By Samantha Willis
Six strings lace the long, thin neck of the tar, an instrument distinct to traditional Persian music. The strings are for plucking, not bowing like a violin; once heard, the sound they produce—a resonant, melodic twang—is impossible to forget. Preserving and promoting that unique sound, and sharing the rich legacy of Persian musical traditions, is at the center of the work of the master musician Dr. Nader Majd and his apprentice, Ali Reza Analouei.
“People are often surprised by our playing,” says Analouei, who moved to Fairfax County more than twenty years ago from his birthplace, Iran. His skillful playing of ancient Persian drums called Tombak garnered him international attention and a place among the most revered Persian classical music players in the world. In 2009 he was a master artist in Virginia Humanities’ Folklife Apprenticeship Program. A few years later Analouei began studying the tar with Madj.
“At events, people will hear us and they say, ‘Wow, Iranians play this beautiful music, and these people are so peaceful. They’re not so bad,” he says, laughing. “They sometimes think Iran and Iranians are associated with terrorism and all the bad things [we] see and hear [in the media], but we are showing them we have a beautiful heritage, and a different narrative.”
Ali Reza Analouei and Behnaz Bibizadeh perform at the 2009 Virginia Folklife Apprenticeship Showcase.
The classical Persian music he’s been playing since he was five or six is “a beautiful, ancient, vast heritage,” says Majd. In addition to the tar, Majd plays five other instruments and is a scholar of Iranian music. Born in 1944, Majd immigrated to the United States in 1968 and founded the Center for Persian Classical Music in Vienna, Virginia, in 1997. He has been a master artist in the Folklife Apprenticeship Program several times.
“It’s a give and take,” he says of the cultural exchange between the musical traditions of his home country and of his adopted one. “I listen to [other musicians’] music, I get inspired, and I add that layer to my music. When they listen to our music, their music becomes multilayered. It’s important for us to listen to each other and to communicate … and exchange our experiences and our ideas.” Music is a universal language, he stresses. “It doesn’t belong to just one part [of the world] or one people.”
Expanding the narrative of Virginia’s cultural traditions is at the center of the Virginia Folklife Program, says Jon Lohman, the program’s director and Virginia State Folklorist.
“Our role is documenting, supporting, and celebrating Virginia’s folklife,” says Lohman, who stepped into his role in 2001. “To look at those ways in which people express, ‘This is who we are,’ as members of different communities, and share them statewide.”
The Virginia Folklife Program has carried out this mission for nearly thirty years. Lohman says the apprenticeship program was developed in response to a concern he heard expressed by citizens in every corner of the state in his early days as director.
“I can’t tell you how many days and miles [I traveled] all over Virginia, just talking to people, finding out what citizens want out of the state folklife program … A theme that came up repeatedly is that people were concerned that folklife traditions were dying out. That people were passing away, and their knowledge, their expertise was passing away with them.”
Lohman responded by creating the apprenticeship program, which introduces Virginians to diverse cultural traditions while simultaneously preserving them. But it’s not only about preserving traditional forms. It’s about celebrating new ones, too.
“While many people associate Virginia’s folklife with those traditions that have been rooted here for centuries,” Lohman said, “the fact of the matter is that other than the expressive traditions of Virginia’s native peoples, all of our cultural traditions come from somewhere else”—whether it be Great Britain or Iran.
The apprenticeship program pairs artists and apprentices as a way of keeping all traditions, new and old, alive. Presenting the teams at showcases and events like the Richmond Folk Festival are ways that the program “honors and recognizes these people as masters of their craft.”
Over each nine-month cycle, the apprenticeship program spotlights old and new cultural traditions, as well as the artists who bring aspects of the ancient into Virginia’s contemporary society. Father and son master-apprentice team Gankhuyag Natsag and Zanabazar Gankhuyag contributed Mongolian mask making to the Virginia Folklife Program in 2012. Natsag was taught by his parents to handcraft elaborate ceremonial masks used in the ancient Buddhist ritual dance, Tsam, maintaining an art form dating back to the eighth century.
“I make masks the traditional way. Almost all [of them] take [at least] one week,” says Natsag. “I use clay, different materials, and shape [the mask] with papier-mâché. If it’s just a little mask, maybe [in] one day I can make it.”
Born in Mongolia, Natsag studied the centuries-old craft under a Buddhist monk. He had his own studio in Mongolia, teaching students how to make the masks, as well as small sculptures and other types of art. Since immigrating to Virginia in 2002, Natsag has found mask making to be a vital way for him to stay connected to his roots, enhanced through the Virginia Folklife Program.
“In America, [for the] international groups living here, [cultural folkways] offer connection to each other and their tradition, especially music and folk art. For me, it’s a wonderful experience.”
Working together with his son in the apprenticeship program was a highlight of Natsag’s continued efforts to preserve his heritage and to help others discover it.
“The ability to keep [the tradition] alive and to give to our next generation is important. And showing this to the Virginia community is very, very important.”
“We’re opening windows into the story of Virginia, which is tremendously complex,” says David Bearinger, director of Virginia Humanities’ Grants and Community Programs. His work gives him a perspective on Virginia’s many immigrant communities that has allowed him to identify several artists and craftspeople who would be a good fit for the apprenticeship program. He says the apprenticeship program reflects the character and strengths of a rapidly changing Virginia.
It includes the stories of the people who were here for thousands of years before the English arrived, the people who have come here as immigrants ever since, and also the people who are coming here today … We want to honor all of the traditions that come to Virginia and enrich our cultural fabric.