Interview with Mohammad Mostafa Heydarian

Radio Khiyaban sits down with the young Iranian virtuoso for a brief discussion regarding his musical backstory and creative approach to the traditional tanbur.


Radio Khiyaban


One of Radio Khiyaban's 2021 highlights was our release of the Kurdish-Iranian tanbur player Mohammad Mostafa Heydarian's cassette Songs of Horaman. These first-ever recordings of the talented young virtuoso absolutely floored us when we heard them, and unsurprisingly they have since received rapturous reception from all corners of the globe, reaching far beyond what one might expect to be the "traditional audience" for acoustic classical music and drawing a significant amount of love from the international free-improv and avant-garde communities. Radio Khiyaban sat down via a scratchy three-way video call with Mostafa (currently based in Tehran, Iran) and his friend Valentin Portron in November of 2021 for this short conversation discussing Heydarian's roots, early musical experiences, and personal approach to his craft. All answers are Mostafa's own, with some editorial comments and insertions made (and noted) where deemed necessary for clarity.

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RK: Let us start from the roots and then branch outwards from there. Can you tell us a little bit
about who you are and where you are from?

I'm from one of the cities in western Iran, in Kermanshah. I was born there and lived there for just one year. After
that I came to the capital of Iran, Tehran, and I grew up there. I remember that I was seven years old. I remember
I came to my father's workshop, step by step. I came up to my father and said, "father, can you remember that guy
that came to our home? I'd really love to play tanbur. Can you make me one? I'd really love to learn." This was the
first part of the story. After one month he was really excited that his seven year old son was coming to him and
asking him to make him a tanbur. After that I was a student of one of his best friends, Iraj Yadehari. He was my
first master, you know - like having your first great teacher.

These were my first steps in starting music. I didn't know anything about what this world was, exactly. In those days I was like a kid, playing lots of things by myself, and sometimes doing exercises, until I was fourteen years old. At that age I really discovered what my love was, what I wanted to do in my future - what my future was going to be, where my interests lay. And after that I stuck to it very strictly. I understood that [the tanbur] was my love. I always played for a long time during the days. Sometimes eight, nine, or ten hours per day I did exercises in playing tanbur. Most of the ways that I have learned up to now are through the tracks of old masters who, nowadays, sadly, are no longer with us. I learned most of the things that I know through their performances. Listening to the tracks, trying to understand them...trying to “make a tanbur in my mind,” you know? When I listen to music, to try to have the tanbur in my mind even though I do not have one in my hands.

RK: In the credits for your new cassette it says that the instruments you used on the recordings were built by Darvish Morteza. Would I be right in assuming that this is your father then? And if so, does he also play the tanbur?

Yes, that is my father - the signature on his instruments is "Darvish Mortezai." That's his profession. He doesn't play, he just makes instruments.

RK: Do you have any other relatives involved in music?

No, no, just me and my father!

RK: The album is titled "Songs of Horaman" (which for readers unfamiliar with the geography is a mountainous region of Iranian Kurdistan along the western border of Kermanshah and spilling over into Iraq - editor). What does Horaman mean to you as a place, and in what ways would you say that you and your music has been shaped by that region?

Horaman is a place that each time I feel sad, each time that I feel happy, each time I feel missed - that is the place that made me. That raised me. So that is the place that - well you know, I owe everything to there. Lots of times that I remember with my friend Valentin, the type of things that we have played together in that place...I decided that the name of the place should be in the title of the album because I really love that place, you know?

RK: If someone unfamiliar with that part of the country were to go and visit Horaman, what would you recommend that they do or see while they were there? Maybe we can get some inside recommendations!

All of the things from that place are love. From just walking around to visiting the place, you know? Horaman has really beautiful nature, and it is one of the most religious places in Islam. My father is the Darwish there, also a kind of "master" – but in a religious way.

RK: On several numbers Behzad Varasteh performs wonderful accompaniment on the daf. How did the collaboration with him come about?

It's been a long time - about twenty years - that [our family has] been friends with him. He's an old family friend. And yet at the time that we wanted to record the album it was just a half a year since his mother had passed away. We could have made the album faster, but we let him take that time for himself, because he really had to take time - it was just him and his mother, and he had really experienced a bad thing, so we wanted to let him take the time for himself. Then we started to talk about the album, to talk about the music - and then we went into the studio.

RK: What do you find most different about performing alone and performing with accompaniment such as the daf, especially since this music is very much improvisational? Do you prefer one setting to another?

