Persian Classical Music: Bahman Panahi, tar and setar; Ali Mojallal, tombak

Enjoy a recital by the Paris-based Iranian virtuoso Bahman Panahi, who made his American debut in 2009 at Harvard University. He is one of the leading exponents of Persian classical music, an improvisational tradition related to the ragas of India. Trained in calligraphy as well as music, Panahi has appeared in concerts and workshops throughout the Middle East, North Africa, and Europe, and has performed at Carnegie Hall. This concert was recorded in the Freer Gallery’s Meyer Auditorium on Friday, October 30, 2009, in conjunction with the exhibition Falnama: The Book of Omens.


  1. Improvisation in dastgah (melodic mode): Avaz-e-EsfahanBahman Panahi, setar (lute) and voice; Ali Mojallal, tombak (drum)
  2. Percussion improvisation: Ali Mojallal, tombak
  3. Improvisation in dastgah (melodic mode): Dastgah-e-SegahBahman Panahi, tar (lute); Ali Mojallal, tombak (drum)


The four-stringed, long-necked lute known as a setar has a long history in Persia and the surrounding region. The instrument’s predecessors were depicted in West Asian bas-reliefs from the second millennium B.C.E.; an eighth-century Persian terracotta figure, now in the Louvre, shows a man playing a similar long-necked lute. The instrument was first described in written documents in the tenth century—when it was known as a tanbur—in treatises by the Arab music theorists and philosophers Al-Farabi and Safi Al-Din. It was mentioned in Persian poetry as early as the twelfth century, and first appeared in Persian paintings about four hundred years later.

The original setar had only three strings; a fourth string was added to the modern instrument as a drone. Its curved sound-box is made entirely of white mulberry wood, and the walnut neck is fitted with moveable frets of twine. Small holes are carved into the wooden face and sides of the sound-box to improve its resonance. The setar’s soft, delicate sound makes it ideal to play in secret, a necessary feature in an Islamic Persian culture that long disapproved of instrumental music. From its earliest depictions to the present day, musicians have played the instrument using the forefinger.

The unusually shaped, six-stringed tar differs from the setar in a number of respects. Unlike the ancient setar, the tar is a modern instrument unique to Iran, and first appeared in Persian paintings and photographs as recently as the nineteenth century. Its double-chambered sound-box, developed in the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century, is modeled after the ancient rabab, another lute. Also unlike the setar, the tar’s sound-box is covered by a very thin sheepskin parchment. This makes the instrument especially sensitive to the touch of the plectrum, which is traditionally made of metal and inserted into a ball of gum. The 26 moveable frets are made of gut. Because it is so difficult to craft, the tar is the most expensive of the traditional Persian instruments.

— Notes on Persian instruments and music adapted by Michael Wilpers, concert manager, from Jean During et al., The Art of Persian Music (Mage 1991), Hormoz Farhat, “Iran,” in S. Sadie, ed., New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (Macmillan 1980), and Ella Zonis, Classical Persian Music (Harvard 1973).

Persian Classical Music

The repertoire of Persian classical music is known as the radif, or row, which musicologist Bruno Nettl has called “the principal emblem and the heart of Persian music, a form of art as quintessentially Persian as that nation’s fine carpets and exquisite miniatures.” The radif includes approximately 400 individual pieces, each called a gusheh, which are divided into twelve groups, each called a dastgah. A performance from the radif begins with an introduction, which presents the melodic mode (maqam) of the particular dastgah chosen by the artist. After the introduction, the soloist performs various pieces from that dastgah, often modulating from the mode of the introduction to other modes. A cadential motif often links one gusheh to the next, bringing the listener’s attention back to the dastgah’s basic mode. Because it would take too long to perform all the pieces in any one dastgah, a modern performance usually features a selection of the more striking pieces from the group.

