Last Friday night, as part of the Muslim Voices Festival, the Persian classical singer Parissa gave ethereally powerful performances of mystical poems of Rumi, with accompaniment by the composer and tar player Iman Vaziri and the tombak player Dara Afraz. Among the lines she sang were these: "How should I know how it all happened / Since how is drowned in the Howless?" The somber major-key melody with which she closed, a majestic slow march, rang in my ears all weekend.
With her soaring vocals and adherence to the classical style, Parissa has been heralded as one of the most important Persian musicians today. But the beauty of her music defies easy classification. Parissa is a traditional dastgah vocalist, or one who uses the system of Arabic maqām, the scales arranged to form the modes of Persian music. The scales feature micro-intervals, or the flourishes sometimes referred to as gushe or corners, that divide the octave into more than twelve semitones. Maqams can be realized with either vocal or instrumental music, and do not include a rhythmic component.
Persian music has historically been passed down as an oral, rather than written, tradition. Yet a simplified notation system was adopted for Arabic music at the turn of the Twentieth Century. While earlier notation systems existed, they have typically been used only to guide in performance and not for preserving musical airs.
In her most recent album Simplicity (Cologne Music, 2008) Parissa sings the poetry of Mohammad al-Balkhi al-Rumi, also known as Mawlānā and often referred to as Rumi in the West. Trained as a preacher and legal scholar, it was through his poetry that Rumi has become well known. The separation of humanity from our source and the struggle of return is a fundamental theme for the poet. Rumi advocates oneness with the Divine and a disconnect from all worldly desires. In one of his most famous passages, Rumi writes, “Harken to this reed forlorn, breathing ever since ‘twas torn from its rushy bed, a strain of impassioned love and pain.”
Parissa picks up on this theme with the very idea of simplicity--returning to an inner core of love, compassion and oneness with God.
In the following track, Man Gholame Ghamaram Parissa sings the Rumi poem Man gholam-e qamar-am ghayr-e qamar hich magu:
The poem, translated by Rumi scholar Franklin D. Lewis, reads:
I serve that orb in heaven,
Say no word but Orb!
Speak to me of nothing
But sweetness and light
Not of bother, but of treasure
And if you cannot find the words
Yesterday a craze came over me
Love saw, came up to me:
Here I am,
Don’t rip your shirt,
Love, I’m scared of that other thing
There is no other thing, say nothing!
I will whisper secrets in your ear
You just nod in asseveration
Speak in semaphore
A nova, a celestial love
Burst bright above the heartpath
So exquisite the quest of heart,
It cannot be expressed
Heart, what orb is this?
Be quiet, forget!
Is this the face of man or angel?
Beyond men and angels
What is it? Tell me, I’m in a whirl
Whirl on, keep quiet!
You sit within this room
Whose walls reflect
Mere forms and suppositions
Get up, go out, move on,
Heart, befather me,
For doesn’t this match God’s description?
Yes, my son, it does,
But do not tell.
In the next track, Parissa’s selected poem also reveals the torment of human desires and stymied hopes. Rumi sought to convey these desires and their limitations to better reveal a path of tolerance, acceptance and oneness with God.
Parissa sings the words from Rumi’s poem Che danestam ke in sowda mara z-in san konad majnun, translated by Rumi scholar Franklin D. Lewis:
How could I know melancholia
Would make me so crazy,
Make of my heart a hell
Of my two eyes raging rivers?
How could I know a torrent would
Snatch me out of nowhere away,
Toss me like a ship upon a sea of blood
That waves would crack that ship’s ribs board by board,
Tear with endless pitch and yaw each plank
That a leviathan would read its head,
Gulp down the ocean’s water,
That such an endless ocean could dry up like a desert,
That the sea-quenching serpent could then split that desert
Could jerk me of a sudden, like Korah, with the hand of wrath,
Deep into a pit?
When these transmutations came about
Nod desert, not sea remained in sight
How should I know how it all happened
Since how is drowned in the Howless?
What a multiplicity of how could I knows!
But I don’t know
For to counter
The sea rushing in my mouth
I swallowed a froth of opium.
Parissa expands on Rumi’s core theme and the sublime goal of her art in her online biographical statement by adding:
“The world of abstracts is the world of delicacy and beauty, and soul will not be able to understand that beauty unless it’s free of earthly attachments. To me, music is the most appropriate art, by which one can get in touch with that world.”
Read more in-depth analysis with The World of Persian Music and Poetry, by Steve Blum, ethnomusicologist and Persian music specialist at CUNY."