Guitarist. Composer. Singer
Shahab Tolouie (شهاب طلوعی) – Iranian composer, fusionist, guitarist and singer. Known as pioneer of an exciting exploration smelting musical traditions of the two powerful musical lands of Iran and Spain by combining them into his own expression of Persian and Flamenco fusion. This alloy, unique to him, he places within the wider category he has labelled Ethnoflamenco; that is, the connection of any ethnic musical style with Spanish flamenco.
As a fusionist, Shahab exceeded the borders of one distinct style by adding elements of various ethnic roots and jazz to his music. His album “Tango Perso” is a good example of his approach to the dialogue between the Setar from the venerable Persian tradition, and Flamenco guitar, this fusion propelled by Shahab’s singular vocal style in delivery of the sufi poetry of Hafiz, Rumi and others.
The distinctive feature of Shahab’s musical presentation is his own invention; the Fusetar (eng.“fusion”, “tar” – farsi. “strings” – fusion of strings). This three-necked instrument represents the culmination of his sound experiments in search of a mode of expression of his new musical concepts. The fusion of Setar, flamenco guitar, and fretless guitar while incorporating such cutting-edge technologies as True Temperament frets [to name only one among many], opens greater horizons for creativity in a borderless musical world…
A Musical Treasure
Music is the common language and element that connects all people, nations and races together without borders. Musicians are citizens of the borderless world, and they create the best way of expression without fighting. These are the gifts that music brings to us all.
These musical treasures were brought to me in the time of a heartbreaking war during my childhood. Teachers and musical instruments were difficult to find. I am so thankful to my parents and family that always tried to keep life calm and their three sons together, of which I am the youngest. One day my father came home with a treasure in his hands that made me what I am today – he brought a guitar and an accordion to us. I played accordion for about a year as my older brother wanted to learn the guitar. He was my first idol and my greatest motivator. He learned to play and sing, and with his friends joining in, we played and sang together.
My cousin Mehdi Tolouie gave me my very first music lesson on accordion. After about one year I also began to play my brother’s guitar, and as time passed I became more interested in its magical six strings. That guitar was the real beginning of my story and my musical life. My whole family was musically inclined. My father has a great voice, and there was almost no family party without him singing. It became a tradition in our family and even continued later on as I grew up. My dad and I played the beautiful classical songs of Vigen, Golpa and other great masters of Persian music. My mother also has a very clean and beautiful voice and she always sings while working. Their gift of singing was given to all of us children. First with my eldest brother Shahram with his great voice, and with my middle brother Shahin, we would fill the hearts of our friends at many parties.
As time passed, I became more skilled on my guitar, playing here and there for friends at parties, and thereby met different musicians and also great masters. After playing for about five years I could play much better than almost all my musician friends, and I gained a respect between them, which made me think of studying music in a more formal way. At the time, I could not even read or write musical composition. To be honest, I must confess that even after spending a lot of time learning musical notation, I still prefer to remain an improviser, regardless of the many styles of music that I learned to play. On my 14th birthday I received a beautiful electric guitar, and learned many famous songs, mostly of rock and punk. In school I wrote my very first songs on both my electric and nylon string guitars, while studying music theory, and 20th Century harmony.
Youth: 1st change
By the time I had finished school, I experienced a big change in my life and in my music. I left my family and went north to the city I am originally from, Shahsavar, a beautiful paradise by the Caspian Sea. This small city with its hard working people toiling in orange groves, tea and rice fields, boating and fishing with its big fish markets, was another world to me. I used to play more rock and harder styles before. But soon my music returned back to acoustic. The city of my home made me think about my roots and my own culture. I began to experiment with Persian instruments and to find the common elements of this music with other styles.
Then the second big change happened that caused my Persian music to wait for a few years. I became good friends with Arash Sayyadi, who could play some flamenco. He was interested in learning more and suggested that we study together. He had some flamenco method books.