The artist’s process of selecting which pieces to perform, and in what order, is part of the improvisatory nature of Persian music—but more important is the musician’s interpretation of each gusheh. The performer alters and embellishes the gusheh at will, and renders it in a different way each time. Responding to their feelings at the moment, musicians create highly personal and intimate renditions of each gusheh by varying and adding to it.

The ideal state of mind for this improvisation is one of total immersion, as if the musician is possessed by the essence of the mode or rhythmic cycle; musicians lose their sense of being a voluntary participant in the event. The performance thus becomes unpredictable even to the performer. On such occasions, improvisation reaches its height. From this experience comes the idea that music originates from an outer source, for which the performer, through virtuosity, is a mere vehicle.

— Notes on Persian instruments and music adapted by Michael Wilpers, concert manager, from Jean During et al., The Art of Persian Music (Mage 1991), Hormoz Farhat, “Iran,” in S. Sadie, ed., New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (Macmillan 1980), and Ella Zonis, Classical Persian Music (Harvard 1973).


Bahman Panahi, tar and setar, is the youngest son of a large, cultivated family of artists. His brothers’ work in music, painting, theater, and calligraphy led him to develop his own musical and calligraphic talents. To Panahi, music stands for Iran’s history, culture, and civilization, while calligraphy provides an image of Iranian artistic spontaneity and taste. The relationship between these two genres is a launching point for Panahi’s creative productions and philosophical contemplations.

Panahi studied setar and tar with such masters of Persian music as Houshang Zarif, Mohamad Reza Lotfi, and Ataollah Zahed Shirazi. He earned the title of master from the Iranian Institute of Calligraphy under the direction of Gholamhosein Amirkhani, Foradi, and Kaboli.

Since 1990, Panahi has presented concerts, workshops, conferences, courses, and exhibitions throughout the world, including in Iran, France, the Maldives, Cuba, Holland, England, Syria, Sri Lanka, Tunisia, Nigeria, Morocco, Spain, Mauritania, Poland, Belgium, and Switzerland. He first performed in the United States at Lincoln Center in 2007, and made his American solo recital debut at Harvard University in April 2009 (as well as his first American joint performance with Ali Mojallal). He also has made multiple appearances with the UNESCO International Orchestra. Panahi currently lives in Paris, where he is pursuing a doctoral degree from the Sorbonne on the relationship between Persian music and calligraphy.

Ali Mojallal, tombak, was born in 1973 in Tehran. He began his studies on the tombak in 1992 under Farid Kheradmand, after which he worked with such tombak artists as Arash Farhangfar and Siavash Akbari. Through working with the master percussionist Djamshid Chemirani, in France, he developed his signature performance style.

Panahi and Mojallal perform together regularly throughout Europe. Their first joint performance in the United States took place at Harvard University in April 2009.


Falnama: The Book of Omens

This concert was presented in conjunction with the exhibition Falnama: The Book of Omens, on display at the Sackler Gallery from October 24, 2009, to January 24, 2010. Whether by consulting the position of the planets, casting horoscopes, or interpreting dreams, the art of divination was widely practiced throughout the Islamic world. The most splendid tools ever devised to foretell the future were illustrated texts known as the Falnama (Book of Omens). Notable for their monumental size, brilliantly painted compositions, and unusual subject matter, the manuscripts were created in Safavid Iran and Ottoman Turkey in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.

The first exhibition devoted to these extraordinary manuscripts, Falnama: The Book of Omenssheds new light on their artistic, cultural, and religious significance. The exhibition comprises more than sixty works of art from international public and private collections and is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue.

Falnama: The Book of Omens was organized by the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery. The exhibition has received generous support from anonymous donors, the Lee and Juliet Folger Fund, Roshan Cultural Heritage Institute, the Hagop Kevorkian Fund, Mr. and Mrs. Farhad Ebrahimi, Smithsonian Scholarly Studies Program, The Barakat Trust, The Packard Humanities Institute, and PARSA Community Foundation.

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