The tanbur is an ancient instrument that has assumed various shapes and sounds over the centuries. The simple sonority of this instrument, alternating between dry and soft, has something immaterial, abstract, and even ascetic about it that renders it suitable for spiritual music. In Iran, the tanbur was among the instruments that were played in the Sassanid court. Later, certain Kurdish religious groups adopted it as a sacred instrument and have been using it ever since to accompany their sacred hymns and ceremonial dances.
The cries of the tanbur and instruments as such
Celestial sounds they echo as much
Dry string, dry wood, dry integument
Whence is this sound that resonates from the Friend?
If the soul’s ear is awakened, secrets can be heard from these instruments that remain hidden from those who seek only this world.
Ostad Elahi learned the tanbur as a child. Amid his surroundings and within his family in particular, it was a longstanding tradition for the tanbur to accompany spiritual hymns. With his exceptional aptitude, he had memorized during his childhood the whole repertoire of these melodies as well as those from the surrounding regions. Later, he expanded the technical possibilities and range of this instrument by adding a third string to the two existing strings, while also innovating new playing techniques, the most important of which was the use of all five fingers of the right hand. This fluid motion of the fingers of the right hand culminated in a technique called “shor” that has been widely adopted by players today.
Ostad Elahi’s other significant contribution to elevating the art of the tanbur was assembling a repertoire of over a hundred short and long pieces for the instrument. Due to the richness of its content, musical structure, and ornamentation, this collection is incomparable to the simple airs and modes that comprise its core. Ostad Elahi utilized the basic foundations of this old and limited repertoire as a platform for building his own outstanding improvisations and compositions.
These innovations revived and elevated an ancient musical tradition, such that the tanbur today occupies its own special place among the other instruments. It would not be an exaggeration to consider Ostad Elahi as the true savior of this art, for it was through his efforts that an age-old musical tradition neglected for centuries was transformed into a learned music.
One of the points that invoke the admiration of musicologists are Ostad Elahi’s improvisations on the tanbur, which render his music inimitable. Each improvisation is like a new piece in a novel space. It is for this reason that learning this style of music is possible only through an osmotic transfer—an interpretation offered by Chahrokh Elahi, Ostad Elahi’s son and the sole inheritor of his music. As such, one cannot really blame those who were unable to transcribe this music.
Although this brief text does not allow for an analysis of the technical and spiritual dimensions of Ostad Elahi’s music, it is perhaps helpful to point out just one aspect of his music to which less attention has been paid: the preludes or introductory motifs that are played at the beginning of each piece. In Ostad Elahi’s musical tradition, he commences each piece with an introductory motif that differs each time it is played depending on the spiritual atmosphere and state of the moment; thus, it is never preconceived. These preludes essentially express the spiritual state and mood of the moment through the language of music. Each of these introductory motifs is a mystery that is not unlike the isolated letters that precede the opening of certain chapters of the Qur’an, as though the notes resonate certain states in a subtle and mysterious manner. As such, decoding these preludes might bear some relation to the listener’s degree of musical understanding.
As for the technical elements that are often described in terms of playing strength, hand speed, concentration, etc., they also manifest in Ostad Elahi’s musical work in an exceptional way. Like musical legends, there are stories and anecdotes about Ostad Elahi that might seem mythic though they are nonetheless true, as difficult as that might be for some to fathom. Several accounts of his tanbur in Traces of Truth and The Spirit of Sounds provide readers with the opportunity for further reflection in this regard.
The innovative structural modifications that Ostad Elahi made to the tanbur have been so agreeable to other players that they have been universally adopted. For instance, the tanbur previously had only two strings—the third, which doubles the main string, is one of the innovations attributed to Ostad Elahi. Today, virtually all tanburs have three strings, though few are aware of just how this third string was added to this ancient two-stringed instrument. Moreover, in addition to specifying the optimal dimensions for sound distribution and playing, he established the fretting and other characteristics of the instrument as well.
Among his other innovations is the introduction of a new resonance tuning (known as Farangi tuning) in which the doubled strings are tuned in seconds in relation to the lower string, imparting a new effect to the sound of the instrument that opens up novel horizons for the player. At the same time, one should not neglect to mention the other instrument that he invented, the five-stringed tanbur, which provides for a synthesis of the tanbur and the Persian setar. With this instrument, the player is afforded the possibility of augmenting any Persian music into Kurdish music whenever desired. Of Ostad Elahi’s CDs published to date, one is dedicated to introducing music that is played on this five-stringed tanbur.
Beyond the artistic and technical aspects of Ostad Elahi’s music, its spiritual effects have also recently been the subject of research, including accounts by those who heard this music firsthand. This research has been compiled in The Spirit of Sounds by Prof. Jean During and features both testimonials and musical analyses. Perhaps further research such as this will help to uncover the true depth and impact of Ostad Elahi’s music.