The Mystery of the Rosewater Sprinkler

Rosewater sprinkler, Purchase—Charles Lang Freer Endowment, Freer Gallery of Art, F1990.1

Little did I know that my first intern assignment at the Freer|Sackler this summer would be worthy of a detective novel. Researching an Indian rosewater sprinkler took me down a few surprising paths and underscored the importance of careful visual analysis.

Perfumes have long been popular in India, and sprinklers containing perfumed water were an important part of courtly ritual. A silver rosewater sprinkler in the Freer Gallery of Art’s collection was originally attributed to an imperial Mughal workshop, circa 1700. But Dr. Debra Diamond, curator of South and Southeast Asian art, believed that the flower motifs displayed on the sprinkler were not consistent with those that adorn Mughal works. She had a hunch that the sprinkler might be from Lucknow—a city in northern India—and produced for the Awadhi court. So, she put me on the case.

A detail of the five-petaled pendant flower that adorns the front and back of the Freer rosewater sprinkler.

To begin, I looked at pictures of colonial era Lucknow to see if floral decoration on buildings throughout the city matched the sprinkler. I soon realized that I was approaching the project incorrectly. Looking at photos of Lucknow from the nineteenth century was not enough. Without any understanding of the history of the city and its rulers, I had no idea how to situate the floral motifs from the sprinkler within Lucknow’s chronology or gauge their importance.

I started to research the Awadhi court so I could construct a timeline of important events. This new direction of inquiry proved far more fruitful. In 1722, the Mughal rulers of India appointed a new governor for the state of Awadh (located in the modern state of Uttar Pradesh). The new governor moved the state’s capital from Lucknow to Faizabad. Over the next few decades, as the power of the Mughal Empire waned, the rulers of Awadh affirmed their own sovereignty and assumed complete control of the state. In1775 a young ambitious ruler, Asaf al-Daula, came to power and returned the Awadh capital to Lucknow. This move launched a flourishing period of art and culture in the region, which lasted until al-Daula’s death in 1797.

A detail of the flowers that adorn the main arch of the Turkish Gate, built in 1784. Note the stylistic similarities and differences between this motif and the one on the rosewater sprinkler.

This information was vital to my investigation. Because al-Daula sponsored high levels of artistic and architectural production, I began to look at the building projects he commissioned in Lucknow. I discovered that the five-petaled pendant flower at the center of the Freer|Sackler’s sprinkler is stylistically similar to flowers that adorn exteriors and interiors of religious and secular buildings throughout Lucknow.

The motif, which occurs in both five- and seven-petaled variations, is most commonly found at the apex of archways above doorways and windows. Prominent examples of the motif can be found at the Bara Imambara complex, which includes the Turkish Gate and the Asfi Mosque. The construction of these buildings began in 1784. While none of the flowers represented in these architectural settings is identical to the one on the sprinkler, the motif seems to have provided opportunity for artistic innovation and variation; for example, each flower motif that appears above the arches on the Turkish Gate varies slightly from its neighbor.

Extending my investigation beyond the flowers, I discovered that the sprinkler’s neck distinctly resembles certain columns found on Lucknow buildings from the late eighteenth century. Like the sprinkler’s spout, these columns are fluted and ribbed. And acanthus leaves typically embellish the columns’ capital and base in the same manner as on the sprinkler.

Columns of the Bara Imambara complex in Lucknow, India, built in 1784.

During my research, I drew heavily on the scholarship of Stephen Markel, senior research curator for South and Southeast Asian art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. In his exhibition catalogue India’s Fabled City: The Art of Courtly Lucknow, Markel observes that al-Daula’s patronage catalyzed the development of the “mature Lucknow style,” which he describes as predominantly ornamented with stylized flowers bursting into bloom and flowering branches with perching birds. By comparing the luxury objects featured in Markel’s catalogue with the Freer rosewater sprinkler, I realized that the similarities were too striking to be coincidence—the sprinkler undoubtedly belongs to the mature Lucknow style. This information led me to conclude that the sprinkler was produced in Lucknow, probably between 1775 and 1800. Dr. Diamond was correct!

Columns of the Bara Imambara complex in Lucknow, India, built in 1784.