The Flamenco style… flamenco… flamenco… such an exciting name… what does it mean? Does it come from the word ‘flame’? What does the ‘compas’ mean? What scales are the most used scales in this style? How many different ‘toques’ does it have? These were the questions we would ask each other and talk about. We would choose some notes and set a deadline to complete a musical phrase. Then we would compare our work and determine who had played better. We tried one method after another, and used many books, videos, cassettes, and anything that could help us. We were far from Spain, but the times were better, the war was over. Within that decade, we had gained access to more information with the advent of the internet adding to our knowledge about this specialized musical style. During my years at the university I was a very conservative flamenco player, playing pure flamenco. I was also impressed by the techniques of the greatest flamenco masters such as Paco de Lucia (Francisco Sanchez Gomez) and Tomatito (Jose Fernandez Torres).
Since I first held a guitar in my hands, I never liked to play a song exactly the same way twice. I always prefer to play different variations of the same song. I guess I was an improviser by nature since the beginning. Arash and I played many works together in concerts. I worked on many of my own compositions, but the more I wrote, the more my flamenco techniques would take a part in these songs, arranging my Persian songs with a flamenco style, and eventually this was the direction that most of my work took.
I finished my university studies and said goodbye to the Engineering of Wood Industries. I studied not because I wanted to be an engineer, but because everyone in my family was well educated with degrees. I’ve never had any regrets, for I think my change of career would not have happened otherwise. I’ve always said: Mother Nature knows its job much better than me. I did not study music in school, because the style I was playing was so innovative. In Iran, at that time, the only guitar style one could study academically was classical guitar, which I did not want to study. I love classical music now, but the hand positioning and techniques of classical guitar were totally different by my style.
After my degree I returned back to Tehran, and this big city gave me a big present. My destiny was to meet a legendary Iranian Sufi and traditional singer and musician, Master Shahram Nazeri. I played a song for him and he invited me to his beautiful house. We spoke about these two different styles of music, Persian and Flamenco, and how to make a beautiful fusion, which would not damage the characteristics or the identities of either. There, I met his son Hafez Nazeri, who became a good friend. They were one of the most influential and traditional Persian musicians I had then met. We worked together, sharing our thoughts and opinions, recording some of our ideas in their home studio, and we achieved some excellent results together. However, my life was about to change again, for Hafez left to study in New York. Our cooperation was without any official recording, but each second of it was full of new experiences and lessons for me.
In the following four years I worked with the community, played concerts, took on students and met some great master musicians. I worked with an Iranian charity, which organized concerts to help collect money for children without parents or for children with mental problems. The teamwork experience was really good for me and I would like to thank Mrs. Rahmati for gathering musicians together to help those children. I also took on many private students. I wrote music for a theatre production called “Picnic in War” by Mrs. Shohreh Lorestani, a famous Iranian director and actress. The music was played live by two guitarists who sat hidden in the audience. The reaction was better than expected. I also played in concerts and with some great musical masters. I played with Mr. Kamran Kamkar, and his very talented son Nima Kamkar. I studied with Mr. Abolhassan Saba, a great jazz master. I performed with Mr. Kambiz Rahmani, a great young jazz master, and performed in concert with Mr. Farhad Faghihnia, a very dear friend and a great musician, as well as many concerts with other friends throughout Iran.
During this time I felt I was getting farther and farther from going to Spain, a long time dream of mine*…
Life and career
I suddenly decided to leave everything and try my life in another country. While writing music for the theatre, I applied to study a master flamenco course in Seville, and to take lessons from Prof. Fernando Lopez Maria de Haro. Getting granted a visa was difficult at that time, but here is another beautiful story, which I must share. When I went to the embassy with a copy of the email I had from school in Spain, I saw on the wall that there were many documents that were necessary to present, in order to get just a short term visa. All I had was a copy of my correspondence from the professor and a guitar on my shoulder. My hopes were fading, but I spoke to a very kind lady (thank you dear Carmen), and the consular came and told me to play my guitar for him. After I played he told me I could get a visa without any documents. I remain sincerely thankful for all their kindness at the Embassy of Spain in Tehran.
