Iran’s leading Oud player

An interview between  Negar Bouban and Rachel Beckles Willson


In this 3rd article about the oud in Iran, Rachel Beckles Willson explores the work of Negar Bouban, musician, oud player and musicologist, born in Tehran in 1973. Negar has a Master’s degree in Architecture from the faculty of fine arts, the University of Tehran with a design for Tehran’s music conservatory, and a Ph.D. in Art Studies with an interdisciplinary study of Rhythm in Persian music and language. She has been working with many ensembles in recording and performing Persian music since 1993, the most prominent of which has been: the Showqname project, performing compositions attributed to Abdolqader Maraqi; projects with Hamavayan Ensemble under the artistic direction of the renowned Hossein Alizadeh; and the international World-Jazz project: Eurasians-Unity. She also has an active career as a soloist, presenting concerts and recordings including five albums: Continu (2008), In Turn (2011), Through (2012), A Tale foretold (2016) and On Fire (2018). She has, at the same time, been busy doing research in music and teaching at music conservatory and universities since 2000; based on the experience of which she has published two books for oud learners: Oud Method for Persian Music (IBook 2016), and Highs and Lows of Oud: exercises for oud learners and oud players (2018).

Rachel: you have released numerous CDs and have had some concerts internationally, could you tell us about your life as a performer in Iran?

Well, to live a professional life as a performer in Iran is quite a story! Every concert-story starts with the official process. You have to go through a lot of bureaucracy. If anyone is going to sing words during any of the pieces, you have to ask for a permit for the poetry first which means you fill in a form, you give all the text, it goes to a committee and they decide if it’s possible to sing it on the stage. If they approve it and do not ask for changes, you are very lucky! But then you have to fill out another form to say who is performing. They have an archive of the various bands working and they check. You give them a video sample of the music that’s being presented and that goes to the relevant committee. They have to approve, sign the letter. Then you go to the auditorium to set the date, and they have to write to the office to tell them that they have agreed to a performance on that date. The next stage is security, which is connected to the Intelligence Ministry, as far as I know. They can issue the final approval. It takes a lot of energy and it takes away from the music itself.

Rachel: how does anyone find the time?

If you are full of energy and you have a lot of stuff to perform then you might be able to do one or two concerts per year. Or if you are doing music that makes a lot of money you can try to find a manager. It doesn’t mean you’re completely out of the office stuff, you should still be in contact sometimes… But that works for Pop concerts or more prominent figures on the traditional music scene like Hossein Alizadeh. I play with his ensemble and we’ve done tours: at least twice I’ve been with him in different cities around Iran. Then the same programme only has to be approved once, and only the auditorium stuff is separately done for each city. Well, for Hossein Alizadeh and prominent Ustads like him, there is a manager working, of course.

If you do not want to go really public, there are ways to avoid the permit process and its bureaucracy: like doing house concerts. We used to hold private house concerts for 40-50 people at a relative’s place. Then some neighbors started to complain that there were too many people coming and going. For that reason, we decided not to continue, but there were no permits needed, just like having a party and inviting people to one’s place. If they wanted to interfere and make trouble, they might argue it’s not just a party if you are selling tickets … but among friends and colleagues, I’ve heard of other people holding private concerts too and there have been no stories of police interference. I think the general policy is decided by the number of people… They get tense about it if it gets a lot of attention. If something has a religious or political significance that’s different, I guess. 40 people for a Bahai meeting might count as too many.

Rachel: Do you present public recitals as an oud soloist?

I do and I would love to do more, of course! The first time I played solo was on the radio. I was still a student of architecture. It must have been when I was 23, around 1996. I wasn’t the first to do that, for sure. I can’t remember who did the very first full concert as an oud soloist, but it must have been around the same time. I wanted to do a live solo concert a couple of years ago and when I went for the permit, they said I couldn’t do it without the name of an ensemble. In the end, I wrote it as the Ensemble Negar Bouban, and it’s there, now I’m an ensemble! [laughter]

Rachel: What about singing in public?

