Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Greetings Dearest Friends,

I am so pleased to finally have the first page of my own website, to be expanded soon:


... and a new email address:

Finally a gestalt has been completed ... without consciously making plans, sometimes the seemingly random energies of 'organization' take on things all on their own. I do recall quite a few times appreciating gravity for its powers of generating order in the midst of chaos. In the intensities of various pursuits, as if the world would come to an end unless the task at hand were completed according to every single detail in my vision, at least thanks to gravity, objects around me can be located on ... the ground, rather than flying around in space. This is so convenient and so useful ... since the material dimension becomes unhinged sometimes, going for periods of time untended ... like weeds insisting themselves into a garden, entropy has shown that the universe dissolves from order to disorder with disturbing predictability. Thankfully, gravity locates things at the lowest point. Gurdjieff's idea about doing things 'whole hog including the postage' certainly gives a nice excuse to individuals with obsessive tendencies.

My last blog entry, 2 ½ years ago, was about the generosity of my dear friend Cameron Powers, and his organization 'Musical Missions of Peace' which gave me support for my travels in Iran in 2006. What I have written already about my travels in Iran now seems like a shadow of all that the trip really meant for me ... perhaps it takes this long to digest such an enormous experience.

Last night I had the great fortune to perform with him in California to raise awareness and money for a music school which he founded in Syria for Iraqi refugees ... so that their culture could be maintained at least to some degree, while the patterns of their lives dissolve into one more phase of chaos after another ...

It is an immense privilege to be, as Cameron refers to me, a Musical Ambassador to Iran. While intrigues are cooking in the ovens of the media, I hold fast to the music and my love for music ...

And I ask myself, what have I learned in 2 ½ years since I returned from Iran and wrote my last entry?

My approach to music in some ways is less personal, more focused as a responsibility, and not just some kind of weird ego trip. I notice that I have expertise in different kinds of music from the Middle East and Balkans ... and the ability to teach culture to not only Americans, but to children of those cultures who are not growing up there ... This is very rewarding, to bring substance back to its source, tuck it in like a child at bedtime, and send it off for sweet dreaming.

It happened 'out of the blue' that I was contacted by two different museums recently in California, about presenting three programs with music and other cultural elements about Central Asia and Iran. I will post here the notes I wrote for our program about the Silk Road, at the

Mingei Museum
Escondido California

in conjunction with the exhibit,
Tent & Textiles from Central Asia and Iran ...

with the Silk Road Music & Dance Ensemble,
Robyn Friend ~ dance
Neil Siegel ~ Azeri and Persian tar, baghlama saz
Megan Rancier ~ violin & qyl-qobyz
Rowan Storm ~ vocal, dayereh, daff, dohol

14 February 2009

The members of the Silk Road Music and Dance Ensemble are grateful to the Mingei International Museum for the opportunity to share their love for the interrelated traditions of the vast regions recognized today as the Middle East, Central Asia, and the Mediterranean. For many hundreds of years, the network of trade routes known collectively as the Silk Road promoted the exchange of not only luxury goods including silk, but also ideas, religions, and countless other cultural dimensions, linking China, India and Africa with Europe. Trade along these channels facilitated development of the great civilizations of Asia and Rome, and in many respects advanced the foundation of western culture.

The wealth created by this trade supported the creation of fabulous art in Central Asia, including textiles, painting, ceramics, architecture, poetry, music, and dance, concentrated particularly in the cities of Bukhara and Samarkand. Artistic inspiration has always arisen not only from faraway points along the trade routes, but also from urban culture in nearby Iran as well as local rural 'folk' traditions.

While the first major step in opening the Silk Road between East and West came with Alexander the Great's eastern conquests in the 4th century BC, the intellectual and artistic zenith of the Silk Road cultures took place between the 8th and 16th centuries. Many examples of the artistic accomplishments of these civilizations survive to this day.

The principal languages of contemporary Central Asia belong to the Turkic and Iranian linguistic families, with the additional more recent influence of Russian. While Islam has become the predominant religion since its introduction in the 8th century, several religions have left indelible traces, particularly Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, and Christianity. Suggestions of even earlier local polytheistic belief systems can still be found in modern-day Islamic religious practice.

While many cultural elements arrived in the west over innumerable generations of contact with the east, especially during the period of the Crusades from the 11th - 13th centuries, Europeans traveling the Silk Road brought back tambourines, lutes, and other musical instruments which eventually developed into the European piano, guitar, violin, and brass horns.

One of these ancestors of the violin is the qyl-qobyz of Kazakhstan, played in today’s performance by Megan Rancier. All of the percussion and stringed instruments played today by Rowan Storm and Neil Siegel have ancient origins in the regions of the Silk Road, and remain a vital part of traditional musical practices in Central Asia.

