An Instrument of Peace

Iranian musician Kayhan Kalhor, in town for a concert with the Orlando Philharmonic, talks about his craft, the travel ban turmoil, and his beloved horses.

Kayhan Kalhor has a face that reminds me of Sam Elliott, the actor whose dark eyes, craggy brow, rangy jawline and bushy mustache is always getting him parts as a cowboy. As it turns out, Kalhor is no make-believe ranch hand, but a real-life breeder and lover of horses, going back to his childhood in Iran. He’s best known, however, as one of the few remaining masters of the kamancheh, a bowed string instrument invented in Persia four centuries ago.

He will return to Orlando to perform one of his own compositions for the kamancheh, a lush, hypnotic and intriguingly titled piece called Blue as the Turquoise Night of Neyshabur, with the Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra on Saturday night. The concert, which will also feature Bela Bartok’s Three Village Scenes and Gustav Holst’s The Planets, is at Bob Carr Theater.

Kalhor wrote the piece for kamancheh (pronounced kah-MANCH) as a member of cellist Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble. Orlando Phil’s music director, Eric Jacobsen, who will conduct Saturday, is a fellow member of that historic, cross-cultural musical initiative, as is his violinist brother, Colin. The international ensemble’s philosophy of camaraderie, collaboration, and peace among diverse populations through the power of music has strongly influenced the orchestra’s direction—and guest artists—during Eric Jacobsen’s tenure, bringing the world to Orlando’s doorstep.

I remember how touching it was, a year and a half ago, when Jacobsen first brought Kahlor to Orlando to perform another of his compositions with the orchestra, a somber work titled Silent City. It was his tribute to the Kurdish village of Halabjah, which was attacked with chemical weapons—reportedly Tabun, Sarin, VX and mustard gas—during the Saddam Hussein regime. Over 5,000 died. Another 7,000 were seriously injured.

On the night Silent City was performed here, the audience was peppered with members of Orlando’s Iranian community, including a small group of men near us who were so touched by the music and their own memories of the homeland they fled that they began crying and embracing one another.

Kahlor, 54, who has spent most of his career shuttling back and forth between Iran and the United States, has experienced tragedies and heartbreaks of his own. His parents and his brother died when a missile struck their home. He spends months apart from his wife, who remains in Iran.

Given his own effort to promote global peace through his music, for which he was awarded the Isaac Stern Human Spirit Award in September for his “outstanding contribution to our understanding of humanity through music,” I wondered what he thought of the Trump administration’s travel ban, upheld by the Supreme Court over the summer. It bans or restricts immigration to the United States from seven countries, including Iran.

First, though, I had to ask him about his horses.

You love horses.  Do you still breed them? Do you have a favorite horse, past or present?
Yes, I own seven Arabian horses: two in Iran and five in the U.S. Breeding horses is my hobby. Being around these beautiful creatures when I can is the greatest blessing one can have in life. My favorite horse is an Arabian mare called Marjaana Al Shams. I bred her 13 years ago, and she grew up with us. She's a multi-champion and has the most beautiful, graceful appearance and temper. She has always treated me as her family, and I have the same feeling for her. She has given me several gorgeous babies and will stay with me for the rest of my life.

Yo-Yo Ma once referred to you as his brother. Do you feel the same way about him?
I have had the honor of being both a colleague and friend of Mr. Ma since 1999. As you know, apart from being an exceptional musician and music philosopher, he has always been curious about other musical cultures, and I think this quality triggered a great friendship and musical dialogue between us. I think a part of his "brotherhood" expression refers to how our musical cultures and our instruments relate to each other. As we know, kamancheh is one the oldest fiddles in the world and is the ancestor of many other Eastern, and Western bowed instruments. I think when he refers to me as a brother, the word bears a double connotation, describing our closeness as people and in our musical world.

How has the travel ban affected you?
The ban affects everyone's lives, including mine. I think in the long run, the ban and economic embargos will hurt Iranian people rather than the political rulers of Iran. Iranians are very peaceful people and have suffered enough through the long war with Iraq, which was again imposed on the country by the help of many Western governments. I firmly believe Iran should not be included in the travel ban as no Iranian has been active in any anti-American activity since the devastating events of September 11. The travel ban will only affect students, parents who will not be able to visit their children and immediate members of every Iranian family living in the United States. The Iranian community is among the hardest working community of immigrants in the U.S., and has contributed a great deal to the U.S. economy, science and culture,and this ban will be no reward for any Iranian-American who feels that the U.S. is their second home. I have always been vocal about politics both in Iran and the U.S.. I think the politicians, notably the present administration, lacks sensitivity and compassion for many immigrants, which will result in dismantling the trust in most second and third generations of Americans living and working in the U.S. today. This, in turn, will cause significant damage to the economy and will end in mistrust and hatred. It will be an introduction to chaos and social disorder which will take decades to fix.

What about the younger, progressive generation in Iran?  It would seem to me that they are hurt the most by this travel ban.
The collective desires and aspirations of this 30-something generational bulge is in line with what you might find in Europe or the United States. Unlike most of its neighbors, there is no grassroots fundamentalism among Iran's young generation. I am not sure of the reason for this immunity, but I guess it has something to do with building up resistance to a virus that has once afflicted a body. The future of Iran is not determined by the gerontocracy that is ruling it. It is this young majority, with its firm interest in prosperity, arts and a return to moderation and normalcy, that will determine the future of Iran.

Is music powerful enough to influence politics?

Music is an essential part of the cultural life of a society. I believe that in any well-balanced society the three elements of politics, economy, and culture are necessary to realize our human potential. These three elements have equal importance and in the absence of one the others cannot function properly. If we have a cultured society, we will have better politics; we will know our rights and will elect better politicians to strive towards a better community. Good politics will lead to an uncorrupted and robust economy, which in turn should help culture too flourish. Bad politics, on the other hand, results in a corrupt economy and an absence of cultural infrastructure.

So every element in its own right helps to build a functioning society with fewer problems on every front. One can even see better human rights and environmental awareness and less violence and crime in a community that has the right balance between these critical elements. So, we need to have art and music to build the cultural life of each society and the world. We cannot live without music. I feel this makes what I do very important. I think that other artists and I are the cultural ambassadors of our people and represent them around the world. We have the honor of introducing a very ancient and essential culture that has contributed a great deal to the art, wisdom, and knowledge of humanity.

Where is home for you now? Where on this planet is the home for your heart?
Well, for a person who is always traveling, the airports and hotel rooms in different cities are where they spend most of their time. A Persian expression says: “Home is where your heart feels happy.” These days when I am not touring, I live between Redlands, California and Tehran. I was living in Southern California until the travel ban caused long periods of separation for my family and me. As a result, I am spending more time in Iran, where I have not been a permanent resident for more than 30 years. So, I’m still trying to find the place to feel the happiness in the heart. It is not the U.S. these days.

Saturday’s concert (Nov. 3) is at 8 p.m. at the Bob Carr Theater. For details and tickets go to


Categories: Arts Beat