The extraordinary Iranian guitarist Lily Afshar emigrated to the United States two years before the 1979 revolution that deposed the Shah of Iran, and received the bulk of her guitar training at American schools—including Boston Conservatory, New England Conservatory, and Florida State University—as well as shorter programs in the US, Canada, and Europe. At FSU she became the first woman in the world to earn a doctorate in classical guitar performance. For more than two decades she has been a teacher at the University of Memphis, in Tennessee, while also maintaining a busy schedule as an in-demand performing guitarist and recording artist.
Letter from Tehran, by Lily Afshar
In the summertime, Tehran becomes a melting pot of Iranians returning from Canada, the US, and Europe—a cosmopolitan city where English, French, and Persian are all spoken. I started guitar when I was ten years old growing up in Tehran. I left Iran when I was 17, and after a 20-year absence, I have been going back for the last 14 summers to perform concerts and teach master classes.
A ten-hour flight from Memphis to Frankfurt, a five-hour layover, followed by a five-and-a-half hour flight brings me to the international airport in Tehran. In my suitcase I have packed guitar music, strings, and nail products for the guitar students in my master classes. These are things that are not found easily in Iran. Strings are sometimes fake and generally very expensive. Before the plane lands, all women onboard don their headscarves and tunics in compliance with the dress code of the country. I can expect to get over my jet lag in about a week.
Iran is the size of France and England put together. Tehran, the capital, is situated in the north-central part of the country, on the slope of the Alborz mountains, about 1,200 meters (4,000 feet) above sea level. On less polluted days, you can see its highest peak, Damavand, which towers 18,000 feet above the city. The population of Tehran is around 9 million; 16 million in the wider metropolitan area. It takes more than two hours to drive from one side of town to the other, depending on traffic, so punctuality is difficult.
Tehran is the headquarters of the annual Fajr International Music Festival, which includes a week of concerts and competitions. I have been invited twice to perform in the international category. That consisted of two concerts, one in Tehran and another in the southern port of Bushehr. If not invited by the government, musicians must get permission from the Ministry of Culture to perform any concerts, classical or otherwise. The ministry requires audio or video samples, a biography, and the proposed program. This has to be done at least six months in advance. It’s easier to get permission for concerts in Tehran than in the provinces, which tend to be much more conservative. There are many Iranian pop concerts and occasional rap shows, the latter staged “underground” and without proper permission.
Because Tehran is so big, I play concerts in different locations, each for two consecutive nights; sometimes the hall insists on a third night. The largest and most famous venues are Vahdat Hall, Niavaran Cultural Center, Milad Tower, and on a smaller scale, Roudaki Hall. They are used for large orchestral and choir performances, theater productions, smaller chamber music, and solo recitals. Tickets were once sold at the door, but now all are sold online. Probably 75 percent of the audience is under 30, which means many attendees were born after the Islamic revolution of 1979 (which ousted the monarchy) and during the eight-year war with Iraq, which, combined, resulted in the death and injury of more than a million people.
Through all of that, the guitar was and still is the most popular instrument in Iran, and flamenco is as popular as classical. I remember as a child seeing Julian Byzantine perform to a packed house, and I know that Alirio Diaz performed the Aranjuez concerto with the Tehran Symphony Orchestra. Since the revolution, Nikita Koshkin, Juan Martin, and Paco Pena have performed in Iran, and other guitarists occasionally are invited by embassies to perform in Tehran. Guitar is finally taught at the University of Tehran (whereas before it was offered only at the Conservatory of Music), and there are now luthiers in various parts of the country. In addition, many guitars are imported from China and Spain.
Since the overthrow of the Shah during the revolution, traditional Persian music has flourished in Iran. More young people are studying Persian instruments such as the tar (a six-string forerunner of the guitar), the seh-tar (a four-string fretted instrument), santur (hammer dulcimer), tanbur (a long-necked fretted stringed instrument), and kamancheh (forerunner of the cello), as well as percussion instruments such as the tombak and daf. In my interviews with the press, I am often asked about my knowledge of Persian traditional music and musicians, and my plans for incorporating Persian music in my concerts.
In my programming for solo concerts, I have always made an effort to present new works among the old favorites. For instance, I gave the world premiere of “Nam,” written for me by Carlo Domeniconi and recorded on my 1001 Nights CD in Iran. Another time I performed the Iranian composer Reza Vali’s pieces “Gozaar” and “Kord,” as recorded on my CDs Hemispheres and 1001 Nights. These works are especially interesting to Iranians, since they are based on traditional Persian scales, which use quarter tones. To play these works, I had 18 fretlets placed on the neck of my 1992 Humphrey Millennium.
The audience is both ecstatic and nostalgic when I perform my arrangements of Persian and Azerbaijani ballads, as recorded on my A Jug of Wine and Thou and 1001 Nights CDs. I can almost hear them humming the words as I perform. Still, after performing these along with works by Bach, Rodrigo, Lauro, Castelnuovo-Tedesco, and others, when it is time for the encore, they yell out for Albéniz’s “Asturias,” Tárrega’s “Recuerdos de la Alhambra,” and Domeniconi’s “Koyunbaba,” all favorites of guitar lovers worldwide. Another popular one is Fernando Bustamente’s “Misionera”—my recording of this piece on Hemispheres was used for the celebration of Women’s Day in Iran in 2013.
When I enter my master class in Tehran or the provinces, all students stand up at once and greet me, a sign of respect which is almost never seen in the West. Students range from ten to 40 years old. Just like concerts, master classes are scheduled for two consecutive days running, from 9 am–7 pm. Students have signed up to perform in solos, duos, trios, and quartets. Some first-timers audit the class, too. Most students come from Tehran, but some travel on buses, cars, and trains from provinces up to ten hours away. I have even had students from Kurdistan, Iraq, with whom I speak English in class.
There are lots of female guitarists, and playing levels are varied. I am overjoyed when I hear them play my “Five Popular Persian Ballads” or newer arrangements. Not surprisingly, however, Villa-Lobos’ “Preludes” and “Etudes,” Barrios’ waltzes, “Asturias,” “Koyunbaba,” and pieces by Brouwer and Bach are among the most popular. Most students are technically proficient but weak in sight-reading and interpretation; they often simply imitate recordings, having not been taught phrasing and musicianship. Also, many students learn from Internet downloads, which are often loaded with mistakes. I spend a lot of time correcting music, and encouraging them to sing and think about phrasing and dynamics. Sometimes I also encourage them to write a story or poem for their piece—after all, Iranians are brought up reading such 12th- and 13th-century poets as Saadi and Hafez, both of whom teach valuable life lessons.
Last summer I was pleased to see students performing from my two method books, published in Iran in Persian, which address some of the technical and musical issues I have noticed there. The pieces come with my fingerings, and both volumes are accompanied by CD recordings of the music.
With one foot in the US and the other in Iran, I have built a bridge between the two countries. I hope that Classical Guitar readers now have a better perspective of the guitar scene in Iran and will join me and Iranian guitarists there in the not too distant future.
For more about Afshar’s books and recordings, go to lilyafshar.com
This article originally appeared in the Spring 2016 issue of Classical Guitar.