As I expected, Spain offered the third biggest change for me, but that change was exactly in the opposite direction of my expectations. Spain, with all of its beautiful music, flamenco waves in the air which one could possibly breathe in, it did not make a flamenco player out of me; but vice versa, it made me perfect my own style. The more I studied, the more I became interested in my own country’s music, as I realized how interesting my Persian music was to Spanish listeners. I began performing my first flamenco pieces with Persian scales. I realized there would be more people interested in listening to this combination of music, rather than trying to copy the music that belonged to Spain. I did not expect the Spanish guitarists to play Persian music better than me and I would not be able to play pure flamenco better than them. What I really wanted was to learn their techniques and utilize them in my own way. It was up to me to relate and integrate these two styles. These two cultures and their music are like cousins, not brothers. There are lots of commonalities and lots of differences. I wrote my first Persian and flamenco fusions such as the song “tango Perso”, a combination of flamenco “tangos” and a poem of Hafez, and a Sevillanas based on Persian scales. Spanish people listened in rapture, wondering how they could be hearing their traditional music in another language.
After receiving the Nivel Alto (High Level) flamenco degree, I returned to Tehran. I started experimenting with traditional Persian instruments and how to use them in flamenco. On a very rainy day I wrote the song ‘Raining Forest,’ which still is one my most favourite songs. I published a 300-page guitar method book entitled, You Can Play Guitar Too, which sold in music shops in Teheran. I performed in concerts with my new songs for the community of Iranian artist’s Charity and also my personal concerts in Kerman and Gorgan in the biggest concert halls of those cities. I was chosen as the first grade relate of ‘The House of Music of Iran,’ the main music association of Iran, and was one of ten candidates in the election for the manager of ‘The House of Music of Iran.’
During this time I met some new friends from the Czech Republic, which played a big role in my future life, Mr. Martin Klepetko and Mr. Jiri Kobza. We formed a band called ‘The Capricorns’, because the three members were Capricorns… The summary of our work was a CD called ‘Capricorns in winter’, and a live-recorded DVD called ‘Capricorns Live at Russian Residency Garden Party.’ The Capricorns got together two years later in the Czech Republic and won the first prize of the Cihak Music Festival (Czech Republic).
We always used to talk about the Czech Republic, this country with its powerful dark comedies, and beautiful classical music of Dvorak and Smetana and the masterpieces of Franz Kafka, which greatly attracted me. The Czech Republic seemed to have so many advantages because of its place in the heart of Europe. I thought if I resided there I could have an easy access to Western and Eastern Europe and have concerts in both.
- Touring across many countries: Czech, Germany, United Kingdom, Netherlands, Poland, Turkey, Ukraine, Moldova, Russia, Slovakia etc.
- Festivals: Persian New year in Prague, Sazava fest, Respect, Ankara International Flamenco festival, Vinnitsa TV Jazz, Chisinau Ethno-jazz, Mezi Ploty, Whight Nights in Perm, Guitar Across Styles, Wild Mint fest and many-many others.
- Media: BBC TV, Voice of America TV, Manoto TV, Radio Fardah, Radio Vltava, Radio Ethno etc.
- Print: Reuters, Esquire magasin, Acoustic Guitar Magazine, Esquire Magazine, Prague Post, Worldmusiccentral etc.