This project was a highly valuable experience as it helped me sharpen and improve my visual analysis skills. Careful examination of hundreds of images of Lucknow’s architecture and luxury goods enabled me to recognize subtle stylistic differences that I may have overlooked previously. I also gained insight into the type of in-depth research required for attributing, dating, and subsequently labeling an object in a collection—skills I will carry forward in future art historical work.

Come check out the rosewater sprinkler on October 14, when the Freer|Sackler reopens to the public. You can find it in Freer gallery 1, where you’ll see my research embedded into the tombstone for the object!

A Closer Look: Monkeys Grasp for the Moon

Artist Xu Bing

The first installation I saw when I stepped through the doors of the Freer|Sackler to start my summer internship was Xu Bing’s Monkeys Grasp for the Moon. The piece is both daunting and intriguing, drawing visitors in for a closer look.

Artist Xu Bing

 

As someone who loves stories, I was fascinated by the idea behind the artwork. The sculpture is based on a Chinese folktale of monkeys who try to capture the moon. Linking arms and tails, they form a chain reaching down from the branch of a tree to the moon, only to discover that it is a shimmering reflection on the surface of a pool beneath them.

At first the sculpture appears to be a chain of black lines and shapes, but there is more than originally meets the eye. Monkeys Grasp for the Moon is an installation of word shapes. Twenty-one laminated wood pieces represent the word “monkey” in twenty-one languages and writing systems, including English, Chinese, Japanese, Thai, and Braille.

 

Artist Xu Bing

The words themselves also resemble monkeys, stretched at beginning and end to form long tails and arms. They link together in a large chain that extends down three levels. Perhaps this is why I like the piece so much: wherever you are in the Sackler, you’re never far from the sculpture. It serves as a constant reminder of the way in which art can be displayed effectively in an unusual space.

Artist Xu Bing

I got to know the piece in an even more personal way when I helped create an Instagram story that revolved around Monkeys Grasp for the Moon. This involved planning out a storyboard to decide what text and images would be shown, getting our ideas approved, and then going out into the museum to shoot the sculpture. Getting up close meant I really got to look at the sculpture, picking out the different languages I knew and reading about those that I didn’t.

Artist Xu Bing

The installation will be on permanent display once the Freer|Sackler reopens this fall. Join us on reopening weekend, which kicks off at 5 pm on Saturday, October 14, to visit Monkeys and marvel at its spellbinding design.

ImaginAsia: Celebrating Stories from the Persian Book of Kings

 

Meet Sophie Benini Pietromarchi, a French Italian illustrator and author of The Book Book (published by Tarabooks). On the days leading up to this year’s celebration of Nowruz, the Persian New Year, she organized two workshops at the Freer|Sackler. Attendees produced illustrated folios of the stories of Rustam and the Simurgh from the Persian national epic: the Shahnama.

In the video, Benini gives her unique perspective on what it means to create art and what she feels is the role of museums in modern society. She begins by sharing how it dawned upon her to create a bookmaking guide for children and how the same themes of curiosity and artistic exploration inspired her to organize her collage-based workshops. Describing her own process of creating illustrations for La legión perdida (published by Thule), she notes that she drew upon mosaic art she directly observed in museums.

Benini also notes that one of the main ideas of her workshop was not only to celebrate Persian culture, but to help draw out the innate curiosity of children and demonstrate to them they have the power to create. She credits her friend Azar Nafisi, with whom she collaborated to produce the book Bibi e la voce verde (published by Adelphi), for her interest in Persian culture.

Arguing that the museum is one of the few institutions in contemporary society that cares for preserving human culture, Benini reminds us that museums like the Freer|Sackler have a significant role to play in providing sources of inspiration for us all.

Benini’s workshops were generously supported by the Foundation for Iranian Studies.

