Sunday, 27 October 2019

Kayhan Kalhor - WOMEX 19 Artist Award Recipient

First published in the WOMEX – World Music Expo 2019 delegate guide.

For Kayhan Kalhor, the kamancheh is his voice. When he plays, he creates whole languages in which to communicate with people from all over the world, from centuries past and far into the future.

Born in Tehran to Kurdish parents, it was quickly clear that Kalhor had a special talent for music. Although he started by playing the violin, it didn’t take long for him to become entranced by the kamancheh, switching his studies to the ancient Persian spike-fiddle by the time he was 10. Just three years later he was working with the National Orchestra of Radio and Television of Iran, and his career as a professional musician took flight.

Since his prodigious childhood, Kalhor has rightly been regarded as a true master of Persian classical music, but that mastery doesn’t come only from his immersion in the tradition. Without innovation, the tradition cannot exist, and Kalhor has been at the forefront of innovation in his field for decades. For him, there was no other option. “This happens in every generation and in my generation, I’m one of the people who tried to do that,” he says. “It comes very naturally. You don’t decide to do it, it just happens because you don’t want to sound like your teacher. At some point you have to translate your tradition to how it’s supposed to sound in your own generation’s voice.” The way he develops the tradition and makes it his own comes in part from the wide range of styles he exposes it to. Throughout his career, he has worked with the best musicians from across Iran and studied the folk musics of Kurdistan and Khorasan, allowing all of these voices to permeate his own sound; eventually, it all grew together into playing techniques and methods of improvisation that were entirely unique to himself.

This spirit of innovation extends far beyond the borders of his own culture. A globally-focussed way of working took seed when he studied Western classical music in Italy and Canada. There he gained useful knowledge of different ways of approaching music, while taking pains not to corrupt his own style. “I was so careful not to learn anything that damages the traditional way of thinking or playing. I was so conscious of that during those years, just to get good things that I need and not absorb things that might change my direction.” This way of picking only those elements that would enrich his style and identifying those that would weaken it became an important method when performing with other, distinct cultures.

On the international scene, Kalhor is most well-known for his world-spanning collaborations. From Shujaat Khan, Yo-Yo Ma, Erdal Erzincan and Toumani Diabaté to the Kronos Quartet, Brooklyn Rider and the Rembrandt Frerichs Trio, Kalhor’s musical partnerships are many and varied, and the results are invariably world-class. When he plays with these musicians, he stays true to the sanctity of his musical culture but deconstructs it in a way that creates new, entirely sympathetic fusions with those of his collaborators. Together they create an intense, improvisatory music that is not from one culture or the other – it is always both and always neither. “I can say it’s a new language, and I want to get deeper in that language, to create a vocabulary. It’s give and take…I’m after creating a language where you can know this is old music, but at the same time, there are new words that are comprehendible, not so new that they are beyond recognition. One foot in the old traditions and one foot in the future.” His collaborations are so successful because they are more than just an album or a concert, they are full, holistic relationships where music is just one part: “I stayed with these musicians for years and years. I’m living with these people. I’ve been with Shajaad Khan for 24 years, Yo-Yo Ma for 21 years, Erdal Erzancan for 13 years. I look at these collaborations as a process, something that breathes and lives. That is why I was so meticulous in choosing musicians, someone I could live with, someone I could understand, be a friend of their family, have a non-musical trip with. These were all factors, and that’s why I had to choose someone who was exactly like me, in their own country, musically and non-musically.

With so much thought, philosophy and concentrated effort that goes into preparing his work – whether solo or in collaboration – when Kalhor plays, the music flows as easily and gracefully as a swooping bird, a completely natural phenomenon. For him, all the work simply allows the music to manifest itself. “It’s difficult to explain it,” he ponders. “I think we’re all devices of goodness and beauty in this world. The beauty comes through us and we’re responsible to project it, that’s all. The beauty comes from another world. We have to work, we have to rehearse, we were given the talent and the gift, but that doesn’t mean we are the creator of it.

With his music possessing a power unto itself, Kalhor has neither the intention nor the choice to stop that ethereal flow. “[I’ll] keep on playing, until I die! Because I cannot leave music and music cannot leave me. When I’m not able to be active as a concert musician as I am now, I’ll teach more and I’ll write. There’s a young generation here that needs attention and direction, and I’m doing a lot of that whenever I can, and I will do more. But I’m staying with music. I cannot leave music, music is for life.” Together, he and his music will ensure that the renaissance of Persian classical music will not slow down any time soon.

It is for his mastery and virtuosity of the kamancheh, for his ceaseless innovation and collaboration to create exciting new musical languages, and for bringing the Persian classical music tradition to the ears of people all over the world, that we are delighted to award the WOMEX 19 Artist Award to Kayhan Kalhor.

Photo: Kayhan Kalhor (left) performs at the WOMEX 19 Awards alongside Erdal Erzincan, by Eric van Nieuwland.