Women are not allowed to sing a solo in public. So I only sing in concerts when I’m out of Iran. In the solo concert I put on 5 years ago (later published the very same performance as a DVD+CD, titled: A Tale-Foretold (Dastani-na-Tazeh) I had a piece on the program, composed for me by my brother. It’s for oud and voice and we wanted to have it at the concert. For that piece, I asked him to come on stage to sing while I played the oud. On the original recording (done years prior to the concert) I had the singing part myself.

Rachel: can your recordings be heard in Iran?

You can say there are two categories of albums (released as CDs) found in music stores in big cities; Albums that are released with the permit from the Ministry of Culture, and those without the permit which are the ones released abroad. Officially, there are two of my recordings (only oud solos, with no singing) on the music market in Iran and they are both released by Iranian labels and obviously with the needed permits, but the three other ones (with vocals and released abroad) are only available abroad. Well, that’s the official story! [laughter] The unofficial version is that there are some shops where they could be sold “under the counter”, if you like. So I speak to shopkeepers and give them some copies. Then I usually tell my audience that the CDs can be found there. But it is very limited, of course; both in availability and number of copies.

Rachel: Does this problem about the female voice affect your life as an instrumental music as well?

Well, in Iran I am more known as an oud player, not a singer, and I never thought about myself as a “female” musician, I just did what I wanted to do as a “musician” and I guess I’ve had the chance to experience the least of resistance to my presence in the professional circles, and at times in some circles, I even got more appreciation just because of being a woman to stand to their so-called standards!; to which I tend to be equally inattentive. The only situation in which I have experienced a kind of resistance to my presence is when I sit on a jury to evaluate musicians and their work, and when I state my opinion. It is as if I should take a position as a woman and speak less. But I never do! [laughter] Whenever I feel anything like that, I speak, even more, I just go in the opposite direction. But you know, I come from a Kurdish background and in Kurdistan women fight along with men. If there is a war, women can take weapons to fight the enemy. My mother and father are both Kurdish.

Rachel: Ah, can you tell us something about your family. Is it a musical one? How much have you developed the Kurdish line?

Yes, I come from a musical Kurdish family. My parents were born and raised in Sanandaj (Kurdistan, Iran); but left for Tehran when they were young. My mother was 17 when she came to Tehran, my father was 18, then some years later they got married, they have lived there since. As for my relation to Kurdish music and language, I understand Kurdish (at least the dialect spoken in Sanandaj) quite well, but when I want to speak, I am uncertain about grammar… I use Kurdish music and poetry in my own music and dosing in Kurdish.

My mother is a musician, she also went to the University of Tehran to study music, she played the violin and Persian music. Her name is Sorour Zerehgar. Her generation was strongly influenced by Abolhassan Saba… the violin master who composed a lot of beautiful pieces, he had a lot of pupils and composed a lot of pieces, especially instrumental ones. Many of Saba’s pupils became prominent composers whose songs received a lot of public appreciation. You could call them traditional pop… singers like Marziyeh and Delkesh, the very popular singers of 1950s, sang the compositions by the students of Saba. So at that time, maybe for around 20 years or so, the violin was the most desirable instrument. My mother was really into that, she grew up listening to the radio and listening to those songs, singing them and playing them on her violin. She started playing the violin at quite a young age before she was 13. My father was very musical too, with a wonderful ear and lovely voice.

We had music in the house all the time, we were very connected to very good musicians. My brother who is 2 years older than me, is a santur player and composer too (Babak Bouban). We grew up listening to music together. About a year after he started playing, when I was 9 years old, I started as well, and I went to classes with Parviz Meshkatian. But I felt that it wasn’t really my instrument. I gave up and he continued, and after a few years I started playing some setar when I was about 13, but I was more into poetry and classical literature then, also school work, so I didn’t take playing that seriously. I was just trying things for myself. It was only later, around the age of 18, when I was doing my final school exams (in a school focused on maths and physics) that I seriously felt I needed an instrument to make music and express myself. I got interested in playing the guitar and I went crazy, getting everything I could find. I bought almost any record I could find with classical guitar and I listened to them all. I liked it all but somehow I had the feeling that it was not a language that I could talk through, not something in which I could write my poetry.

