FEATURED ARTIST: NAGMEH FARAHMAND

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                                                                                               photo credit: Mohamad Maghsoudi

 

It was a warm full house at the annual fundraiser at Beit Zatoun on Markham Street in Toronto. Maryem Tollar and Roula Said had introduced us to a newcomer to Toronto, Persian percussionist Naghmeh Farahmand and she began her solo on daf (frame drum).  There she was, a petite, dark-haired vision of loveliness.  She started out slowly holding the drum just to her left, gently tapping her fingers on the skin of the drum.  We were being soothed by the soft patter for a time, but then the tempo gradually increased and those of us who’d reopened our eyes witnessed a dramatic transformation in Naghmeh.  It was as if she had become possessed, faster and faster, louder and louder, but still subtle, her fingers flew and her face was radiant. I was transfixed.  And I wanted more, more, more.

Fortunately, I’ve had several opportunities to witness the magic of Naghmeh Farahmand since that time and to get to know her a bit more.  We recently met at the Charles St. Second Cup and chatted and laughed endlessly. What a delight.

Arriving in Canada in 2010, Naghmeh has been a tremendous addition to Toronto’s music scene. And perhaps more importantly, she is a strong role model for women everywhere.  She is at once delicate, emotional and feminine, and passionate, powerful and self-assured.   In 2012, she released the first Persian female solo percussion album, Unbound, a personal triumph of which she is justifiably proud.  She has a great deal to say about the role of women in music.  It is fascinating to listen to her and feel her passion about this subject.

Naghmeh grew up in a musical family in Iran.  Her father is the percussion master, Mahmoud Farahmand, and clearly she has rhythm coursing through her veins. It didn’t hurt that she simply adores her father and used any excuse to be around him and get his attention!  But whatever the reason, Naghmeh took to percussion at a very young age, beginning at age six with the Persian tonbak drum and gradually working up to the frame drum or daf by the age of seventeen.  She studied with a variety of musicians including Bijan Kamkar of the renowned group, the Kamkars.

Although music remained her raison d’être throughout her teens and young adulthood, Naghmeh did what many young Persian women do, she studied electronic engineering at university.  She remembers the advice her mother gave her in those early days, “I don’t think it’s going to work for your whole life, maybe temporarily. Music is what you love, it can’t be a job.”   In fact, as it turns out, this music is the only job Naghmeh has ever had! Well, she did work for a week at an engineering firm, but she knew it was not meant to be, quit and never looked back.  Her mother is delighted at this turn of events, and  in total support of her aspirations.  And her father? Well, he is bursting with pride at his accomplished daughter.

Naghmeh began travelling the world, playing Persian tonbak and daf in Japan, the U.S., Germany, England, Switzerland, and Kuwait to name a few.  She is particularly proud of having performed at Japan’s Min-On Festival at the age of eighteen.  Her father had performed there twelve years earlier so this was a particularly poignant experience for Naghmeh.   Naghmeh founded a percussion ensemble (Sharghi) while collaborating with Iran’s national TV and recorded numerous pieces and performed live for a decade.

She was happy with her life in Iran and with the many opportunities available to her as one of very few women percussionists in the country.  So when her interior designer husband suggested they move to Canada, she was almost certain it would be a temporary move. She remembers, “I didn’t expect to like living here.  I was crying and crying when I said goodbye to my family.”  Much to her delight, she loves Canada.  Not only was being embraced by the culturally diverse environment a pleasant surprise, but what that means in terms of freedom in artistic expression was something she’d never imagined when they first made plans to immigrate.

She quickly says, “I’m accepted for who I am.”  Comparing the world music community in Toronto with the classical music scene in Iran she exclaims, “There is much more freedom to be ‘me’.” Like many classical musical forms around the world, including European, there are strict rules in performance and diverging from these is not encouraged.  Of the title of her cd Unbound  she says, “many people think this is a political statement, but it’s not.  It’s about my freedom as a musician, freedom for my fingers!”

Nagmeh’s feeling of belonging in Toronto’s music community has been in large part due to her good fortune of meeting the longtime friends and Middle Eastern musical collaborators, Maryem Tollar and Roula Said.  Both have been tremendously supportive and encouraging, inviting Naghmeh to perform with them and introducing her widely.  Maryem also contributed to the Unbound cd. She exclaims repeatedly, “thank God I met them! As a new immigrant you never forget those who supported you and your culture from the beginning.  I was so surprised. I didn’t expect this from someone who is not from my background.”

Naghmeh smiles as she remembers her early performances with the two divas, “At first I played softly according to the rules and boundaries of Persian classical music. They would ask me, ‘are you playing? Play louder!’” So she started to experiment, throwing caution to the wind.  And she loves this new liberation. But don’t misunderstand, she believes that a firm foundation in the classic principles is essential.

This conversation led Naghmeh and I to the very interesting subject of women in music, especially percussion.  She recounts several instances that support her contention that female percussionists are not automatically taken seriously, that they must ‘prove’ themselves.  For instance, often she finds that men are skeptical when pulls out her drums.  Then when she plays they will go “Wow!”  She says, “I’m not even playing anything wow, they just don’t expect a woman to play well.”  Naghmeh finds this extremely frustrating but she simply carries on in her own way, proud of being a woman and proud of how women in general play.

“Men play percussion differently. There is a different feeling. It’s good for women to follow their feelings, not just try to be like men.  It’s beautiful.”  When I ask her to describe how women play she smiles and says, “women play what men cannot play.”  She often hears the remark that she ‘plays like a man’, and is dismayed that this is intended to be a compliment when this is not her ideal. When such folks claim women aren’t loud enough, she scoffs.  “This can be fixed with a microphone! What women can do is very special and should be encouraged.”

And finally, she is galled when she is invited to perform as an adornment to the stage.  She recalls being asked if she knew another beautiful young woman to also play so they could place one at each end of the stage.

Naghmeh is steadfast in her demand that women be treated with respect and she has no shortage of opportunities to play in a range of environments.  When she first came to Canada she lived and played in the Iranian community north of Toronto. But as soon as she felt comfortable she moved downtown and started playing with myriad musicians.  “I wanted to try something new. If I wanted to be with Iranians, I could have stayed with my family in Iran.”

But she is clearly in Canada to stay.  Lucky us!   She teaches workshops in daf and tonbak in Canada and the U.S. and continues to play around the world as well as at home.   Shargi Ensemble has been revived in Toronto with a small group of women.  She has a drum sponsorship already and is very content. She could easily return to Najva, her father’s music school in Iran on a permanent basis. (She giggles as she remembers how she and her musician brother had convinced him to build the school so they could both teach and yet neither of them lives in Iran anymore.) But this is unlikely to happen anytime soon.  She loves how much she has grown in the past four years and has no regrets.  She owes so much of her success and happiness to the constant love and support of her husband, Mohamad Maghsoudi.

In Canada she is in her musical element.  “If I didn’t have music in my life, I might not have stayed here, there would be no reason to be far from my family.  It’s music that keeps me here.”

http://www.naghmehmusic.com

 

 

Lise Watson

 

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