A glimpse of an archaeological excavation in Iraq-Kurdistan

This year, my team and I, the Qara Dagh Regional Archaeological project (QDRAP), has begun the excavation of a Late Chalcolithic 3-5 (3900/3850-3100 B.C.) site in the Qara Dagh Valley, in Iraqi-Kurdistan. In 2015, the QDRAP performed an archaeological survey in Qara Dagh, during which approximately 20 sites were identified. The overall aim of our project is to investigate and document the valley’s history and its archaeological relevance by performing surveys and excavations in the area. Ban Qala, one of the most archaeologically promising sites identified during last year’s survey, was chosen for excavation because of the high content of material culture, in the form of sherds (pieces of ceramic), available on the surface. Ban Qala is manly a Late Chalcolithic mound (also called gird or tell).


The step trench that is being excavated this season will help us reconstruct the chronology of the site and enable us to plan future research.

The prime investigators that comprise our team this season are Terri Tanaka from University of California Berkeley and myself. In addition, two archaeologists from the Antiquities Directorate of Sulaymanyah make up the rest our team.

The preparation for a research season requires much preparation and thought. In particular, the logistics have to be worked out in close collaboration with the Antiquities Department of Iraqi-Kurdistan. More specifically, I work with the Antiquities Department of Sulaymanyah, whose director is Kak (Mr.) Kamal Rasheed Raheem.


My contacts with the director begin months before the beginning of the season because he is the foremost source of information and support for all the teams that work in the Sulaymanyah region. He is well informed on all matters concerning excavations and research and is always available to insure that each team has a trouble-free season. Kak Kamal provides all the paperwork necessary to present to local authorities and to travel through the different areas of the country.

In addition, the Antiquities Department helps the teams that work in this area to find lodgings for the mission, a means of transportation, tools needed on the site and, most importantly, facilitates communication with the locals at the site.

This year, the two representatives from the Antiquities Department that have joined us are Kak Amanj and Kak Rebin. They both have experience in archeological digs and their help is extremely valuable for the smooth running of the season. Their love for archaeology and their country’s history is clearly visible in the enthusiasm with which they tackle their work every day.

When I asked Kak Amanj what archaeology means to him, he answered: “It is my dream, my responsibility; it is my job.” Kak Amanj collaborates throughout the year with several international archaeological teams. He began his career in archaeology in 2005. In 2009 he received his BA from the Department of Archaeology at the University of Salahadin in Erbil and since 2012 he works for the Antiquities Directorate in Sulaymanyah.

Kak Rebin, who also studied archaeology at the University of Erbil, has worked with many archaeological teams and has acquired much experience digging. For him, archaeology is an essential part of his life, or as he put it: “like water.”

When I arrived in Sulaymanyah at the end of June, the director, Kak Kamal, and the representatives, Kak Amanj and Kak Rebin, were ready to provide the support needed with the logistics. As always, they were very welcoming, and, already on the first day, I was able to rent a car. This year, our driver is Kak Aziz, who has become an indispensable member of our mission. The day following my arrival, we embarked on a hunt for a house or apartment in Qara Dagh. Ideally, the house needed to be close to the site of Ban Qala. Unfortunately, the search did not go well as the houses found needed much repair, and did not have stable electricity or water. I opted to stay in an apartment in the city of Sulaymanyah, in spite of the fact that this would require a 40-minute daily drive to the site.

On the third day, Kak Amanj and Kak Aziz, accompanied me to the local bazaar where I could acquire tools needed for the mission in the many specialized stores that can be found this typical marketplace.

Walking through the bazaar is an interesting experience; the many alleys that form the bazaar tend to intimidate those who do not know how to navigate them.

While going through the bazaar, for example, I lost track of the course that we had followed to get to the hardware section and, had I not been accompanied, would have had a difficult time trying to find it. Now, after several days spent exploring this fascinating “shopping center,” I have become acquainted with the different sections and regularly visit the fruit and vegetable section to buy the daily items needed for cooking. For the people of Sulaymanyah, the bazaar is very important. It is alive with merchants hawking their wares and customers bargaining prices. As Kak Amanj happily exclaimed after we had bought what we needed: “The Sulaymanyah bazaar is great because you can find everything you need.”

The preparation for the beginning of the excavation took roughly one week. On the first day of the actual dig, Terri, Kak Amanj, Kak Rebin, Kak Aziz and I started our workday by leaving the house at 4 am to go to the archaeological site of Ban Qala.