Franz Kafka in big-bit land
After going to the Czech Republic it took me almost one year to settle down, because I arrived without any friends, relations or family there to count on. I wanted to prove to myself that I could make it on my own. During that first rather difficult year, I did play a few times. I also started teaching a few students at AMU – the Academy of Music of Prague, I took on some private students, and I performed in a few concerts. All this time I was searching for musicians to start a band, but I didn’t know that my life again had other plans for me. The musician’s life style in Prague was so different than in Iran, since in Iran members stay in a band always working together. But in the Czech Republic musicians played in different bands. It was very difficult to put a band together because the musicians could almost never get together at the same time. My life was pushing me to make it on my own and it made a solo musician out of me. I did not have that much experience in solo concerts, because before I had always played in bands. It was a challenge and a totally new experience for me to stand there alone, holding my guitar and to entertain people for several hours. It was also an art to attract people to my music, but I got better at it more and more.
I met a very good Czech singer, Mrs. Zuzana Navarova. She passed away a year later, (peace to her soul); she was one of the most influential Czech singers I have ever met. She helped me so much with musical contacts and introduced me to a concert organizer, Mr. Stanislav Barek of the ‘Njorek band’. He asked me to play in the big festival (Guitar across the styles) he was organizing. I ended up playing some years in this world level festival and had the honour to play in this festival among some of the greatest names of all times: Mr. Francisco Sanchez Gomez (Paco de Lucia), Mr. John McLaughlin, Mr. Jose Fernandez Torres (Tomatito), Mr. Vicente Amigo, Mr. Tommy Emmanuel, Mr. Peppino D’Agostino, Mr. Dylan Fowler, Mr. Tim Sparks, Mrs, Natalia Meirino, Mr. Andrea Benzoni, and Mr. Oscar Guzman…etc
My carrier as a solo musician also continued and I played in different clubs and concerts almost every day. Beside the solo performances, I performed with various musicians and instrumentalists, especially with Mr. Barek with whom I played in three formations. 1st was a duet called ‘Persepolis’, which was based mostly on my rearrangements on Persian music for two guitars. We also played in a flamenco band, called ‘Peña Flamenca’ for almost three years. And finally in 2006 after meeting a wonderful Greek singer Ms. Martha Elefteriadu, we decided to form another band based on our two voices, and this band was called ‘Arionas’.
♦ The Trio
Even though my early years of start in the new country was rather hard and I was so busy making a living by solo concerts and collaborating in various projects as mentioned above, but in the deepest corners of my mind I knew I had to establish my own band. That was the main goal and the reason I always developed my new compositions written for a band. And kept looking for interesting musicians who: 1st either had the discipline or wouldn’t hesitate it. 2nd had the acceptable playing abilities. And 3rd musicians with the will for learning complex rhythmical patterns and interested in technical aspects of music. And… It’s nothing easy to find. Believe me, I’ve been there… As I’ve always said, no band has ever achieved success without years playing together; and not only playing, but also understanding each other, knowing each other’s good and bad. Regardless of the style they play. Examples are almost each and every well-known band if we look through history.
I knew the band mates for my future trio since around 2005, but it didn’t happen until 2007 that we finally got really together as a band. I knew Tomas Reindl (ethno-jazz set of drums and percussions) for quite a while and I knew he used to travel to India to study Tabla and Indian Rhythms. And since he was a former rock drummer, he had a different groove than a common ethnic percussionist, which is what I’ve always been after… Something different… that’s also how I met Jan Urbanec (acoustic & electric fretless bass) while testing a bass at the Prague music exhibition, better to say… I heard him playing from far away and went to see who was playing, and this man can play… his percussive right hand which he had thanks to his funk music era, combined by acoustic bass, was just fascinating. I gave him my contact and asked him to call me. This trio got together some off and on since 2005 but we never came to a conclusion. Our styles were so different that our first rehearsals seemed to be negative, until 2007 that suddenly all seemed to be working and we gave our first concerts in early 2008. The reaction was better than expected. We spent 2008 concerting in various cities of Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland and many magazines wrote about us. In 2009 I was fortunate to start our close cooperation with Atlas Music agency which takes care of my band since then and which became the band’s main management and publisher. It was the time our music got appreciated by the greater audience and we did interviews for some media heavyweights such as the BBC and the VOA, all theses as well as the countless articles showed me that luckily choosing my style is been a right decision. So we kept working harder and we opened our horizons by travelling farther to Russia, Ukraine, Germany, Moldova, Turkey and Poland… and in the meanwhile I was getting my new songs ready for the album. It took a lot of work looking for new sounds and to get the maximum potential of that trio. The way I was trying to get us go was unknown as I’ll explain later and thus it was no easy decision to choose the right elements to have an original sound. Originality and purity… An original sound is my weakness. I must confess, my knees start to shake when I hear something original, it doesn’t have to be technically difficult, or fast, or hard to play… neither Jazz, nor Rock, even flamenco… absolutely no styles, maybe even just a single tone… but, pure and original. Ahh… that’s what I call (The Mighty of Sound).
