The music of Ostad Elahi is rooted in a tradition that has remained hidden over the centuries. Until relatively recently, this music was played only in small gatherings convened for prayer and contemplation. Ostad Elahi himself never performed in public, and always played for the sake of contemplation, whether alone or in a small circle of family and friends. The pieces that have remained are mostly from the latter part of his life and were recorded with nonprofessional equipment by his family. These recordings comprise some 40 hours on tape, a portion of which has thus far been digitized and published. His music has had a profound impact on all those who have heard it, including many renowned musicians and musicologists.
From August 5, 2014 to January 11, 2015, a special exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art entitled “The Sacred Lute: The Art of Ostad Elahi” introduced this music to a global audience and documented Ostad Elahi’s remarkable transformation of the tanbur, its playing technique, and repertoire, which collectively elevated this ancient musical tradition to a learned art form.
Ostad Elahi was born in an environment where for centuries the practice of sacred music had been a part of daily life. From early childhood, he manifested an exceptional aptitude and gift for music, particularly on the tanbur, a Kurdish lute that was the choice instrument of the tradition he inherited. His father Hadj Nematollah, who was among the master tanbur players of the time, personally attended to his son’s musical education from the outset. When young Nur Ali started playing the tanbur he was so small that his hands could not reach the frets on a normal-sized instrument, and his father had a special tanbur built for him out of a wooden ladle.
Among the friends and mystics who came to visit Hadj Nematollah from various regions in Iran and even neighboring countries were many accomplished musicians. The young child would spend a great deal of time with these musicians, who at the request of Hadj Nematollah would teach young Elahi the secrets of their art. Likewise, every time he would travel with his father to various regions, the local tanbur players would impart their knowledge to this child prodigy.
Thus, from early childhood, Ostad Elahi became familiar with the technical subtleties of Kurdish, Lorish, Persian, Turkish, Arabic, and even Indian music. His aptitude for music was such that by the age of six, his skillful playing and knowledge of the repertoire invoked admiration; by the age of nine, none would play before him out of respect and deference. The twelve-year period of asceticism that he began at this same age allowed him to deepen his bond with the instrument, as he explored new spiritual realms one after the next in its sacred repertoire. It was during this same period that he would sometimes spend entire nights playing the tanbur until dawn, immersed in devotions and spiritual visions; in his own words, veils were lifted and the mysteries of the invisible world were revealed to him. Perhaps it was these states that strengthened his connection to sacred music in general and the tanbur in particular, such that playing music was always an important part of his daily regimen.
When I was young, we had a house that was suitable in every respect. . . . I had a room to myself there and every now and then I would take up my tanbur at night and play sacred music . . . sometimes I would find the room flooded with sunlight and would then realize I had spent the entire night playing the tanbur.
I was once gifted a partridge that came to fall in love with my tanbur. Whenever I would take up my instrument, she would sit on my knee and, a short time later, enter a sort of intoxicated state, making all sorts of cooing sounds while grasping and pecking at my hand; in short, she would become drunk with elation. At night, she would sleep on a shelf in my room. Early one morning when I was going to sleep, she began to sing; I hushed her to be quiet. She instantly lowered her head and fell silent. From then on, whenever she woke early in the morning she would first come to the foot of my covers, pull them a little, and make a few sounds. If I didn’t say anything after two or three tries, she would realize that I was asleep and would go away. Otherwise . . . I would say: ‘Ah, what a lovely voice’ . . . and she would immediately start to sing.
Even during his professional career, music occupied a prominent place in Ostad’s life. Not only did he use music as a means of establishing a connection to the Source, but he was also engaged in constant research. Wherever he lived during his judicial posts, he would meet and befriend musical masters in the area with the goal of researching and observing new techniques. In Tehran he likewise interacted with some of the great musicians of the time, notably Darvish Khan and Abolhasan Saba. In addition to the tanbur, Ostad Elahi was also proficient on the tar, the setar, and the violin. It was during these same transfers from one post to another that he became familiar with Turkish and Khorasani music as well.
There are two things on which my time was well-spent: the tanbur and spiritual practice.
As music was above all a means of reflection and prayer for Ostad Elahi, he always played alone or in intimate gatherings of family and friends.