Leaving early allows us to avoid the intense heat (45 degrees Centigrade\ 113 Fahrenheit or more) that comes later in the day. For the same reason, we must end our fieldwork around midday. On the field, we take short breaks, starting with breakfast at 8:30.


Breakfast for the locals of Kurdistan is generally a simple meal. Ours consists of tomatoes from Aziz’s garden, cucumbers, onions, bread, and fruit bought at the bazaar and the sweet tea for which the Middle East is famous. Kak Aziz prepares a very savory tea. As it turns out, his secret is to mix different types of teas. This practice, as I came to learn, is common in this area. The infusion of different types of tea to achieve the intensity and flavor desired makes the experience of drinking tea unique because the taste will depend on the expertise of whom prepares it.

Our mornings are always busy. Opening the step trench is heavy work and the heat sometimes slows down the shoveling, picking and sifting of the material recovered.

To provide some shade from the sun, we have installed a tent that covers the excavation area. Even so, it is impossible to spend too much time exposed to the heat and we try to protect ourselves as much as we can.


In spite of the heat, Kak Amanj, Kak Aziz and Kak Rebin are always in a good mood and chat about different things as we work. They speak Sorani and, although Terri and I are still learning the language, we can understand some parts and others are translated for us. Listening to them and laughing with them makes our workday much more pleasant and distracts us from the heat and fatigue.

Around noon, as we leave Ban Qala, we are tired but have a sense of purpose and fulfillment.


As we travel and leave behind the beautiful landscape of the valley, we encounter Kak Salam, the guard for the site whose job is to keep an eye on the excavation so that it is not damaged or disturbed. His son sleeps overnight in a little house that they built in only a few hours at the beginning of the dig.


They perform an important duty, as goats, cows and sheep that pasture on the land near the excavation often “visit” the site. This area is the animals’ home but, because of the importance of our study, we have to prevent their presence on the mound.

When Terri and I arrive at the apartment in the afternoon, there is still much work to do. After spending our mornings excavating, we spend our afternoons processing our findings and organizing our excavation logs. Most of the time is spent washing pottery and stone tools covered with dirt and it is during this time that we are filled with excitement as we find painted pottery, scrapers made of colorful stones and other items.

Finally, after washing and processing documents, we head towards the bazaar, mainly to buy fruit, bread and vegetables. The bazaar is always busy and, as we make our way through the tight alleys and streets, there is always something different and interesting to observe. In the few days that we have been here, we have already established our favorite fruit vendors and bread shops. Sometimes, when the day has been particularly tiring, we decide to splurge and have dinner out, mostly trying some of the local food. The street food is particularly delicious!

Nighttime finds us getting ready for bed and, unwinding from the day’s stress, we begin to laugh as we talk about the funny aspects of our daily life here. Terri, for example, noticed one evening when she pulled up her sleeve that the contrast in color between her hand and her arm was extreme and, for some reason, this struck us as quite hilarious. We could not stop laughing! Another time, we forgot our canteens for the cold water in the freezer and the next day we found them broken, with icicles protruding from the openings. When we finally turn the lights out, we are so tired that we literally drop on our beds and are dead to the world until the alarm clock rings again at three in the morning!

The 2017 excavation season of Ban Qala was generously supported by donations through the Rust Family Foundation.

Utamaro: The Musical at the Freer|Sackler

“Utamaro: The Musical,” recently performed at the Freer|Sackler.

More than two hundred years after his death, the great Japanese artist Kitagawa Utamaro (1753–1806) came back to life for visitors to the Freer|Sackler this summer. The Tokyo-based It’s Follies musical company visited the museums June 30 through July 2 to perform excerpts from their hit 1985 production Utamaro: The Musical.

Five actors in full costume played the great artist himself as well as a kabuki-style narrator and several of Utamaro’s main muses—courtesans from the famous red-light districts of old Edo. Five performances drew a combined audience of nearly six hundred guests to these programs that complemented our exhibition Inventing Utamaro: A Japanese Masterpiece Rediscovered.

Actress Kurumi Sakai as the kabuki-style narrator of the show.

