In Iran, a blind musician leads the way for a women's orchestra

In Iran, a blind musician leads the way for a women's orchestra
Ali Jafarian leads young women in the weekly practice at his home in Shiraz, in southwestern Iran. "We have something to say in this world of art, no matter how small," says Helen Parchami, a violinist. "When I play here I feel proud of all the women here. Only women play. We show that we can stand on our own feet." (Los Angeles Times)
Every Friday, the young women gather at the blind man's home in a fading district of a sleepy city once famous for its poets and wine. They unpack vessels of wood, string and stretched hides. They cradle them in their arms. And as the afternoon wears on, they fill the alleyways with song.

My Bahar, my daughter,

wake up!

Put on a sweet smile and

stir emotions.

The song is an old one, a bittersweet melody of grief and hope about a girl, Bahar, whose name is synonymous in Persian with the season of spring.

The man with the shock of white hair and dark sunglasses leads the orchestra of violins, santurs and drums from the front of the parlor.

Ali Jafarian will never see the finely embroidered head scarves or the ecstatic smiles of the 30 or so women assembled before him. But he hears every note and beat and giggle; he feels the tension lurking in every rest, the passion swelling each crescendo.

So they come back, week after week, year after year, and gather round. He is part father figure, part taskmaster. He teaches and adores. They absorb and strive. And though they pursue different paths in their work and family lives, they become one when they rush in here at 3 p.m. on Fridays for rehearsal, stripping off their coats and greeting each other with exclamations and kisses.

"We have something to say in this world of art, no matter how small," says Helen Parchami, a violinist in her 20s. "The instrument is strength. It's power. It's the freedom of my soul. When I play here I feel proud of all the women here. Only women play. We show that we can stand on our own feet."

The story of Jafarian and his all-female band shows the power of art to transform, inspire and connect.

"Nothing can stand in the way of progress, not even blindness," Jafarian says.

But it is only because he is blind that the Fars Women's Chamber Orchestra exists. Normally, most people in this traditional society would frown upon the idea of a man -- a musician, no less -- spending Friday afternoons with unrelated young women, even if his wife were around.

"Not just the authorities, but the families wouldn't have allowed their girls to come," Jafarian says. "Even my family would have given me problems."

But though his salon is a space protected from Islamic restrictions and traditional mores, outside the door there are limits. Jafarian coaches the women, but he's not allowed to attend their performances. A prized vocalist was barred by her new husband from attending practices.

Jafarian and the ladies shrug off such limitations, part of the travails that have long burdened Iran's poets and artists, who over the centuries learned to dodge the monarch's guillotine or the cleric's fatwa by perfecting the art of layers.

From the time of Omar Khayyam, Iran's poets and dreamers have contended that this nation's plight couldn't be conveyed through books or numbers issued by state organs, but must emerge through the slow, sad rhythms and searing melodies of its music, the multi-layered textures of its verse and the tiny curves of its miniature paintings, which depict scenes of longing, lost possibilities and betrayal.

"Art is both science and passion," Jafarian says. "We will do our best to make sure this light of art stays lit in Shiraz."

The 72-year-old's once-sprightly gait is curtailed by age, and he moves in slow, measured steps, moving carefully forward with a walking stick while managing the ensemble, which plays classical or traditional Iranian songs scored for big bands decades ago.

"In these 12 years I've paid for everything myself," he says. "A chair breaks. A microphone breaks. Thirty people come into your house and eat and drink. It costs money. But I haven't gotten a penny out of this."

He smiles. "I don't know if I'm in love or crazy."

He was 14 when he tumbled down a flight of stairs at the family home in Tehran, crushing an eye when his head struck a ledge. Surgery to restore vision in that eye instead permanently blinded him in both. His mother enrolled him in a school for the blind where he learned to read Braille.

At first he wanted to be a sculptor, but his mother encouraged him to be a musician, where his blindness would not put him at a disadvantage.

Before long, Jafarian's career took off, and he became a fixture on the Tehran music scene in the decades before the 1979 Islamic Revolution, composing songs, playing concerts and hobnobbing with stars during those days of glamour and glitz, when elegantly coiffed and perfumed fans would pack theaters to listen to full orchestras backing singers like Marzieh, who was the first to make "My Bahar" a hit, back in the 1960s.

My daughter, my graceful

budding flower.

Here comes the spring.

The revolution came. The clerics tried to abolish all but religious and martial music. Marzieh stopped singing, and like others, she eventually headed off into exile.

Jafarian became a recluse, giving private lessons to young people in Shiraz. But as restrictions on music were eased in the 1990s, he hit upon the idea of forming an orchestra.

At first he thought he would get doctors together. But the wives complained to Jafarian that their husbands already spent too much time away from home.

"I realized that the only group restricted from making music or singing was women," he says.

Over its dozen years, the group has been a big local hit, performing dozens of times here and in the capital. Their dream is to play abroad.

Jafarian takes roll call. They are gorgeous, dressed in their finest. A musician has to look good, the master says. Yes, even at rehearsals.

One by one, the violinists approach him, tuning their instruments by a pitch-perfect ear honed over the decades. The daf players take their seats with their frame drums, alongside the row of musicians holding santurs, a type of dulcimer.

Pianist Bahareh Rajai, 31, says she left the orchestra for three years to finish her master's thesis in architecture and got married. But she felt drawn back.

"You used to have better Fridays," her husband told her, encouraging her to rejoin the orchestra.

At one point, her husband acknowledged that he too harbored a desire to learn to sing, and signed up for private lessons with Jafarian.

"This space has a very specific feel," she says. "It's a very warm place. All the people here are friends. We look forward to every Friday."

The classical and traditional songs that the orchestra plays are widely tolerated. Both the authorities and traditionalists like Jafarian and his band agree that the bigger threat is the rap, hip-hop and cheesy electronic pop flooding satellite frequencies, eclipsing religion and tradition among youths who groove to less refined beats.

Most young Iranians would regard the songs the orchestra plays as hopelessly romantic, corny.

But for this group of women, who allowed a reporter to attend a practice, the music offers a chance to excel.

A portrait of Beethoven hangs on Jafarian's living room wall, along with a lifetime's worth of fading photographs, honorary degrees and certificates of appreciation. Jafarian's son Ardavan is also an accomplished musician and a successful record producer in Tehran.

Once Jafarian tried to schedule rehearsals for every other week, but the musicians protested, says Pouran Dokht, the maestro's 64-year-old wife and muse.

"The young get dispirited and depressed," she says. "There are family matters, social matters. But they leave here with a different outlook. You see the laughs and the joys. You see their determination, the interest."

Jafarian taps his music stand, the murmurs cease and the players come to attention. With one strong gesture of Jafarian's hands, they ease into song.

Bahar, my daughter!

Spring is coming.

With flowers bringing

a smile to every face.

The percussionists' feet hit the floor as they keep count. The singer, Dorna Mahmoudi, lifts her head toward the heavens and raises her hand with each crescendo.

The daf players hold their large, flat drums like emblems, striking them carefully with their hands and swaying their torsos with the rhythm. The santur players twirl their mallets with their delicate wrists.

The violinists' eyes remain fixed on their notes as their bows pierce the air. The blind conductor nods dramatically as his arms swing.

Mahmoudi's voice, full of joy and hope, almost obscures the song's underlying despair. The late poet Fereydoon Moshiri wrote "My Bahar" decades ago to console his stricken friend, the composer Farhad Fakhreddini, whose teenage daughter had died of illness in the spring of her life.

Wake up!

Here comes the spring.

Daragahi, now in Tehran, was in Shiraz earlier this year.