Geneva – At a time when Switzerland’s ban on constructing minarets is making headlines, the musicians of the Rumi Ensemble are showing that cultures can converge into something beautiful.
On Thursday, 8 October, a decommissioned hydroelectric plant on the Swiss banks of the Rhone, now converted into a cultural complex, hosted 12 Iranian and Scandinavian performers. They blended Sufi chants and the strains of the santour and the tar (strings), ney (flute), daf and tombak (percussions) with the sounds of a Norwegian quintet, breathing fresh life into the pictures by Iranian photo reporter Reza Deghati, who has been roaming the world for some 30 years.
Throughout the concert, the verses of the great Persian mystical poet Rumi, speaking of love and tolerance, were chanted to the tune of the musical fusion, blending with the message of Javid Afsari Rad, the composer, santour virtuoso and founder of the group.
Resounding in the hall, the piece “Axis of Love” was composed on the day the United States launched its attack on Afghanistan to counter the prevailing terminology of the time. The piece proclaims that we all want the same for our children, that every conflict will eventually find its resolution, and that vengeance will resolve nothing.
Where did the idea of the Rumi Ensemble come from? Rad’s music is a reflection of his life experiences. He studied the santour and traditional Iranian music with the most renowned masters in Iran. During the first Gulf War between Iran and Iraq, he went into exile in Norway as a young student and studied musicology at Oslo University, after which he embraced a brilliant musical career.
In Norway, his first priority was to preserve his roots and cultural heritage. He turned down several offers to play in mixed ensembles with musicians from other countries. “One intends to integrate into the host country, but at the same time, there is a strong urge to safeguard one’s identity,” he says. “Out of purism, initially, I only wanted to play authentic Persian music”.
However, in Norway his thirst for culture and his love of music drove him to attend numerous concerts. As he discovered other types of music, he realised that the music of his own country—dating back over 2,000 years—also grew over time thanks to foreign contributions. Rad became aware that engaging with other cultures and other types of music could be musically and spiritually enriching.
As he played with musicians from other countries, he understood that he could, in his own way, contribute to the evolution of Iranian music and change the image of Iran in the West by disclosing a more appealing facet of his country.
He then went on to play with musicians from Brazil, India, China and even Africa in 2000—with the production of Combinations, an album that ten musicians from ten different countries contributed to.
In 2007 and 2008, Rad won the “Artist of the Year” award in Norway. And in 2007, for the 800th anniversary of the birth of Rumi, he was asked to put to music the verses of the Sufi poet and prepare a tour with Scandinavian and Iranian musicians, which was the beginning of the Rumi Ensemble. It has now been touring Europe for several weeks. The Ensemble celebrates love and togetherness, as well as Rumi himself, the great mystical Persian philosopher and poet who founded the Order of the Whirling Dervishes.
Although the convergence with the Deghati photo show was initially unintended, Rad is thrilled with the coincidence because he believes his music and Deghati’s photographs are truly in harmony. All the profits of the evening went to a charity for Afghan children.
In Rad’s vision of the present time, it is vital to promote a message of peace. Now is the time to draw a lesson from the words of Rumi, whose songs of love and tolerance should serve as an example for us, now more than ever.
* Mehra Rimer is a Geneva-based translator born in Iran. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews). This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).