SETAR FOR YOUR SOUL

Setar player Sahba Motallebi and percussionist Naghmeh Farahmand are just one act at The Cedar's Global Roots Festival

Image by Kristen Mortensen

By Lianna Matt

When Sahba Motallebi was 11 years old, there was only one music institute in her small Iranian town of Sari, but there were still many instruments from which to pick. The staff brought out all of the instruments and played them for her, trying to help her decide which one she wanted to learn. It didn’t work; she liked them all. No amount of prodding from her mother helped, either. In the end, it all came down to simple technicalities and maybe, according to Motallebi, a bit of destiny: By the time she signed up, violin was full, banjo was full, almost all of the classes were full …  except setar.

Iranian musician Sahba Motallebi on the Iranian 'tar' (a long-necked, double-bowl lute) performs a program of traditional and improvisatory Persian music presented by Robert Browning Associates at the Symphony Space Thalia Theater, New York, New York, Friday, October 21, 2016. CREDIT: Photograph © 2016 Jack Vartoogian/FrontRowPhotos. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Photo by Jack Vartoogian/FrontRowPhotos, courtesy of The Cedar.

Now as an international composer and performer, Motallebi plays multiple instruments, but the setar and the tar, a variation of the four-stringed setar, remain her true loves. “I got related to that instrument,” she says. “It became part of body, soul, mind, hand.”

Motallebi is one of six international artists coming to The Cedar Cultural Center for this year’s Global Roots Festival Sept. 18-20. While the intimate venue regularly hosts international artists, the Global Roots Festival is the annual season kick off and, as Cedar program and artistic director Jess Rau says, “It’s a concentrated moment of all of the experiences you could have at The Cedar.”

Unlike other concerts at The Cedar, the three day lineup is completely free to attend and open for all ages. Korean drummer Hong Sung Hyun, the South American female quartet LADAMA, Venezuelan vocalist Betsayda Machado and Haitian/Canadian hip hop artist Vox Sambou take the stage during the first two days. Motallebi performs with renowned percussionist and longtime friend Naghmeh Farahmand on the last day of the festival. They will be sharing the stage with Cape Verde performer Bitori, who was the first person to record his country’s funaná genre, an upbeat style characterized by accordions and the funaná, a scraped metal bar.

New this year to the programming is the pre-show Local Roots Festival, which showcases performances and booths from local talent and organizations.

“I think of it as this symbolic way to show how the local is global and the global is local,” Rau says. “We're not one or the other; we're both of those things.”

Motallebi would probably agree. After graduating from the Tehran Conservatory of Music and earning the title of Best Tar Player at the Iranian Music Festival from 1995-1998, she began her career as a touring musician by cofounding the all-women’s music ensemble Chakaveh and joining the Iranian Orchestra at age 20. Later, she decided to continue her music studies, traveling to Russia, Turkey and the California Institute of Arts in Valencia before settling down in Los Angeles. All of those different experiences—particularly Valencia’s collaborative environment—made her stop labeling her music as classical Iranian. She found all music styles were, in her words, “like brother and sister,” and she plays “international music without borders or limitations.”

Still, she does not forget where she came from. Her music includes the happy and sad moments of her life, like when the Iran and Iraq war invaded three years of her childhood. When she talks about how she got into music, she reminisces on how encouraging and supportive her parents were about the arts for all three of their daughters, but she also talks about how their family’s Bahá’í religion, a minority in a largely-Muslim country, influenced their opportunities. Even as Motallebi loves the universal aspect of music, she also uses it to share her story and the story of her people.

While Motallebi shares the inspiration and origins behind many of her compositions, as any art lover knows, words aren’t always needed. Rau says, “I could say a million beautifully artistic things about how music teaches you about life and the world and beyond, but it always boils down to your individual experience you have and the way you reflect on it. … In that moment, you see our similarities and differences and how they make a difference.”

With her tour this year, Motallebi is especially excited to be with Farahmand and to be able to add their names to the list of all women acts. Back in Iran, female artists have more restricted performing rights than their male counterparts; sometimes if it is not a woman-only audience, female ensembles are not allowed to play at all. Leaving her home country to learn and perform has allowed Motallebi to flourish, but it was not a choice she took lightly.

Of the women musicians still living in Iran, Motallebi says she and Farahmand want them to know: “We are you and you are us. We want to build the institute of music with happiness and hope: Iranians, female musicians, we are with you. We remember. We continue your path.”

Perhaps as Motallebi and Farahmand continue to play and spread their music across the world, they will carve out a path for those to follow, too.

Motallebi, left, and Farahmand, right, play at a performance.

Motallebi, left, and Farahmand, right, play together. Photo courtesy of The Cedar.

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