Sahba Motallebi is a highly respected and educated performer and teacher of the Tar and Setar; traditional instruments descendent from Persia. After watching her virtuosic performance at Joshua Tree Music Festival, I got the chance to meet with her and discuss the Persian musical tradition and her approach and insight on music. Check out the video for the full interview, or keep reading here!

Be sure to visit Sahba’s website and catch one of her upcoming performances! You can see a full performance from Sahba here:

The Interview

Sahba:

My name is Sahba Motallebi and I play Tar. It is a traditional Persian Tar instrument used traditionally for Iranian music.

Vince:

So you were raised in Tehran in Iran?

Sahba:

Yes.

Vince:

What can you tell us about some of the musical history and cultural tradition related to the Tar in Iran?

Sahba:

Music is part of people’s bodies and spirit. Unfortunately, the Iranian government is not in support of people playing music as a profession, but people cannot stop wanting to do this, and there are so many beautiful musicians in Iran. In the current climate, women’s voices are mute, they are not permitted to sing. This began about 40 years ago, and is something contemporary women vocalists are dealing with. However, as I said, people cannot stop. They are continuing to learn and play music in Iran. The Tar originated about 150 years ago and is a very old traditional, classical instrument.

Vince:

As I understand it, in traditional Indian music, there is a lot of connection between the musical expression and the Hindu religion. Is there a similar connection in Persian culture, where the musical expression shares a connotation with the religion of Islam and Persian culture?

Sahba:

Not in this type of traditional Persian classical music, but yes it exists. For example, if a spiritual person is dying, they have a special music, but it is not so instrumental, it is mostly percussion and singing. Traditionally, there is a lot of religious music, like Sufi and Dervish music, for example. That musical expression is mostly instruments, percussion and strings, and like Turkish music, invokes a trance.  Also, we have many music therapists in villages in Iran. These music therapists, over a period of a few days and nights, use the music, a lot of percussion, to heal the person whom they believe a bad spirit has entered their body.

Vince:

It’s always amazing to see how different  cultures utilize music as a healing art, and how it manifests itself cross-culturally.  Currently, in California, Tibetan singing bowls are pretty commonly used in a practice called “sound healing”.  

I am interested about your personal musical journey. You mentioned the difficulties, as a woman and professional performer, over the past 50 years. What has your experience and education been like, and how have you come to perform in America?

Sahba:

When I was 11, I started learning music after moving from Tehran, the city of my birth, to a city North of Iran. My first instrument was Setar, smaller than the Tar.  “Se” means three, “tar” means string.  Setar has just one bowl and smaller neck and you play with just one nail.  Eventually, I came back to the Capital, Tehran, to study music, because there is only one school of music in all of Iran; one for men and one for women.  At 14, I started Tar as my major instrument at the conservatory of music.  At that time, I was competing in at music festivals and winning first place, over men and women.  After that I wanted to continue to study music, but my religion, Bahai, doesn’t permit it.  For people in the Bahai religion, University is forbidden after high school, so I traveled to Russia to continue my musical education. There I studied European Folk composition. I also traveled to Turkey to study Turkish and Iranian music, which I found to be similar. This makes sense, because before there was a border, Persia was one big Empire, so the music shares similarity. It’s One Music. There, I found a lot of rhythms that I incorporate into my music now.  I apply lots of Turkish rhythms and melodies to my music.  At the age of 27, I came to the United States and studied World Music, Performance & Dance at CalArts University. After university, I started teaching all over the world online and at universities, and in person in my home as well. I perform many concerts world-wide. I do all of this to spread Persian music all over the world.

Vince:

Would you say then, that the music that you are currently presenting is an amalgamation of traditional Iranian and older Persian music influences, which you gathered through your experiences in the Turkish region and other places you have lived? Would you say you infuse your own unique “flavor” to your musical expression; the composition and improvisation?

Sahba:

I apply many different techniques, which I’ve learned from traveling. I studied with Flamenco guitar players. All the different sounds that you’ve heard from me, come from my travel and also from nature. This sound (strums the Tar) came from birds.  We have other instruments, like the Tambor, which you can play the body of the instrument with your nails, and it sounds like percussion and string in one instrument. Because I studied at CalArts, with Japanese, Balinese, Indian & African students, I learned many different techniques, which I borrow and apply in my music.

Vince:

With all of your world travel and experience, would you consider the genre of “World Music” embodying less boundaries? With our increased access to communication, do you see people experiencing music as more of a universal language?   

Sahba:

Yes, of course. This is how it has always been for me. Music comes from the heart, and when it comes from the heart, it’s going to affect another’s heart. When it comes from your soul, it is a flow between you and your audience. Music isn’t just about technique, it’s also about feeling, and that comes from the heart.

Vince:

You certainly overcame a lot to be able to create and perform music. Do you have any advice for musicians who are struggling with any type of oppressive factors? Here in the U.S., parents commonly communicate that you cannot make a living doing music. What are your thoughts on that?

Sahba:

That is a good question. For money, I agree; music cannot be your career. It cannot be just a job to make money. Much like teaching, it’s not just a job, it’s a gift and a talent. A gift is to be given freely, not monetized. To make money, you do something else. Yes, I teach, but I also create many free videos online, in both English and Farsi, available for download.  So, because I have this gift, I give it freely as a gift. Even my two children, though they do not play an instrument or sing, they enjoy music, so they are musicians with a gift to give.

Vince:

So, to summarize, music is really a beautiful gift, and as much as we can as musicians, we should give it freely to the world, share that beauty, and make it accessible to as many people as possible.  Thank you so much for your time and your performance, and I hope you enjoyed the interview.