Before writing about our 1st studio album (Tango Perso – 2009), I think here a bit of explanation could help to clarify where I was heading and my reasons for choosing this particular musical direction which would reflect how I musically percept the environmental changes in my life. I think those who are familiar to my music, are aware of those changes within my decades of life. The next two chapters open the idea behind this style, musically and philosophically…
♦ Flamenco from my eyes
Flamenco is a young and interactive style, which is still developing very quickly almost on a daily basis. Its great dynamical potential and versatility is coming from its wide and deep roots. These roots are so deep that they reach up to India where the Gypsies first came from. And since gypsies are so rhythmical people that anywhere they settle, they developed their music according to that particular region (for example gypsies of central and south Iran with their specific music and customs, gypsies of Balkan, from Turkey to east Europe up to France with their genius innovation of Gypsy-Jazz style). To me as a young pupil it seemed impossible to think that flamenco got its elements only from Arabic music as widely commonly many people even Spanish consider. It had to be wider, many rhythms to me were North African, some scales were clearly Jewish Sephardic and other one was clearly Indian and so on… so why not Iranian? Someone had to start investigating… it was a historical case that needed to be investigated. Iran was on the way of Gypsies, so it’s more than possible that they decorate their versatile music by some musical jewels of my land??? It was my motivation and my untraditional angle of view to the style that meant more than just a style to me, but a beautiful creature which was alive and moving…
♦ Ethno-Flamenco: a dynamic poet
Many have asked me until today what is Ethno-Flamenco? And why Persian & Flamenco fusion? I dedicate this chapter to these questions since all my future activities refer to these words all the time. I spoke a bit about the ethnic roots of flamenco in the last chapter, but here are my two main ideas behind choosing this name:
- When I started playing flamenco, for some years I was an orthodox, traditional flamenco player trying to play anything which was flamenco the same way it was played by Spanish. The way I look at it now? I was a big photocopy machine which would copy anything Spanish… funny? Maybe… of course there’s no doubt in the fact that for improving the technique, as a student we copy our teachers. Playing technique is a must… rhythm, scales and chords… whatever… I did it; I still do it every day some hours. We have to do our home work until we start writing your own book. But… There was something missing in there for me. I say for me… it doesn’t have to be you… Spain with all its beauty taught me something valuable. Taught me I was Iranian… Spanish never play Iranian music better than me, and I never play flamenco better than Spanish. Isn’t that simple? And do you know why? Because we are talking about the tradition… it’s not classical music that you can be Japanese or Australian or anywhere on the planet and win the world 1st prize. Our traditions have roots into our history, language, customs, food and anything and all things around us. You have to be Iranian to feel Chahar Mezrab or Dashti, you need to have history with Bayat Tork. The same in flamenco… you cry with a Seguiriya if you’ve played as a child in streets of Cadiz or Sevilla.Then suddenly my music wasn’t pure flamenco… I realized I could not call it flamenco. Why? Because it was not… I must note that we’re not talking about the traditional pieces I played and still play. I’m talking about my compositions… we can’t call two things which vary ideologically the same name. Or can’t we neither say one is more flamenco or more Persian than the other. It is Persian or it is not… or… it’s the fusion of either. I would disrespect traditional musicians if I said my music is traditional Iranian music. It’s not traditional, so I can’t call it Iranian “Sonnati”, the same that it’s not right to call it “Flamenco” since flamenco has its own way. But it needed a name to somehow express and specify it. It was my child and needed a name.
