Global Hit – The Shams Ensemble

The World

Today’s global features an Iranian band that celebrates tradition while bending the rules. Right now the Shams Ensemble is on tour in the U.S. Reporter Michelle Chang caught up with the group at a sold-out show in San Francisco and sent us this report.

It sounds like a violin, but these frenetic notes come from the Persian tanbour. It’s an ancient three-stringed lute with a long, skinny neck. This one is played by The Shams Ensemble. Kaykhosoro Pournazeri formed the group in 1977.

The band combines traditional Iranian music with tanbour sufi melodies. Here’s The Shams Ensemble performing in San Francisco earlier this week. You can hear the soaring sound of a woman’s voice – something you might not hear at a concert in Iran. After the 1979 Islamic Revolution, women were banned from performing solo in front of men – that includes singing or playing the tanbour.

So, Pournazeri and his ensemble took care to avoid government attention, shunning major venues in favor of underground spots. And Pournazeri found a way to get around the ban on women’s voices.

K. POURNAZERI: “A woman should not sing solo. So we had to mix their voice with men’s voices – either women or men. So that’s how we took advantage of that possibility and brought women into the stage.”

The Shams Ensemble has performed in Europe, the U.S., and China. But at home, the group makes sure that women’s voices don’t dominate the men’s. This is Neda Khaki singing a song called “Robabi.” She’s the first woman to play tanbour with the ensemble. She says it’s been a pleasure performing in the U.S.

KHAKI: “I cannot have this opportunity in my own country because women are not allowed to sing, allowed to be soloists, vocalists. Be at least three women on stage and accompanied by two men. So your voice is covered by —we cannot have this in Iran. So this was my first time also.”

And she says it was a little hard getting used to singing out loud.

KHAKI: “It was somehow uncomfortable, not so much used to it, but I tried my best.”

And the audience responded.
Farzhad Owgi is an Iranian living in the San Francisco Bay Area. He says he’s proud to see his culture gain momentum in the U.S.

OWGI: “I don’t necessarily think that this will change the path of the government. But it’s a step, a step towards seeing some changes. And it’s positive.”

The Shams Ensemble hopes its music can also have a positive impact. Pournazeri’s son Tahmoures is one of the group’s composers.

T.POURNAZERI: “In this world, it is full of war and problems. Using the language of music and love – which is Rumi’s poems – we’re hoping to introduce or give to the world the word of music and word of love – through our music. And hope to make a difference.”

In the meantime, The Shams Ensemble will continue to showcase women singing and playing the tanbour.

For The World, I’m Michelle Chang in San Francisco.

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