Playing - well, you know, both of them are really different things. Sometimes, for example, you can play improvisations that are very rhythmic alone [without percussion]. And sometimes it's – well, you cannot imagine that being with a daf player, or a person that plays percussion, both of them have a different sense. When you are with a percussion player your improvisations always change. When you are playing alone, you are playing alone with a different sense. They are really different.

RK: Have you performed much with other kinds of accompanists, with other melodic instruments, or in larger ensembles?

[For the cassette] we tried tanbur just with daf, just this kind of percussion. I am trying to find another person like Behzad who is really good. We have an instrument here called "pot" - if I were to translate that back into Persian then it would be “kûze” (کوزه), but in English it's "pot." That kind of percussion instrument has a really beautiful sound, and goes well with the tanbur. But up to now I have only really worked with the daf!

RK: Several of the tracks on "Songs of Horaman" are subtitled "narrative to Seyed Arash Shahriari." If you don't mind the question, who exactly is Shahriari, and what led you to mention him in regards to these three pieces?

Shahriari is another one of my dearest masters who really, really, really helped me to improve and grow in music. It was about one year that each week, I can remember, I would go to Tehran from Karaj - this city is about three hours away. But each week I went there just to have classes and he would teach me methods of playing tanbur. Not special things, just methods. I played two tracks of his version that he plays, but I learned maqqams by myself. I can remember that one of them is “Tarz,” which is one of the tracks on the cassette. I remember that in one of his classes he was teaching some methods, and I was recording after that, and started to play this maqqam. And it's something that was just recorded in my mind, you know? I brought it home and tried to put it down on my instrument, I found the track, I played it, I played it...and then I played it for the cassette recording, and it became like this. He's one of my masters that really, you know, I cannot feel that he is just my “master," he is more like a father when he teaches you.

RK: In many places around the world today traditional and classical styles of music have struggled to compete with popular music, especially those styles imported or influenced by European or American fashions. Is there still a lot of enthusiasm for the type of music that you play in Iran, and do younger people still engage with these traditions?

Hopefully Persian traditional music will become more popular among teenagers. It's very important that teenagers listen to traditional music. Because you know, when people grow older, many times their interests change to traditional music, but it's also important that teenagers fall in love with traditional music, and fortunately it has been like this. Today lots of young people like me do listen to this type of music. The amount of teenagers that listen to pop or rap music is larger, but there are still a lot [who appreciate traditional styles].

RK: Like you mentioned, you started learning music at quite a young age. What advice would you have for other young people today who are interested in beginning music, or are just getting started in learning an instrument and taking their studies seriously?

You know, the most important thing - even with instruments like tanbur - the most important things is exercising. if you, you know I always say to people who come for classes as students here, if you want to just play music for two hours in a day don't come for music. because if you just take two hours per day for your instrument then it's just “playing,” but if you want to make something of it and arrive somewhere, then you have to practice eight hours a day, or at the very least five hours per day. And I always tell them that at the start, when you are a beginner, it's good that you listen to music thirty percent of the time and spend seventy percent of your time playing. After two or three years, once you have arrived someplace where your head and your mind are matched together, flip these percents - seventy percent for listening and thirty percent for playing. Why? Because now, at this time, you have developed a really good mind and clever ears, and you can play anything that you can hear. After all that you can do anything you want.

RK: I hear that you are to begin formal music studies at university soon.

Nowadays I am studying this music outside of classes, and I think one month after Christmas the acceptations from the University of Iran will start, and after that I will go to classes.

RK: Besides that, what are the next steps for Mohammad Mostafa Heydarian? Do you have any upcoming musical projects or plans that you might want to mention to readers?

Well, we always have “next steps!” You know, the thing is that I started music not just for "playing" or to learn something for myself. I'd like to hear versions [of traditional Iranian tanbur styles] that nowadays maybe, somebody – it's just, we have two or three old men with versions of tanbur music that only they know. I am just waiting until Christmas when our friend Valentin comes to Iran and then we have lots of projects together, including making a live recording [of these older performers' styles], because it's just three old men in one region of Iran that know these versions, and if they die, then these versions will also die, you know? Really pure versions. I don't know how people could let this music be destroyed. These are really pure, beautiful, and massive versions. So one of my goals is to hear this. And after that, well, we're going to have to think about that!

RK: Thank you so much for taking the time to do this interview Mostafa! Is there anything else that you would like to mention before we wrap up?

Until here I have said most of the things that...well, I have a really, really long way to arrive at answers (laughs). I could talk for hours about music. I just hope that for all people that love music, be this way and they will be lucky. That's all I can say.

Purchase Songs of Horaman via the Radio Khiyaban Bandcamp:

Those wishing to keep track of Mostafa's ongoing musical journey
can follow him via Instagram at MOSTAFA_HEYDARIAN80