Julie's Bicycle - WOMEX 19 Professional Excellence Award Recipient

First published in the WOMEX – World Music Expo 2019 delegate guide.

The world is burning, the ice is melting and the oceans are choking, and it’s our fault. Those that argue otherwise are not only working against humanity but against the world at large.

But all is not yet lost. We still have the opportunity to kick back against these changes to our world, and our efforts work best when we move as one community. Julie’s Bicycle is an organisation that are rallying the creative and arts sectors in shouting with one powerful voice against the environmental crises we currently face. Like most good ideas, Julie’s Bicycle came about through a meeting with friends. A beautiful utopian vision was dreamed up, ‘where festivals were powered by solar, venues were off-grid and covered in flowers, museums were community energy providers, artists were united as beacons for change.’ That was in 2006. Since then, Julie’s Bicycle (named after the location of that first meeting) have worked tirelessly towards that vision, in London (where they’re based), in the UK, and in the world. Venues may not be covered in flowers just yet, but under their diligent watch and intense work, the arts world is slowly becoming more and more sustainable.

From their very first project – a calculator for arts professionals to work out and understand their carbon impact, which has since become a go-to tool in the creative arts industry – Julie’s Bicycle have approached their task in three main ways: working with businesses individually to improve their environmental impact management; researching and developing resources for the use of all; and introducing, promoting and performing outreach for new ideas and sustainable business models. The holistic nature is not only important to making a real impact, but is one of the strongest ways that people and businesses can make a difference, says Julie’s Bicycle CEO and founder, Alison Tickell: “One thing I’ve learnt is that there isn’t a single way of doing it. We actually need to work on many dimensions all the time. But if we simplify it down, the first thing is to recognise that we can act, and then work out what we can do personally and professionally. They can be small things or big things, but they can accumulate to be quite a powerful collection of actions that are about real change. It leads to a different understanding of agency in this space. It’s this wonderful experience of giving yourself an opportunity to act, and it becomes a really exciting, deepening endeavour.

To move and work within the music industry is often to feel disempowered when it comes to the concerns of higher powers of national governments. There is usually a disconnect between the creative community on one side and policy-makers on the other – we often speak very different languages. Julie’s Bicycle is a translator. Not only do they act to bring together many facets of the industry with one voice, they also help those in power to understand our wants, needs and demands in ways that may not be otherwise understood, or taken seriously.

The great thing is that Julie’s Bicycle aren’t just working alone. Their message has been spreading and their successes have been building and gaining influence across many fields. “Over the last six months it’s been fantastic feeling that things are changing, and I think we have been a bit of that change,” Tickell says. “We were very lucky to pick up on this one quite early on. The way we work is so collaborative, we work with everyone. We’ve been lucky that we’ve been able to gather this community.” They have played an enormous part in turning small ripples into tides of change, and this was made starkly evident in July of this year, when they, together with Extinction Rebellion and Culture Declares Emergency, launched Music Declares Emergency. This declaration reached every facet of the music industry – artists, labels, publishers, venues, festivals promoters, managers and agents – with more than 1500 signatories calling on international governments to ‘act now to reverse biodiversity loss and reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions by no later than 2030,’ as well as pledging to support, share and work towards a sustainable music industry. The work of Julie’s Bicycle is key to this goal.

For Julie’s Bicycle, outcomes are more subtle than large-scale ‘achievements.’ Instead, they are slowly, surely (and with an increasing pace) changing the way that the music industry thinks, feels and acts in regards to ecological emergency. There’s a lot there to be proud of, and it’s clear that their legacy is only just beginning. “What I am pleased about is that people are much more ready than they would have been because we have been developing the ‘how’ for such a long time,” says Tickell. “The amount of people and organisations who are ready for this moment of change and want to do more has been really gratifying. We’ve been inundated with ideas and interest, requests for help. The fact that we have been working on this for some time has given people the confidence to step into this space much more easily, and that’s been terrific.

The work that we have at hand is to literally save the world. But we can do it. There is a lot to do, and we all have our own roles to play – especially in our own position as music professionals – and Julie’s Bicycle are here to help us. They have plenty of room to expand, too. As we all look ahead to what we can do now, and what solutions may be coming, we need to future-proof our business model as well as the world, and Julie’s Bicycle will be there with us, doing whatever it takes, at all times, to help us succeed, together.

For their forward-thinking strategies to speed up the attainment of environmental sustainability in every facet of our industry and professional lives, for their rallying of artists and arts professionals from all over the world to speak and act in one powerful group, and for their status as a figurehead in the global arts movement in the face of climate change and ecological disasters, we are delighted to present Julie’s Bicycle as the WOMEX Professional Award recipient for 2019.

Photo: Chiara Baliali of Julie's Bicycle (left) receives the WOMEX 19 Professional Excellence Award presented by Sam Lee, by Yannis Psathas.