Rachel: so how did you eventually come to the oud?

My mother’s record collection was always there, a well-selected archive and one day I came by a recording of oud playing and singing by Abdolvahab Shahidi. I still remember the moment when the sound of oud was coming out of the loudspeaker, I was like … I couldn’t move anymore and I thought this was “the” instrument I wanted. It was only then at the age of 18, that I decided to play the oud… But it wasn’t that easy to find the instrument and the teacher in Tehran those years. First I tried to take lessons with Firouzi but he was either too busy or not willing to have more students, so it took some months to get his attention. Then through a friend, I finally managed to find Behroozinia and I took lessons with him for about 4 months. Then I suddenly got a chance to meet Mansour Nariman and I went to study with him.

Rachel: but at this time you were training in architecture?

I was studying architecture at the university. At the Faculty of Fine Arts, University of Tehran, you have everything together, you can go from one end of the building to the other and you find the Department of Music. And little by little I was drawn to the Department of Music taking classes and working with teachers and students there, so I kind of moved from architecture to music. At that time there were not many oud players around, so it happened very early that I joined ensembles and could play with them. There I got to know and work with some very good then-students, some of whom became very prominent figures on the music scene. We had a history together. It was like a family. Through them, I was invited into projects that were very special.

Rachel: could you tell us more about your career. There is a perception in Europe that many women are taking up oud in Iran. Is that accurate?

Well, do you mean that my career might have had an influence on that? Even the mere fact that the number of female oud players in Iran is growing, needs a survey to confirm. I know a couple of younger female oud players who came to me and said ‘we are inspired by your music and your oud playing’ but I don’t know how many of them are really drawn by me. If you ask my mother she would say that it was Negar who made the oud popular among women in Iran … but talking seriously, we shouldn’t forget that Mansour Nariman, the so-called Father of the Oud in modern Iran, was teaching for years in The Girls’ branch of the Conservatory, educating a number of oud players there; while things went quite differently at the Boys’ branch.

Rachel: were there any female oud players before?

The ones I knew then (and still can remember) from the older generation, were not soloists; only playing the oud in ensembles, at least in public. Most of them took up the oud as a second instrument, probably when studying at the Conservatory. Later, when the oud was given the chance to be taken as the main instrument at the conservatory, others appeared too. There was one in my own generation that I saw at her final performance at the Conservatory around the time that I was starting oud, her name is Rokhsareh Rostami. She is active, playing in concerts but not as a soloist as far as I know. Then younger female oud players joined the scene, of course.

Rachel: the international oud world is dominated by male players.

Well, what world is NOT dominated by males? [laughter] It seems that the proportion of female to male oud players in Iran is higher than elsewhere in the region. But one can also argue that the number of women, in proportion to men, playing music or learning it is growing, in any instrument. I heard a while ago, that the Boys’ branch of the conservatory does not have many applicants, while we have too many at the Girls’ branch. But it also depends where you look. Women are allowed to train, and many do it, just as many as men, or even more. But often they are not allowed to work. It’s the same in all areas – women can study in 90% of fields but when it comes to getting a job, they’re not fully accepted.

Rachel: The oud was presumably not played widely in Tehran at the time when you started. Was there resistance to its use in Persian music?

The oud was almost accepted but there was still a kind of debate going on. So if I was in the corridor at the university or on the street people would notice my instrument and ask what I was playing. When I said it was the oud they would say ‘ah so you play Arabic music’.

Rachel: but as you have said, the oud doesn’t belong to one place and one musical culture only.