Published May 8, 2023

Persian Tar (Iranian Classical Music)

Kazem Davoudian first encountered the santur when he was 14, and his enchantment with its sound set him on a lifelong pursuit of Iranian classical music. The santur is a trapezoidal hammered dulcimer dating back to the 15th century, when the broader region was still Persia. Persian music has ancient roots, with sung poetry being its oldest form.

After falling for the santur, Kazem earned his degree in music from the College of the Arts at Tehran University, where he also learned to play other traditional Iranian instruments, including the tar, a double-chested long-necked lute. After graduating in 1980, Kazem spent the next ten years working with the country’s greatest composers and teachers, eventually writing commissions for the Tehran Symphony Orchestra and the Iranian National Radio and Television.

Photo of an older man sitting with a young boy holding a long-necked stringed instrument. They are looking at sheet music together
Kazem Davoudian and Alexander Sabet during a music lesson.

Together with hundreds of thousands of other Iranians responding to cultural shifts following the Islamic Revolution of 1978–79, Kazem left his home country for the United States. As the new regime became increasingly authoritarian, centuries-old Persian cultural traditions, including music, were called into question. Kazem arrived in Los Angeles in 1990 and soon settled in the Washington, DC, area.

Today, the Iranian community in and around DC is one of the country’s largest (after New York and Los Angeles). Music, along with faith traditions and foodways, provides an enduring connection to home, and to Persian ancestry. Musical events are offered in local venues like Vienna’s Iranian American Community Center and the Persian Cultural Center and Iranian Cultural School, or at DC’s Baha’i Community (a faith founded in Iran).

Dr. Hajeer Sabet and his wife Sarah, fellow Iranians now living in DC, made sure their teenage sons Cyrus and Alexander grew up familiar with the sounds of their country’s music, playing it at home and in the car.

When the couple met Kazem at a local performance, they knew they found an extraordinary santur teacher, a respected Ostad, for their son Cyrus, then four years old.

“We call him Ostad because It’s a way to honor him for what he does and how long he’s been doing it,” explained fourteen-year-old Alexander Sabet, who is now apprenticing with Kazem to learn the tar. “Ostad means maestro, master, or even professor.”

Photo of a young boy looking at the camera, holding a long necked string instrument
Alexander with the tar, a traditional long-necked string instrument.

Alexander began taking lessons from Ostad two years ago and finds the connection to his heritage deeply meaningful. “I played violin before tar, but I thought this was closer to my tradition and where I’m from,” Alexander explained.

One way Iranian music sounds distinctive is because it is formed using seven scales (verses the two Western scales, minor and major), meaning instruments have quarter-step notes unfamiliar to most American ears. Šur, or “mother,” is the scaled used for roughly half of Persian music.

In addition to teaching, Ostad continued his composition practice, eventually leading the Enchanted Strings Ensemble for young Iranian and American classical musicians and writing pieces that combine the two traditions. He has presented performances at venues like George Washington University, Wolf Trap, and the Kennedy Center.

For Alexander, performing gives him an opportunity to share a part of his culture, which he welcomes. “I try to help people understand what the tar is, and why I’m playing it,” he said.

For Ostad, he sees the value in training young musicians like the Sabets, to maintain Iranian identity and also share it with new listeners. “In the US, nobody knows about Iranian music. But when they hear it, they really like it. Music is international. All people understand it,” he said.

He continued: “It is not easy for guys like Alexander and Cyrus to learn how to play an Iranian instrument in the US. I am really proud of them.”

Celebrate the accomplishments of Kazem Davoudian and Alexander Sabet and three other apprenticeship teams at a “Celebration of Virginia Folklife” at the Library of Virginia on Friday, July 7! More details.

Sources Cited

Blum, Stephen. 2001. Iran: An Introduction, edited by Virginia Danielson, Scott Marcus and Dwight Reynolds, Routledge.

Baker’s Student Encyclopedia of Music, vol. 3: Tarantella, edited by Laura Kuhn (New York: Schirmer Reference, 1999)

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