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Sahba Motallebi

Persian tar
Los Angeles, California

Sahba Motallebi

Sahba Motallebi is recognized internationally as a modern virtuoso of the tar and setar, lute-like stringed instruments central to one of the world’s great musical traditions and one of its oldest. Rooted in prehistory and developing over millennia, Persian classical music is a deeply spiritual and contemplative art form that began as court music, but became central to Iranian identity in the early 1900s. The musical tradition is built around melodic phrases (gusheh) organized into hundreds of pieces (radif) and 12 larger systems, called dastgah. The master musician weaves these foundational musical elements into a larger improvisational performance. Sahba remains rooted in this ancient tradition, while incorporating Iranian folk and contemporary elements to create a musical experience that engages both the mind and the soul.

Sahba Motallebi began studying music as a young girl in Sari, a small seaside city in the north of Iran. This was not an easy path, since in post-revolutionary Iran playing even traditional music was frowned upon, particularly for girls. Sahba and her older sisters would travel to their lessons only by car, since people might try to break their instruments if they carried them through the streets. Yet Sahba persevered, and in 1993, at the age of 14, her talent garnered her an invitation to begin studies at the Tehran Conservatory of Music. She flourished there, and was recognized as Best Tar Player at the Iranian Music Festival four years running (1995-1998). After graduating from Conservatory in 1997, she helped found the groundbreaking women’s music ensemble Chakaveh, and in 1999 she was invited to join the Iranian National Orchestra, thus beginning her career as an international performer. She left Iran in 2003 to pursue graduate studies, which were closed to her there due to her Bahai’i faith.

For the past decade, Sahba Motallebi has lived near Los Angeles, which is home to a vibrant Iranian exile community that celebrates her masterful stewardship of their cherished musical traditions. She continues to perform worldwide, and has released a series of noted books and recordings, the latest of which is 2014’s A Tear at the Crossroad of Time. Sahba is also recognized as an innovator in the teaching of Persian music; her pioneering efforts to put instructional materials on the Internet and to teach students online have inspired something of a renaissance in the transmission of this ancient art form, and reflect her abiding commitment to bring the gift of music to her community and the world.

Sahba will be accompanied by Naghmeh Farahmand on tonbak (goblet drum) and daf (frame drum). Naghmeh comes from a musical family; her father, Mahmoud, is one of the leading percussion masters in Iran. He nurtured his daughter’s budding interest and talent, and was her first percussion teacher. To better understand how rhythm is the underpinning of Persian music, he encouraged her to learn a melodic instrument—in her case, the santoor (Persian hammered dulcimer). This early foundation has served Naghmeh well, as she is an in-demand accompanist and has performed and taught worldwide.


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