Their opening number, “Ryogoku, My Town,” extols the stimulating variety of “lonesome losers” who populated the town. The lyrics describe a litany of “pickpockets, snitches, spongers, debt collectors, ruffians, pimps, luggage thieves, sheriffs, sloths, fallen drug dealers, gamblers, drunkards, pilferers, drag queens, male prostitutes, old maids, con men, fakers, storytellers, tumblers, street performers . . . anything is in Ryogoku. This town is my town, I like to walk in this town, a town where lonesome losers lost in the game of life.”

Standing out among the plethora of low-life characters are royalty of the red-light district—the high-end courtesans (oiran) who could be seen by commoners only during a formal parade. One such courtesan was played by actress Yuko Katsube. Her costume featured an ornate kimono and the twelve-inch-tall elevated shoes called koma-geta or mitsu-ashi, worn only by these high-ranking women.

Utamaro (played by Yu Yoshida, left) persuades teahouse worker Okita Naniwaya (played by Tamami Mizutani) to pose for some of his best-selling portraits.

By now a best-selling artist, Utamaro is commissioned to paint a popular waitress at the Naniwa teahouse (which the narrator compares to a modern-day Starbucks). Instead, his attention is drawn to a new girl, Okita, who works there only part-time. Reluctant at first, she is finally persuaded to pose for Utamaro by his persistent and poetic approaches, dramatized in the song “The Woman in You.”

“There is another woman inside you,” he sings, “even though you don’t know. It’s a woman I was looking for, a woman I want to draw a picture of. That is the other woman inside you. Your smile sparkles over the stream on a clear morning. Your portrait is flickering in the candlelight. A beautiful woman radiating her beauty. She is born again.”

Utamaro’s portraits sell wildly and turn Okita into a celebrity.

One of Utamaro’s many famous illustrations of Okita. “Naniwaya Okita,” Kitagawa Utamaro (early 1750s–1806), Japanese, Edo period (about 1793), woodblock print, publisher Tsutaya Jûzaburô (Kôshodô), Museum of Fine Arts Boston, 11.14243, William Sturgis Bigelow Collection

Disaster strikes when the reigning ruler, Okitsugu Tanuma, a man who long tolerated the excesses of the red-light district, is replaced by his rival, Sadanobu Matsudaira, a staunch opponent of the city’s culture. The new ruler bans all manner of arts and entertainment, including the courtesan portraits that had made Utamaro famous and successful. Not only does Matsudaira ban these practices, but he seizes the artists’ assets and places them, handcuffed, under house arrest.

The rise of an intolerant new ruler is dramatized in the program.

Under this repressive new regime, Utamaro is asked to paint the portrait of a warrior, which he refuses to do on principle, agonizing over his turn in fortune while wearing handcuffs. He wonders aloud what people two hundred years later might think, and our kabuki narrator explains that one art form—music—became a vehicle of protest known as rock ‘n’ roll. “Resistance to authority that Utamaro showed with ukiyo-e (woodblock prints) is like what today’s youth do with music,” says the narrator.

“I understand that spirit of resistance called rock,” Utamaro declares. “I am living in the same time with you. Dreams, separation, tearing, meaninglessness, setbacks, friendship, nostalgia, oblivion, decadence, loneliness, fatigue, temptation, misunderstanding, defeat, and despair. These are friends of me and you.”

Utamaro (center) demonstrates his determination to continue painting, despite the repressive regime that has taken over Edo.

Utamaro is joined by the full ensemble for the program’s final number, a rousing anthem to resistance and determination called “Rock Land”:

I am living in the same time with you,
feeling lonely in a crowd,
looking on with nostalgia from a cold street corner,
confused by my old diaries,
as I dance fatigued at a bar before dawn,
as I drape my arm casually across a bench of age-old stone,
waiting for a long-awaited dream,
while I am laughing and saying life is full of good-byes,
while I realize I face only despair in the future,
believing in victory though it may never come to me.
Go across the highway and run through the side roads.
My friend, let’s sing a cry of the soul.
I am living with you in Rock Land.

The full ensemble sings the finale, “Rock Land,” with (left to right) Yuko Katsube as Toyohina Tomimoto, Kurumi Sakai as Kyogenmawashi, Yu Yoshida as Kitagawa Utamaro, Haruka Ohkawa as Ohisa Takashima, and Tamami Mizutani as Okita Naniwaya.

