26 August 2003

Persian Classical Music Thrives in Washington, D.C. Area Nader Majd heads Center for Persian Classical Music in D.C. suburb

By Phyllis McIntosh Washington File Special Correspondent

Washington — Persian classical music is thriving in the Washington, D.C., area, thanks to the efforts of Nader Majd, a retired economist with a passion for the traditional music of his homeland and a desire to share his cultural heritage with his adopted country.

The son and nephew of dedicated musicians, Majd says that he too was “born a musician.” But because the environment in Iran was not particularly encouraging for musicians when he was a young man, he pursued a degree in English literature and in 1968 came to the United States to study economics. He earned a Ph.D. from Georgetown University and spent 20 years as an economist at the World Bank in Washington.

Still in his fifties when he retired in 1998, Majd decided to return to his first love — music. He founded the Center for Persian Classical Music in Vienna, Virginia, a Washington suburb, and began a second full-time job teaching, composing, and performing. His main objective, he says, is “to make Iranian classical music known to our American friends as a means to increase understanding between our two countries.”

Although some Iranians in the United States teach music in their homes, Majd believes that a formal center dedicated to the study of Persian music and culture may be unique. In addition to offering classes, the center holds concerts, publishes books and newsletters, produces CDs, tapes, and videos, and exhibits Persian art and handicrafts.

Majd personally instructs more than 30 students ranging in age from 6 to 75 in vocal music, violin, and traditional Iranian instruments, such as tar, setar, and santur. A percussionist teaches classes in daf and tombak. Although the majority of students are Iranian, there also are some Americans who are married to Iranians or who learned to appreciate Middle Eastern music in college.

In his classes and on his web site (www.cpcm.org), Majd emphasizes the rich cultural heritage and somewhat difficult history of Persian classical music, which dates back to the 5th century B.C. During the time of the Achaemenid Empire (550-331 B.C.), music played an important role in prayer, royal festivities, national ceremonies, and in spurring soldiers into battle. Classical music reached its peak during the Sassanid dynasty (100 B.C.-630 A.D.) when 100-piece orchestras performed at the royal court. With the coming of Islam to Iran around 600 A.D., public performances were abolished and music survived mainly as part of religious ceremonies. It was not until 200 years ago, Majd notes, that music was once more performed in public. He says he is pleased that classical music, though banned again for several years following the Islamic revolution of 1979, is flourishing today throughout Iran.

The Center also schools students in Iranian thought and philosophy and the classical poetry whose themes, structure, and rhythms inspire the music. “Poetry is the most important art form in Iran. It’s the backbone of our culture,” Majd says. “Our music is totally tied to our poetry, so in order to learn Persian music you should be familiar with the structure and message of classical Persian poetry.”

To provide a showcase for his students and to reach out to the community, Majd formed the Chakavak Ensemble, a group of 20 musicians playing primarily traditional instruments. For some performances, which include a mix of traditional music and Majd’s own compositions, the group is augmented by as many as 16 Americans on strings and wind instruments. In addition to one major concert a year, the ensemble performs at local universities and the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, typically attracting a diverse audience.

One of Majd’s students and fellow performers is vocalist Narges Mahmoodshahi, who became involved with the center when her teenage son enrolled in classes to learn to play the tar. She has performed with the Chakavak Ensemble since 1999, singing primarily music composed by Majd.

“It was a wonderful opportunity to work with Dr. Majd,” says the Iranian mother of two who came to the United States at age 19. “I’ve been singing since I was a little girl and entered all kinds of competitions in high school, but I never took it to a professional level.”

Even though she and her family moved to Tokyo a year and a half ago because of her husband’s job, Mahmoodshahi returns to the Washington area several times a year to prepare for and perform in the center’s concerts. “Although I live in Tokyo and I go to visit in Iran, I feel very close to the Washington area and consider this my home,” she says. “But I’m proud of my heritage, and I feel fortunate that I have two different cultures.”

Like Majd, she is eager to share the music of her native land with American audiences. “Music is something that touches everybody’s heart,” she says. “It talks to you in a way that everybody can understand, even though they speak different languages and have different backgrounds. I feel that if people can hear this beautiful music they might love it, too, and just might get to know something they did not know before.”