Born in Tehran, Iran, the santur master Dr. Manoochehr Sadeghi is a leading virtuoso on the santur (Persian Hammered Dulcimer) with forty-five years of professional experience both in his native Iran and in the United States of America. He began studying at a young age, becoming a prized pupil of Abol Hassan Saba, a legendary figure in Persian classical music. In 1956 he was chosen by Saba to participate in his orchestra, the first Orchestra of the State Fine Arts Department of Iran, where he continued as a soloist for many years. As a member of this orchestra and other ensembles sponsored by the Iranian Government he has performed on Tehran radio and television, concertized widely and given command performances for visits of various foreign dignitaries and heads of state from India, Pakistan, Turkey, Denmark, Great Britain, The Netherlands and America. At the same time he was engaged in teaching at the Conservatory of Persian National Music in Tehran.
When he left his home country for the United States in 1964, Iranian television produced a farewell special dedicated to him. Upon his arrival in this country, he quickly became a central figure in the cultural lives of Persian Americans, a population that has grown from several thousand to half a million in the Los Angeles area alone.
Dr. Sadeghi has demonstrated his mastery of the santur for audiences around the United States but he also takes the time to teach students of Persian music. He has recorded with artists such as Seals and Crofts and Stephan Grapelli, reaching audiences unfamiliar with Persian musical traditions. In addition, he has contributed to academic scholarship on the subject, serving as a lecturer on Persian music at the University of California, Los Angeles. He recently realized a dream by founding the Nakisa Music Institute and santur.com (an online music school) dedicated to passing along knowledge and skills in Persian and world music.
NEA: Congratulations on your award. Tell me how you felt when you heard the news.
MR. SADEGHI: When Mr. Bergey called he first asked if I knew about the National Endowment for the Arts and talked a little bit about it. He didn't say anything about the award. I just sat there thinking, Oh, he's going to say –Sorry, I'm just calling to inform you you're not one of the winners." I'd been thinking about this for many months.
He was really clever, you know. He didn't say it in the beginning. And then after a minute he said, "Well, I want to congratulate you. You are one of the winners."
I shouted with happiness. I'm emotional, you know - I'm a musician - though generally not very demonstrative. But I shouted when he said, "You're the first one I'm calling." I was the first guy he called! When he said that I almost burst out crying.
NEA: Did your music change when you came to America?
MR. SADEGHI: My art comes from such an intense traditional long-term art that you can't change it overnight. It's a classical system. While Western classical system has evolved for the last 300 years, our music has evolved for 1,000 years. So I did not have to change it. I just had to present it right. Over time I have found a way to present my art in more of a contemporary style. I haven't really changed it but just play it in a different format. That's all. Continuous improvisation, varieties of rhythm, they are all Persian and they are all very artistic. I didn't have to change my music or my style. I'm still considered a Persian traditional master both in Iran and here.
NEA: Can you describe your improvisational process?
Sadeghi: When I improvise, I always play in the top of my mind, while the other half is going in a delay kind of mode, bringing new ideas and getting them ready. When I finish one idea the next one comes in. You have to learn how to play and at the same time think ahead to what to play next. It's a beautiful process. I don't have any problem coming up with new ideas.
But you cannot improvise out of nothing. I was under intensive training under the greatest master in Iran the last sixty-seven years [Abol Hassan Saba]. No one can top him. He was the greatest educator, arranger, composer, improviser, teacher. All the masters of today were his students. I learned how to play that instrument from him - the rudiments, the techniques - as well as the enormous repertoire of Persian traditional melodies [the Radif]. Therefore, when you have the Radif, you have the repertoire, and you have the technique how to play the instrument. Because I can play the Radif because I have great technique on that instrument. There is absolutely nothing that I cannot play on that instrument.
The body of Radif is in my mind. Then comes composition and improvisation. The next level is very hard. You have to have a heart, you have to have a soul, you have a brain, you have to have a lot of qualities. I am a very spiritual person. I play to please my Lord. I believe that he created me, my instrument, the sound waves, the strings, the mallet, the repertoire, the pages of music, the recording studios. He created the whole thing. All I have to do is put myself in his path and let him play the music.
When I play I feel that he is playing because he's the creator of all of this.
NEA: You started playing at a very young age, isn't that right?
MR. SADEGHI: I started playing at seven. My mother loved music. She wanted to play the violin but never got a chance. My father also loved music and played the violin for a year or two after they were married, but quit when I was a little kid. When I was seven or eight he said, "If you are the first or second best student in your first grade class, I'll buy you a santur." I think this was a way of making his own musical dreams come true.
I was the top student in the first grade, so he bought me the santur. He took me to a teacher, a dental student at the university, who played a little bit of the santur. After three years I became the best student in his class. Right after that I started playing everywhere. I gave concerts, played in schools, on the radio. I didn't make money but I was playing everywhere because I was playing so well.
When I was 12 then I went to Saba. He thought everything I had learned was wrong and had me start over from the beginning as if I were a beginner. After two or three years I became the best student in that class.
He took me into his orchestra when I was 17. I played for two years in the orchestra but he died when I was 19. After that I started to play on television. I was hired by the government and then hired as a master teacher in the Conservatory.
Then I became a soloist, band leader, and teacher, and ensemble player. I was a government orchestra player. When all the dignitaries came I had to play - I became kind of the official government santur player for six, seven, eight years. But in '64 I left all of that and came here. That's the best thing I ever did.
NEA: Why do you say that?
MR. SADEGHI: Because I'm a Ba'Hai and we were persecuted there. Had I been there in 1980, when a lot of Ba'Hai were persecuted, I would not have been able to breathe. That's why I love this country. Because of the freedom.
NEA: Has the Persian population in Los Angesles changed since you came in 1964?
MR. SADEGHI: There were only about three to four thousand people here. Some rich people and lots of students and teachers - people who could come here to study and people who could afford to buy a house and have a business. A lot of them had been in the Iranian government. I was the only Iranian master musician in the country for many years and I had to represent the community everywhere.
There are so many Iranians here now it's called Tehrangeles.
NEA: Could you talk a little bit about your teaching?
MR. SADEGHI: I love teaching. I'm such an accomplished teacher I could teach a cat to play the santur. I'm not kidding you. I've taught 80 year-olds and three-year olds. I can teach anything. I love teaching and I feel that it's an opportunity give back to the Americans and Persians and the world community. For the art to go forward I have to fulfill my human responsibility to give back whatever I got. I can't take it with me to the grave.
NEA: I was wondering if you could talk about why you enjoy the process of creating music.
Sadeghi: It is my belief, my religious belief, that we are going forward towards a world community. I believe that we're going to have a world community. We will have world peace. We will have total literacy. We will have a world language. You can see that the world is like a village. Now, music is way ahead of language and religion and other barriers between people. Music is something even your enemy can understand. I see myself in a way as a prince of peace, a prince of peace through the santur. I promote peace everywhere I go with my playing. I really enjoy being able to have a conversation with anybody from any community, from any country, for any music, and to be able to get closer to them. The next thing I want to do is to play with some Arabs, and I want to play with Arab and a Jew in the same orchestra. I think I can bring them together through music.
So maybe if every one of us does a little bit it will eventually contribute to that peaceful world community.