London, Asharq Al-Awsat—One of Iran’s leading music ensembles, the Kamkars family are famed for their striking performances of traditional Persian and Kurdish folk songs, and their willingness to infuse their music with social commentary.
After forming in Iran’s Kurdistan province in the mid-1960s, the group is still making music and performing all over the world, and has released almost 20 albums. The Iranian–Kurdish family—seven brothers and one sister—performed at the Barbican Center in London on October 1 as part of the Barbican’s sixth “Transcender” festival, which the venue describes as a program of “ecstatic, devotional, and psychedelic music from across the globe.”
Arsalan and Bijan Kamkar, two of the brothers in the leading traditional music group, spoke to Asharq Al-Awsat about their attempts to cross the boundaries of ethnicity, language and genre in their music, and the response to their music in Europe and the Middle East.
Asharq Al-Awsat: The Kamkars ensemble was founded nearly 50 years ago. In those years, have you developed any preference for using Persian or Kurdish language for writing your lyrics?
Bijan Kamkar: Targeting the right audience is very important to us. We learned music based through [academic] study and research. We want art students and those who study music to follow our musical style. This group of people mainly speaks Persian.
On the other hand, singing and performing Kurdish music is our signature. We are from Kurdistan, after all. We practiced music with our late father, Hassan Kamkar, who focused mainly on Kurdish music. But at the end of the day, we never had a preference.
Q: How do you evaluate the influence and popularity of the Kamkars music in the Arab world?
Arsalan Kamkar: Abdel-Halim Caracalla, the renowned Lebanese art director, initiated a project with us to compose and record the music of his play Two Thousand and One Nights. He heard about us and learned about our work from our cassettes and concerts. Our orchestra played Scheherazade [composed by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov], Boléro [by Maurice Ravel] and some other pieces with Iranian musical instruments. Caracalla was very happy with the results of the work and he later invited us to watch the Two Thousand and One Nights in Beirut.
It shows that the Arabic-speaking audience relates to our music. Unfortunately the collaboration did not continue.
Bijan Kamkar: In my opinion, cultural and musical projects do not enjoy strong sponsorship. Such cultural and musical relations should be sponsored and promoted by culture ministries of countries. Middle Eastern people will see more cultural interactions if the culture ministries get involved.
We have tried to perform joint projects with Bob Dylan, the American singer-songwriter, and Michael Nyman, the English composer. However, the projects either were not initiated or were not continued due to lack of support from a strong sponsor.
Q: How did Western audiences welcome your performance? Do they relate easily to Kurdish music?
Arsalan Kamkar: Yes! Our first experience of performing abroad was at the WOMAD festival in London in an open space. According to the time schedule, our performance came immediately after the performance of a Jamaican ensemble. People responded very well to the Jamaicans’ energetic performance. Around 6,000 people gathered around them and were dancing to their music. We thought we would lose the audience with our performance, given it was in an open space.
From the moment we started performing the Kurdish music, the audience loved it. Not only did our Kurdish music not scatter the audience, it also attracted more people. Our percussion and string instruments, the Oud and the Santour, could attract more people.
Naturally, Western audiences relate to energetic and “alive” music. Musicians and those who follow the musical disciplines understand and relate to classic and traditional music.
Bijan Kamkar: In fact the Western audience does not relate to Eastern music that conveys emotional concerns. But it does not mean they do not listen to such a style of music at all. They prefer music with a beat and rhythmic performance.
Apart from their preferences, they appreciate Kurdish and Iranian music. After one of our performances in Europe, one of the people among the audience found me later and bowed to me. It made me feel very emotional and excited to see such a level of appreciation.
Basically, we would not have been invited to so many festivals across the world, from London to Abu Dhabi, from Brussels to Beirut, if the audiences did not welcome us.
Q: What message do you want to promote among Arab and Western audiences with your music?
Arsalan Kamkar: A message of friendship, peace, amity, and harmony. Music is a string that keeps all cultures related to each other. The international language of music tries to promote peace around the world.
Bijan Kamkar: Music is the language of humans’ innocent emotions. Music is the most beautiful language to communicate with people of other cultures. A Turkish music band performed one of our songs, exactly like the original Kurdish song. They only changed the lyrics from Kurdish to Turkish. Such performances show how much cultures and music can influence one another.
Artists need sources of inspiration—love, nature, flowers. Cultural exchanges can also be a source of inspiration too.
Q: Do you think your music can resonate with young people unused to traditional Kurdish and Iranian music?
Arsalan Kamkar: That is actually the difficult part of our job. We have learned music based on [older] disciplines and a framework. We do our best to employ our knowledge in our performances. However, people, especially younger people, do not enjoy such music.
Our job is very difficult because I want to follow the harmony, orchestration, discipline, and my knowledge; and people do not like the sound of it. I try very hard to get close to the people as much I can, but I do not want to divert from my line.
Bijan Kamkar: The fact is that people around the world have lost their musical taste. Let me give you an example to clarify what I mean by this. A few years ago, I was walking in a city in Germany with a friend when we came across a protest in the city. It turned out that Michael Jackson had not shown up to a concert there; consequently, the concert was canceled. It drove people mad. Now, imagine if you heard in the news that Beethoven, a pivotal figure in the world of music, came back to life. No more than three people would welcome him back to life.
I choose to be loyal to music and I do not want to limit myself to the people’s demands. Mohammad Taqi Masoudieh, a renowned Iranian music researcher, once said Iran was the source of musical inspiration for the countries across the Middle East before the Qajar Dynasty (1785–1906). How about today? Cabaret music is more popular than any other type of music.
Q: To what extent do you reflect people’s social concerns in your music?
Bijan Kamkar: We have always reflected people’s concerns in our songs. I sang [our] first song about war after the Iran–Iraq war started. I sang the first song for “martyrs.” I said that I did not approve of people’s musical tastes but I definitely valued them and their concerns.
Arsalan Kamkar: Earthquakes and bombings happen and we cannot be indifferent towards them. That is the reason why we practice and run an orchestra for Halabja. People’s social worries are our worries too.
Q: Do you find any similarities between Arabic and Kurdish or Persian music? Do you enjoy Arabic music?
Bijan Kamkar: Not much with Persian music. However, Kurdish and Arabic music have a lot in common; they share some significant elements. We have listened to Arabic music since our childhood. We have performed in Lebanon, the UAE, and Morocco. We hope there will be closer relations between us, but we should bear in mind that relationships should be bilateral.
Arsalan Kamkar: I enjoy Arab culture and music a lot. Our late father, Hassan Kamkar, used to play songs by Umm Kulthum, the famous Egyptian singer, Fairuz, the popular Lebanese singer, Abdel Halim Hafez, a famous Egyptian [singer], and many other Arabic singers. We were exposed to their music and culture from childhood.
This is an abridged version of an interview originally conducted in Persian.