The Iranian Soprano: Interview with Shaqayeq Kamali

By Firoozeh Ramezanzadeh

Shaghayegh Kamali

The Iranian soprano Shaqayeq Kamali was born in Tehran. She studied piano and voice at Tehran University’s School of Arts. She left Iran after the 1979 Islamic Revolution and continued her studies in Germany where she currently lives.

Ms. Kamali has been collaborating with the Iranian composer Siavash Beizai since 1991. Their music is a blend of folk songs and contemporary Iranian music. They aim to introduce Iranian folk music to a broader global audience. Their music group, Shahrzad Ensemble, has performed in many European cities. Other group members are Ulrich Petermann (flute and clarinet) and Anoosha Golestaneh (piano.)

The following is Kayhan London’s interview with Kamali.

Q: What was the first song you performed after arriving in Germany?

A: I started working with Siavash Beizai in 1991. We performed our first concert in summer of 1992 in Munster, Germany. We combined traditional Iranian folk music with contemporary sound. We aimed to introduce Iranian music to audiences in other countries.

Our repertoire consisted of well-known folk songs and others that no other signer had ever performed. Mr. Beizai’s arrangements of these songs reintroduced them to a new group of music enthusiasts. European audiences were quite impressed with the performances. They couldn’t believe that these were Iranian folk songs put to modern music. Using European instruments such as piano, flute, and clarinet as well as incorporating different types of harmonics enhanced the musical impact of these songs.

Iranian audiences have responded somewhat differently. Some people prefer the solo melody to the new sound created through the use of harmonics and counterpoint. Many people are entrenched in their view of traditional Iranian music and are not receptive to our interpretation and arrangements of these songs. I must point out that we have always performed folk melodies in the original dialect.

There are currently 50 folks songs from various regions in our repertoire. We’ve performed many of them in our concerts.

Q: In addition to traditional folk songs you also perform some of the more contemporary pieces including “Sar Omad Zemestoon” (Winter Is Over). Why did you choose this song?

A: “Sar Omad Zemestoon” also known as “Aftabkarane Jangal” (Sunshine in the Forest) is a beautiful and inspirational Armenian folk song. It conveys hope and optimism. It brings back a lot of good memories for many people. Some group exploited the lyrics and turned this into a political song. We are trying to restore it to its original glory.

Q: Have you ever performed any songs in German or English?

A: Only when I was studying at university. Numerous singers have performed and recorded Western operas and classical works. You can walk into any music store and find CD and MP3 recordings of these performers. Western singers have grown up in this culture and, therefore, are intimately familiar with these classical pieces. I am an Iranian singer. I’m the first artist who performs traditional Iranian folk songs with new arrangements.

Q: Is there a particular song or poem you’d remember from your childhood?

A: As with many girls my age, I listened to Googoosh. (1950-). I started taking piano lessons when I turned 15. I remember the “Do Panjereh” (Two Windows) by Googoosh. It was probably the best pop song at the time. My favorite poem at the time was “Arash Kamangir” (Arash the Archer) by Siavash Kasrai (1927-1996.) If I’m not mistaken, parts of that poem were in one of our school textbooks.

Q: In your view, has Iranian soprano technique been influenced by European operatic tradition or by the pre-Islamic Revolution performances of folk songs by artists such as Pari Zanganeh (1939-)?

A: Music academies in Iran offered voice training including for sopranos before Mrs. Zanganeh. In fact, she learned her craft at one of those schools. Zanganeh and other singers had a profound impact on the generation of artists that followed them. Young people learn a lot from the internet these days. There is a lot of information available online.

Q: A whole new generation of Iranian sopranos has studied in Europe. What is the difference between these performances and those of European singers? Why aren’t they more successful?

A: Soprano vocal technique is not suitable for every kind of singing, particularly for Iranian folk songs. Many sopranos who have trained in the Western classical tradition cannot perform Iranian songs. One must modify the voice and adapt it to Iranian music. For instance, in the Farsi alphabet, there are three different letters which correspond to the English letter A. We get an entirely different sound depending on where we place the accents (diacritical mark.) These subtle variations can completely change the structure of a song and a piece of music.

Q: How widespread is soprano singing among the Iranian woman? Are there any opportunities for teaching and training singers?

A: Despite many restrictions, Iranians love to learn about other cultures. But bad policies and deliberate attempts to restrict artistic activities slow cultural growth. These restrictions, which are not limited to music, affect women more than men. Thankfully people can access a wealth of information on the internet. It is not an ideal way to learn about music. Ultimately, there is no substitute for academic training and competent teachers.

Q: Some young musicians combine Iranian and Western instruments. Does this enrich Iranian music?

A: Information, knowledge, technology, experience, and experiment develop and enrich culture. Traditionalists hate change and want to preserve their ideas. Iranian culture is old and deeply rooted in its people. It embraces innovation and change. There are forces which attempt to slow down and restrict artistic growth, but the vibrant and rich Iranian culture will survive these dark periods and emerge victorious.

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Cultures have always influenced each other. Cultural interactions are the most exciting and natural phenomena. People from different parts of the world come together to celebrate their common interests and different views. Artists have always been curious about other cultures. Western instruments have helped to develop Iranian music. But nothing can be forced on people. National musical instruments remain an integral part of Iranian music.

Q: You’ve been teaching voice for many years. Have you had an opportunity to share your experience and knowledge with music lovers in Iran?

A: I wrote a series of articles on singing a few years ago and made them available on the Internet for free. I’m waiting for an opportunity to publish a new set of material online.

Q: How many times have you traveled to Iran in recent years? How do you assess young people’s interest in music?

A: Only two or three times. But I’m somewhat informed about Iranian youth’s interest in music. The efforts by the state to ban music have backfired. One of the things I’ve learned is that any attempt to suppress, censor or ban creative activities will have the opposite effect.

There is at least one person in any religious family who plays a musical instrument in Iran. There are more musicians and singers in Iran today than there were before the Islamic Revolution. But artists need the freedom to create and exchange ideas with each other. The Iranian regime has managed to restrict, suppress, censor and ban all creative endeavors including exhibitions, plays, and concerts.

Q: If you were to perform at the Rudaki Concert Hall in Tehran one day, what piece would you sing?

A: The national anthem or “Vatanam, Vatanam” (My Homeland, My Homeland). The lyrics are by the legendary songwriter Mr. Bijan Taraqi (1930-2009) and the music and arrangement are by Mr. Beizai. An unscrupulous person in Iran has taken advantage of Beizai’s absence and registered the song under his name.

I’d also like to perform “Winter is Over” and “Moj” (Wave). Both songs are very poignant. I would sing some folk songs and others based on the poems of Forough Farokhzad (1935-67) and Mowlana (1207-1273.)

[Translated from Persian by Fardine Hamidi]