In 1804, Utamaro was jailed for three days and handcuffed for fifty days. Two years later, after his release, he died. The program’s final slide affirms that “Utamaro’s soul has never stopped living among Japanese people in the two hundred years since his death.”

Photographs by Hutomo Wicaksono

Pic of the Week: Docents at Work, Kids at Play

FS Docent tour with third graders from Inspired Teaching

FS Docent tour with third graders from Inspired Teaching

 

We recently hosted third graders from DC school Inspired Learning. Led by our wonderful Docents, these young ones toured the Sackler. We can’t begin to express how thankful we are for our docents. If you’re interested in joining the Docent team, fill out the form here.

Pic of the Week: Preparations Begin

Preparation for the Freer|Sackler reopenings in the DES shops

Watch as Freer|Sackler employee John Piper prepares a mount for an object slated for display for the re-opening. We’re excited for the re-opening. Will we see you there?

Pic of the Week: A Museum is Born

Aerial View of the then brand new Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, July 6th, 1987.

On today’s TBT post, we look at an aerial view of the Sackler from 30 years ago!

Aleppo: An Ancient City of Enduring Appeal

Citadel from outside Bab Antakiya, Ernst Herzfeld Papers

Citadel of Aleppo from outside Bab Antakiya, Ernst Herzfeld Papers

The Syrian city of Aleppo has received a lot of coverage recently due to the widespread destruction from years of civil war. In spite of this, the city is still one of the great architectural treasures of the Middle East, which has drawn travelers and scholars for centuries.

Citadel of Aleppo (Syria): early 19th century etching, Ernst Herzfeld Papers

Museum founder Charles Lang Freer visited the city in 1908, no doubt in his search for the lustrous pottery type associated with the nearby city of Raqqa. Although travel conditions prevented a visit to Raqqa, Freer was delighted with Aleppo, writing on June 19 to his business partner Frank Hecker, “Aleppo is a charming surprise – a beautiful ancient city, and in every way more attractive than I had fancied.” Among the hundreds of photographs he collected of Asia and the Middle East are twelve lovely views in and around Aleppo, likely acquired during his visit.

Photograph of Aleppo collected by Charles Lang Freer

Photograph of Aleppo collected by Charles Lang Freer, Charles Lang Freer Papers

Likewise, the renowned German scholar Ernst Herzfeld traveled many times to Aleppo during his decades of research and exploration in the Middle East. While his historical inscriptions of Aleppo were not published until after his death, the extraordinary number of drawings, photographs, and research notes in the Herzfeld collection is an important repository for the study of the city’s architectural heritage, so imperiled by recent conflicts.

Interior of the Great Synagogue of Aleppo

Interior of the Great Synagogue of Aleppo, Ernst Herzfeld Papers

This month, we have combined selections from these two collections into a slide show, currently on display outside of the museum shop and on YouTube.

Music from the Muslim World at the Freer|Sackler

image of Naseer Shamma’s Al-Oyoun Ensemble

Naseer Shamma and his ensemble perform at the Freer|Sackler.

The Muslim world is deeply represented not only in the visual arts at the Freer|Sackler but also among our concert podcasts, which are enhanced with program notes, photos, and images of related artwork. These concerts feature musicians from across the Islamic world covering genres ranging from traditional and classical to jazz and crossover styles.

One special treat is a performance by the Cairo-based composer and ‘ud (lute) artist Naseer Shamma, a native of Iraq who studied at the Baghdad Conservatory before relocating to Egypt. He appeared at the Freer in 2012 during his first US tour in ten years. His evocative solos and refreshing arrangements feature an ensemble of ‘ud, violin, flute (nay), dulcimer (qanun), cello, and percussion.

Another Iraqi-born ‘ud artist, Omar Bashir (now based in Budapest), played original music to celebrate the legacy of his legendary father, Munir Bashir, widely considered the greatest ‘ud master of the twentieth century. Omar performed gorgeous improvisations on Arab modes (maqams) in addition to several of his father’s most famous compositions, including Love and Peace, Seville, and Andalusian Señora.

