BAHĀRI,(ʿALI-) AṢḠAR (b. Tehran, 1284 Š./1905, d. Tehran, 20 Ḵordād 1374 Š./10 June 1995) master of the kamānča (long-necked bowed lute),. Bahāri, one of the great instrumentalists of Persian traditional music in the twentieth century, came from a family long dedicated to performance of the kamānča. His maternal grandfather, Mirzā ʿAli Khan, a great kamānča player of the late Qajar era, learned to play this instrument under the greatest master of his time, Esmāʿil Khan, father of Ḥosayn Khan Esmāʿilzāda. Mirzā ʿAli Khan had five sons and three daughters; three of his sons learned the instrument from their father, who also taught his grandson, Aṣḡar. Bahāri started lessons at the age of ten and, in three years of study with his grandfather, learned to play the dastgāhs (classical modal system) of Māhur, Šur and Segāh. Since the whole family lived in the same house, after his grandfather died Aṣḡar continued to learn, mostly by listening. Having also a good voice, he would sing to the accompaniment of his uncles at weekly gatherings of the great masters of the time. When he was twenty he was a good performer and singer, with a phenomenal memory.
At this time the violin was gradually replacing the kamānča as a popular performance instrument. Out of necessity, Bahāri also learned how to play this Western instrument. He took lessons from Reżā Maḥjubi, whose own violin style was derived from the kamānča.
The kamānča players in Bahāri’s family performed both traditional Persian classical music (i.e., the dastgāhs) and traditional Persian entertainment music (known as moṭrebi). The kamānča, more than any other of the contemporary classical Persian instruments, was associated with moṭrebi music, which was performed for popular theater, weddings and other festive occasions. Even while the violin was gaining acceptance as a replacement for the kamānča in classical music, Bahāri used the kamānča primarily for moṭrebi music, where it was still one of the central instruments. By playing moṭrebi music, which consists largely of metrical vocal and instrumental pieces (such as čahār-meżrāb and reng), Bahāri enriched his style and his knowledge of traditional Persian music.
In his thirties, Bahāri started performing kamānča for Radio Tehran, playing short solos for a weekly radio broadcast and accompanying other singers and instrumentalists. His participation in the music circles of Tehran owed much to Nur-ʿAli Borumand’s support. Borumand opposed the Westernization of Persian music, and felt that the violin could not replace the kamānča in the performance of authentic Persian music. He went against the fashion of the time, and recommended Bahāri to Ruḥollāh Ḵāleqi, director of the National Conservatory of Music, who invited him to teach at the Conservatory and later at the School of Fine Arts at Tehran University.
As a performer, Bahāri had a unique style of improvisation. A performer normally improvises within the limits of a particular dastgāh, but may also modulate from one dastgāh into another. This procedure is called morākab-ḵᵛāni (vocal) or morākab-navāzi (instrumental). In his own style of morākab-navāzi, Bahāri would choose a guša (piece) and play it not only within the context of a different dastgāh but in the actual mode of that dastgāh. He placed it so skillfully that it was hard even for a knowledgeable listener to identify a piece as a “guest guša.”
Bahāri composed many pieces of the genres piš-darāmad (overture), reng (classical dance) and taṣnif (classical song). For the lyrics of his taṣnifs he used the poems of Ḥāfeẓ. Some of his compositions have been recorded in concert performances. With the rediscovery of the kamānča, Bahāri became a prominent performer of traditional music, and despite his advanced age he committed himself to promoting this instrument. In addition to live performances and recordings for radio and television, and frequent concerts in Tehran and in the provinces, Bahāri was invited to bazms (informal entertainments) held at the homes of prominent people, to formal and informal parties of the royal family, and to national and international festivals such as the Shiraz Arts Festival. He performed with Abu’l-Ḥasan Ṣabā, Aḥmad ʿEbādi, Ḥosayn Tehrāni, Loṭf-Allāh Majd and Farāmarz Payvar at two concerts held at the Iran-America Society in Tehran.
When the Center for the Preservation and Propagation of Iranian Traditional Music was established under the direction of Dr. Dāryuš Ṣafwat, Bahāri, together with other masters, was invited to teach traditional Persian music to students at the Center. Bahāri’s contribution went beyond teaching; his phenomenal memory helped the Center to collect and record many old songs before they were forgotten. Many such songs were revived and performed by the singers Siāvaš Šajariān, Rażawi Sarvestāni and Parisā. For these students, Bahāri’s style represented an authentic source of traditional Persian music. But for him, performance of the classical repertoire on the kamānča would have become a lost art.
Nurā Amānat-Ṣamimi, taped interview with Aṣḡar Bahāri, Tehran, 1976.
Kayḵosraw Behruzi, “Āmiḵtan-e musiqi-ye irāni-rā bā musiqi-ye bigāna ḵiānati bozorg midānam,” Tamāšā 1/20, 14 Mordād 1350 Š./July 1971, pp. 12-13.
Nād-ʿAli Hamadāni, “Markaz-e ḥefẓ va ešāʿa-ye musiqi-ye melli-ye Irān,” Tamāšā 1/38, 13 Āḏar 1350 Š./December 1971, pp. 8-9, 11.
Mortażā Varzi, taped conversations and lessons with Aṣḡar Bahāri, 1973-78.
Obituaries: Eṭṭelāʿāt-e bayn-al-melali no. 267, 22 Ḵordād 1374 Š./12 June 1995; Rahāvard, Berkeley, Cal. no. 38, Spring 1995.
Originally Published: July 20, 2002
Last Updated: August 23, 2011