Partially due to a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam during the 19th century in Central Asia, and partially since many other professions were closed to them, the principal performers of the Bukharan music and dance traditions have long been Jews, whose presence in the region dates from ancient times. At the same time, Jewish women became the leaders of troupes of professional singers and dancers. While most of the great artists of these traditions have now emigrated to Israel and the United States, our dancer Robyn Friend continues her study of Uzbek dance in Uzbekistan with the current generation of the renowned Bukharan Jewish Akilov family, with a continuous performance legacy of over two hundred years.


While the humanistic philosophy from the realm of the ancient Silk Road has attracted much attention in the West in recent years through the poetry of Rumi, another 13th century poet who is relatively unknown outside of Turkey but who has also had a profound and lasting influence is the mystic Turkish poet, Yunus Emre.

Since most of the philosopher-poets around the time of Yunus Emre were composing exclusively in Persian or Arabic language, their teachings remained largely within the domain of highly educated, elite male circles. Yunus Emre was one of the first Turkish poets to communicate in the vernacular of the Turkish people, therefore reaching a much larger audience with his mystic poetry.

Among the primary themes of Rumi, Yunus Emre and other philosopher-poets of the East is the striving for re-connection with the Divine through love and respect for all creation and all people, regardless of one's station in life. Representative of this message, the following is a translation of the one of the pieces performed today by the Silk Road Music and Dance Ensemble, presented in its traditional manner accompanied with saz.

YUNUS EMRE -13th century
translation from Turkish found on internet and sent by Melike Kabatay

I love you beyond the depths of my own soul;
On my way, I shun the canon and its call.

Don't say I'm in my self. I am not at all.
There's an I within me, deep, deeper than I.

Wherever I look, I see you've filled that space:
Where, in my inmost soul, can you have your place?

Don't ask me about me: I'm not inside me -
In its robe, my body walks on, all empty.

My love for you has plucked me away from me:
What sweet pain is this? It's beyond remedy.

As he passed by, Yunus chanced to meet the Friend,
And remained at the Gate at the deepest end.

The SILK ROAD MUSIC and DANCE ENSEMBLE invites you to listen with your eyes, observe with your ears, and to discover a deep aesthetic sensibility which unites the content of our music and dance performance with the magnificent textiles and jewelry on display here at the Mingei International Museum.


An ancestor of the violin, the qyl-qobyz was used to accompany epic poetry recitation, and also in ritual music associated with traditional Central Asian shamanistic practices. Both the epic poet singers and the shamans always performed solo, but with the institutionalization of folk music under the Soviet regime, many folk instruments, including the qyl-qobyz, entered the Europeanized musical academy and ensemble-oriented concert settings.

The târ is a stringed instrument carved out of mulberry wood with a thin animal skin membrane for its face, producing a remarkable sonority. With six strings grouped in pairs, the târ is played using a metal or ox-horn pick, and is considered one of the most difficult instruments to master, requiring a very high level of dexterity. While variations are found in Turkey, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, the târ is a uniquely Iranian instrument, evolving into its present form towards the end of the nineteenth century from much older instruments. The word târ means 'string' in Persian language, and the names for both the instruments 'guitar' and 'sitar' are derived from from the Persian word târ.

The word saz is the generic term for 'instrument' in Persian language. In rural Turkey the term saz refers to the favourite long-necked lute which exists in several sizes, and is used primarily for regional music. In contrast to the skin-faced târ with Iranian cultural roots, wood-faced long-necked lutes such as the saz originate with the Turkic peoples of Central Asia.

Dayereh, Daff
With at least 5,000 years of history, frame drums were played in ancient times primarily by women. The dayereh and daff are members of this large family of hand drums, of which the tambourine is also a member. Both the dayereh and daff have metal rings mounted along the interior of their frames, and traditionally have animal skins as their membranes, while today plastic skins are also used. The dayereh is traditionally a woman's instrument with many variations found throughout Iran and Central Asia. The dayerehs which are played in today's performance are new designs by Rowan Storm and in production now in the United States by Cooperman Drum Company.

The form of daff being played in today's performance developed in the context of the spiritual ceremonies of Kurdish dervishes in Iran and Iraq. Due to the similarity of sounds produced by the metal rings while the instruments are shaken, it is likely that both the dayereh and daff evolved in parallel with the grain sieve.

Another percussion instrument with a lengthy eastern lineage, believed to derive originally from India, the dohol is played with sticks, and is the ancestor of drums used not only in marching bands, but also several percussion instruments in today's western symphony orchestras. Please see similar contemporary marching drums on the website for Cooperman Drum Company: www.cooperman.com.

