Rahman Asadollahi, Master of Azeri Garmon

I’ve never seen the Kronos Quartet in concert before and decided to see them tonight at Seattle’s Moore Theater. But my main reason for going was not to see Kronos, but to hear their collaboration with their newest world music performer, Rahman Asadollahi. Asadollahi is the world’s greatest garmon performer, an Azeri form of accordion. Both in sonic temperament and performance style, the instrument reminds me of Astor Piazzola and the bandoleone. As Asadollahi plays it, he uses the same fierce, dynamic and slashing style of attack. It is utterly powerful and commanding. The Azeri musician performed two songs in concert. One with the Quartet and another accompanied only by his percussionist. The first one, Mugam Beyati Shiraz, was a tour de force of virtuosity. Despite performing seated, I thought at times that Asadollahi might levitate his body into the air together with his instrument. This was the performance that reminded me most of Piazzola. The second song, Garmon Yanar Odlaryurduna, was a more contemplative piece that evinced its eastern origins in its prolonged musical phrasing and minor key tonalities.

Tonight’s performance was their last U.S. date on this tour. Kronos and Asadollahi continue their tour next month in Europe.

Rahman Asadollahi, master of the incantatory garmon (photo: Internationalaccordionfestival.org)

Carnegie Hall‘s program notes for the March Kronos performance offered biographical context on the great musician:

Politically exiled from his native country, Rahman Asadollahi, an Iranian artist of Azeri descent, shares his people’s story of repression. To hear his music is to taste the dreams and laments of the Azeri people. Though profoundly tragic, his is a celebratory music that marvels at the beauty of being alive in spite of suffering. Technically brilliant, he conveys an amazing understanding of human pain and ecstasy. His music has a dreamlike quality, blending Middle Eastern rhythms with a European melodic structure to create a sound unlike anything common to Western ears. Many songs are slow and mournful, with drawn-out notes that tremble with emotion. The harmonica-like sound of the garmon is echoed by other instruments, in tandem with the staccato beat of the nagara, a high-pitched drum…

Rahman Asadollahi is one of the world’s premier performers on the garmon, a smaller, sweeter-toned version of the European-model accordion. The garmon he plays was specifically made to play Azeri music and is more than 80 years old. Asadollahi began taking private lessons in garmon when he was ten years old. From 1969 to 1985, he composed music and played in and conducted Azerbaijani concerts in Iran, where he became known as a master garmon player. At the age of 18 he was employed by the Iranian Radio and began playing with the Azerbaijani Orchestra in Tehran. Azerbaijani Radio in Tabriz and Ardabil recorded his music, as did Tehran Radio. In 1990, Rahman was invited to Northern Azerbaijan, formerly part of the Soviet Union, to perform over 20 concerts. The Azerbaijan State Music University and the Conservatory of Music of Azerbaijan subsequently awarded Rahman their two highest honorary degrees in music achievement.

Over the years, Asadollahi has become a living legend for the Azerbaijani people and lovers of accordion music throughout the world. Since 1985, he has toured and performed in Turkmenistan, England, France, Denmark, Switzerland, Austria, Canada, and Germany. In 1995, Asadollahi won the first prize among 650 players in the All-European Accordion and Harmonica Championship in Switzerland. Asadollahi emigrated to the United States in 1999.

I have so far failed to find any recorded performance of either of these songs either by Asadollahi or Kronos so I cannot offer them here. If anyone knows how I may find such recordings please let me know.