Rahim Alhaj, who studied under Munir Bashir, was joined by percussionist Souhail Kaspar to perform selections from his Grammy-nominated album When the Soul Is Settled: Music of Iraq. For a jazz take on Arab music, the Iraqi American trumpeter Amir ElSaffar and his quintet performed Two Rivers, an original work inspired by the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, the recent strife in Iraq, and the common ground between American jazz and Iraqi classical music.

Jazz artist Amir ElSaffar and his ensemble perform at the Freer|Sackler.

Jazz artist Amir ElSaffar and his ensemble perform at the Freer|Sackler.

Three-time Grammy nominee Kayhan Kalhor is a virtuoso on the Persian fiddle (kamānche) and an original member of Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble. He has appeared repeatedly at the Freer to perform Persian and Persian-inspired music. Kayhan opened and closed this recital in the melodic mode called rāst-panjgāh, which is comparable to the Western major scale, but (like all Persian modes) has its own trademark phrases and moods. Rāst-panjgāh expresses mostly positive sentiments but, in its lower range, conveys a more serene and contemplative mood. In between these opening and closing solos, Kayhan offered a thirty-minute meditation on the ancient mode called segāh, one of the oldest in Persian music.

image of Persian Classical Music: Kayhan Kalhor, kamanche

Kayhan Kalhor performs at the Freer|Sackler.

Another giant in Persian music is the two-time Grammy nominee Hossein Alizadeh, a master of the Persian lutes called tar and setar. In addition to his performing career, he wrote the soundtracks for the Iranian films GabbehTurtles Can Fly, and A Time for Drunken Horses, all screened in the United States and internationally. A fascinating instrument of Persia is the delicate yet powerful santur (hammered dulcimer), played here at the Freer by two wonderful Iranian American artists, Dariush Saghafi and Kazem Davoudian.

image of Masters of the Persian Santur: Dariush Saghafi and Kazem Davoudian

Santur artists Dariush Saghafi and Kazem Davoudian perform at the Freer|Sackler.

Among the younger generation of Persian classical musicians is Paris-based virtuoso Bahman Panahi, who performed at the Freer on setar (lute) with percussionist Ali Mojallal. They played entirely in the mode named for Iran’s ancient capital city, Esfahan. For an original take on Persian vocal music, listen to this concert by Los Angeles-based vocalist Mamak Khadem recorded during our annual Nowruz (Persian New Year) celebration. She adapted melodies from Iran as well as Armenia, Kurdistan, Baluchistan, and Turkey, accompanied by an unusual ensemble of clarinet, saxophone, keyboard, santur (hammered dulcimer), and percussion.

Mamak Khadem and her ensemble

Vocalist Mamak Khadem and her ensemble perform at the Freer|Sackler.

One of our most unusual podcasts from the Muslim world is our 2013 concert by artists from Iran and Syria who joined together to perform a program they called Sound: The Encounter. These four jazz-oriented musicians—Saeid and Naghib Shanbehzadeh, Basel Rajoub, and Kenan Adnawi—merged Middle Eastern traditions with modern improvisations on bagpipe, double clarinet, saxophone, ‘ud, and drums. You won’t hear anything like it anywhere else.

Also in the jazz idiom, Lebanese pianist Tarek Yamani performed his renditions of classic Egyptian songs from the 1950s. Folk-based music is heard on our podcast by the Saudi Ensemble, including melodies for weddings, fishing expeditions, love songs, and other occasions performed on violin, ‘ud (lute), nay (flute), tabla (drum), and qanun (zither). Our only podcast of musicians from Palestine features faculty of the Edward Said National Conservatory of Music in Jerusalem from their debut American tour. The conservatory was famously endorsed by both Edward Said and conductor Daniel Barenboim for its teaching of Western and Arab music to Palestinian youth. For a taste of gorgeous music from the Turkish Ottoman period, listen to the outstanding Neva Duo on tanbur (lute) and ney (flute).

Our music from Islamic cultures extends beyond the Middle East to music from India, including the Chisti Sufi Sama Ensemble as well as gamelan music from the country with the world’s largest Muslim population, Indonesia.