Dance is a deeply important part of Central Asian culture. This is especially true in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, where no wedding would be complete without dancers, either professional entertainers or dancing by the guests. During the Soviet era, dance was promoted as a means of encouraging ethnic and national identity, and as a way to further the project of freeing women from the strictures of the veil and the social norms of Islam. Dance is deeply embedded in the traditional cultures of this area, and even the influence of fundamentalist Islam has not been able to repress its practice.


Dr. Robyn Friend is a scholar of Near Eastern and Balkan linguistics, folklore, and ethnology, with an emphasis on Central Asia and Iran. In addition to many other prominent teachers, Robyn has studied Central Asian dance with People’s Artist of Uzbekistan Viloyat Akilova, and with Tajik dance masters Sharofat Rashidova, Makhingol Nazarshoeva, and People’s Artist of Tajikistan Zaragol Iskandarova. Dr. Friend has a Ph.D. from UCLA in Iranian languages. She has studied several Iranian and Turkic dialects including Persian, Tajiki, Suleimaniye Kurdish, modern standard Turkish, Azeri Turkish, Uzbek, Chaghatay, and Ottoman Turkish, as well as Russian, French, and Bulgarian. She has many publications to her credit, in both the popular and academic press. Dr. Friend teaches and performs, mostly for the Iranian community, in Los Angeles. She has recorded extensively, including a solo audio CD of her singing, and 2 videos of her dancing; these are available at www.robynfriend.com.

In today’s concert, Neil Siegel plays the saz and the târ, long-necked lutes of Turkey, Iran, and Central Asia. He studied the repertoire of Persian classical music with the late Ostâd Mortezâ Varzi, and Turkish classical music with Ergun Tamer and Fuat Turkelman. As 'Siegel and Friend', Neil and Robyn have for more than 30 years performed in venues ranging from the Edinburgh Festival, to Samarkand’s prestigious 'Sharq Taronalari' festival, in New York with the Dalai Lama, in many major cities of Europe and the United States, and many times in Los Angeles’ own Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. A prominent scientist and engineer, he was elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 2005, and has received many other honors and awards.

Originally from Scranton, Pennsylvania, Megan Rancier is currently a doctoral candidate in ethnomusicology at UCLA. Her regional focus is Central Asia, and she spent seventeen months doing ethnographic fieldwork in Almaty, Kazakhstan between 2006 to 2008. During this time, she became interested in the Kazakh qyl-qobyz and began taking lessons, first with Akerke Tajibaeva (then a conservatory student) and later with the qyl-qobyz virtuoso Raushan Orazbaeva. Her dissertation will address the history of the qyl-qobyz and its role in the conceptualization of post-Soviet Kazakh national identity. Megan began playing the violin at age 9 and performed in orchestras and string quartets throughout her high school and college years, earning a B.Mus. in music history from Bucknell University. She has performed in various ensembles in Los Angeles as a violinist, including the Albanian folk ensemble 'Drita,' the UCLA Near East Ensemble, the UCLA Old-Time String Band, and as a guest artist in the Silk Road Ensemble at Indiana University, Bloomington. Learn more about music and cultural politics in Kazakhstan through Megan's weblog: www.kazakhified.blogspot.com.

Rowan Storm is recognized internationally for her drum workshops, singing in several languages, and performances of traditional percussion instruments with Masters of Middle Eastern music, particularly Mohammad Reza Lotfi. Living in Greece since 1993, Rowan is a leader in the contemporary movement within Greek music and culture to embrace shared Oriental heritage. Her performance venues include New York City's Lincoln Center, San Francisco's Asian Art Museum, Istanbul's Reshid Rey Theater, European concert halls and music conservatories as well as ancient amphitheaters throughout the Mediterranean. Recently Rowan spent three months traveling throughout Iran, deepening her understanding of Persian Classical music, the role of women in ancient, sacred percussion traditions, as well as the evolution of Western culture based on countless elements from the East. Rowan is designing innovative new versions of ancient hand drums from the Eastern world, in production now at Cooperman Drum Company. For some of her Iran travels, please see www.iran-rowanstorm.blogspot.com; www.rowanstorm.com.


Arash Sharifi
Chuck Gardner
Dale Gluckman
Ergun Tamer
Ian Price
Laale Ghahreman
Maryam Hooshvar
Mehdi Sarreshtedari
Melike Kabay
Serpil Borazan
Walter Zev Feldman

Rowan Storm Dayereh by Cooperman Drum Company

text by Rowan Storm copyright 2009

graphic design by Ridenour Communications


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