- The other cause applies to most fusionists in the world. Because since the music and in general the art and science are going more and more into subcategories day by day, we can see many new styles being borne under the previous main styles, like that we have Jazz and the under subcategories there are Balkan-Jazz, Gypsy Jazz, Indian Jazz, African Jazz and so on. But in our case the world is still wandering around how to categorize and to put us under what category. Some festivals call us flamenco, others jazz, fusion, world-music, ethnic music, acoustic guitar, nylon string guitar or even Latin music to name a few. So I think you can see how much I felt the urgent need for a right name which could describe what we do.
Since while my left hand maneuvers from one country to another, and at the same time the strong influence of flamenco is produced by the specific flamenco right hand techniques, And since I knew there were musicians from other countries, who also make beautiful fusion of their homeland music and flamenco, I decided to call it in general the “Ethno-Flamenco” which refers to any native music in fusion with flamenco and puts us all into one description. And to my own personal style I started to use Persian&Flamenco fusion which I think describes the best what I do.
♦ Persian & Flamenco fusion
From what I’ve faced and felt since I first held the guitar in my hands until today, there’s always been a long list of intolerance in terms of Iranian music adaptation and lack of presentation internationally. To put it straight, as I’ve seen Iranians played only (or mostly) for Iranians and it’s a big lack. This lack of cultural presentation is that big that people in many countries do not know there an Iranian music does exist. It is mostly considered to be Turkish, Arabic, Indian or whatever except Iranian. And let me tell you… They don’t have to know. It’s not their mistake, but ours. Our music has a great potential to present the beauty of our diverse culture but it needs advertisement. If we sit at home, close the door and play a fantastic piece of music, no one will know about us, and they don’t have to, until we, someone else or something show them or play that music to them so they realize it is good… This in smaller format shows exactly what has happened in our music.
In the west, especially during the golden era of media (in 60’s and 70’s) this matter was solved by respecting the styles. That is classical, this is Jazz and… they have the experimental music, fusion and so on too. It means that someone is responsible to take care of so called tradition by playing the pure classical music, the other one plays pure Jazz, or pure flamenco. And the other person goes around, experiments and tries to find new connections and new ways of expression and it’s greatly appreciated by the society. But in Iranian music the word experimental music was considered as an unforgivable act, distracting our music. One of the facts that have not been considered is that whatever we have achieved as human beings is a result of an experiment. We wouldn’t have chairs to sit, or wouldn’t be able to build houses without experimenting various ways by time. It was especially during this era that some certain cultures took advantage of the new technology “the media” to present their culture, and this goal was achieved by presenting a fusion of their musical tradition in a form which was internationally understandable and for a much wider audience. We’re witnessing the fact that not only they did make no harm to their music, but also this has helped the message of beauty by spreading around and letting a wide audience know about their music. This international recognition wouldn’t be achieved by playing Indian Ragas or a pure Tarantas, neither European audience could listen to a full scale Shoor or Mahoor for more than 3 minutes.
This good has been achieved by the wave of great fusionists such as Mr. Francisco Sanchez Gomes (Paco de Lucia), Mr. Ravi Shankar, Mr. John McLaughlin and other great names shining on top of the list of creativity and borderless music.
My fusion or as I call the Persian&Flamenco fusion is my lifetime attempt to connect and show the beauty and diversity of our music, by sending the message of peace to the world besides all other nations and their beautiful music.
It all started that day when my father came home with a treasure in his hands, and I’m still the willing student.”
Love you all!