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Pulling strings

Manoochehr Sadeghi is a musical ambassador from Iran.

October 02, 2003|Sasha Anawalt | Special to The Times

Manoochehr Sadeghi, a master of Persian music who emigrated from Tehran to Los Angeles nearly 40 years ago, is familiar with calamitous events, historical and natural. But one in Washington, D.C., last month almost ruined his biggest moment.

Sadeghi, 65, had traveled to the capital to be honored by the National Endowment for the Arts and receive one of its 12 prestigious National Heritage Fellowships for folk and traditional artists.

Things started out as planned with a banquet at the Library of Congress. But the next day's formal awards ceremony and concert had to be hurriedly conflated into one event and squeezed into a chain hotel's ballroom -- thanks to Hurricane Isabel.

"I think it was even better," Sadeghi said the other day as he sat in front of his instrument -- a santur, or 72-string hammer dulcimer -- at his Sherman Oaks home. "It was more intimate. When the musicians among us played, the feeling was warm, like in a living room. It made me know that getting this prize is the completion of my vision for why I came here in the first place.

"I always knew I could serve Persian culture better here than in Iran," he continued. "But I wasn't sure I was succeeding in opening people up to my culture and connecting them to other cultures until I heard why they gave me this award."

Saturday night, local music aficionados will have a chance to see why the NEA singled out Sadeghi when he gives a much-anticipated concert at the Aratani Japan America Theatre in Little Tokyo.

In a presentation typical for him -- although unconventional for most Persian musicians -- he will be accompanied by two drummers but will have no singer to accompany.

The trio of musicians will play selections from his new Nakisa Records CD, "Vision" and then be joined by renowned Indian sitarist Imrat Khan.

Manoochehr Sadeghi (pronounced MA-new-chair Sah-DAY-ghee) took up the santur when he was 7; by age 17 he was the favored pupil of Abol Hassan Saba, Iran's great classical conductor, composer and teacher.

The teenager was on a fast track, a "rising media star." For seven years, beginning when he was 19, he performed two or three times a week on what was then Iran's only TV station.

In a society that prided itself on its music and poetry, Sadeghi also had the honor of frequently performing for visiting heads of state who were guests of the shah, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi.

Although Pahlavi had abolished the country's 500-year-old Shiite Muslim prohibition against music, Sadeghi still often had to keep his santur, rehearsal plans and jam sessions hidden in order to avoid being hazed or mocked or having his instrument broken by religious fanatics.

As a member of the nonviolent Bahai faith, he was also vulnerable to such harassment.

Moreover, the University of Tehran had no music department, so his only hope for a formal education in his chosen field was a visa. When he announced that he wanted to move to the U.S. for reasons expressly musical, however, his request was initially denied by the central government.

"They knew I would leave a vacuum," he said. "But when I agreed to learn everything I could about American radio and television so that I could eventually help increase the number of channels in Iran, they let me go."

When he arrived in Los Angeles at age 26, he spoke little English, although he could read it fairly well.

Hired to teach santur in UCLA's esteemed ethnomusicology department, he simultaneously enrolled as a student at Cal State Fullerton to earn an undergraduate degree.

During a class on his first day there, a teacher challenged the students with a complex musical problem and said that by year's end, they should be able to solve it.

But Sadeghi instantly furnished the answer and was thereafter paid to be a teaching assistant for the course. He was one of 4,000 Persians living in Southern California, with no organized community -- as opposed to the half a million or so Iranian refugees and immigrants here now.

"I never learned about radio and television, and I never went back home until 1974 for a visit, because I was doing more here than I could there for Persians," he said.

At UCLA, he also met Anthony Shay, the founder of the folk music and dance company Aman and, later, the Avaz International Dance Theater. Shay was among the first to recognize his contribution to a musical genre that had not yet been mainstreamed as "world music."

"Manoochehr fostered world music and was certainly one of the first in this area," Shay said by phone. "He kept the Persian tradition intact very carefully, but he was always inventive within the tradition.

"And unlike other santur players, who can be dry," Shay added, "Manoochehr's improvisational skills, his phrasing and choice of melodic motifs have a lot of passion in them. His music has movement and emotion. It's wonderful."

As Sadeghi sees it, "The santur is the right instrument in my hands. When I play, I am almost like the metronome. I stay with the beat the way it should be. I do not speed up.

"I put sounds together like you put words and ideas into sentences. And I smile at my hands. My hands are my slaves. Anything I tell them, they have got to do. So far, they follow orders no matter how hard or how fast."

One of the most fertile sources for his improvisations is the tape recorder. He has slept next to one for the last 39 years and, whenever he wakes up in the middle of the night, he hums or whistles his "dream melodies" into the recorder before going back to sleep.

Yet in his acceptance speech in Washington, Sadeghi dedicated his National Heritage Fellowship in part to his teacher, Saba, who died in 1957.

"Everything I learned, I learned from Saba," he recalled saying. "When I play, I am thinking of him with such love -- and of all Persian people. I am never forgetting."


Manoochehr Sadeghi

Where: Aratani Japan America Theatre, 244 S. San Pedro, L.A.

When: Saturday, 7:30 p.m.

Price: $25-$55

Info: (213) 680-3700

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