now, that is what transculturation has brought to me. However I always try not to go too far from my origins, which is Persian music. I compose fusion and have played flamenco and blues,but when I compose, I try to grasp the spirit of the contemporary world and place I live in while still keeping my roots.

11. What is your discography?

When I was 23 I recorded "On the way", a duet of setar and tombak. This is precisely the project that brought me to Mexico the first time, to participate in the Ollin Kan festival. In my second CD "Roozgar" I recorded my own compositions with two setars, an oud, a tombak and a singer. In Mexico I played in "Quitapenas", an album of the migrant music ensemble Egiptanos. And if I get support from the FONCA I may record the seven compositions I am working on for my Perxico project. 

12. What other projects are working on?

I will compose music for a documentary on the people of Guerrero, this is my first experiment with "music documentaries". I also play in a quartet called Parizad, that includes tonbak and Indian sitar and tabla. And I will work with Down syndrome children for the third composition of my Perxico project: "De repente resurección" (Suddenly, resurrection). The children will participate in the video playing two stones as a percussion instrument.

13. Why Down syndrome children?

It is a protest to "the source" for making these children be born that way. They could die before being born if we talk about justice. But if they are born and stay alive for 30, 50 years, whatever, they deserve to live. However, they don't live the way you and I do, they are always set apart. Many of them cannot study with the rest of people or work in whatever they like despite being intelligent, not all of them are disabled. I want to complain to God, the energy, the universe, whatever you call it, because they cannot live like the rest of people.



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