Note: While this is listed under 'Arabic', the people of Iran, Turkey, Afghanistan, Kurdistan, and Pakistan are not Arabs. Most of you know may that, but this is pointed out because often the mainstream media is confused about the matter. Even inside the "Arab world", there are people like Berbers and Amazighs who are not Arabs.
As music was above all a means of reflection and prayer for Ostad, he always played alone or in small gatherings of relatives and friends. However, in 1960 Musa Marufi, a master of classical Persian music, discovered Ostad and in a long article detailed how he had been overwhelmed by Ostad’s music. Marufi’s account aroused the curiosity of musicologists, and from that day forward great artists and musicians such as Maurice Béjart and the late Yehudi Menuhin sought to visit Ostad and hear him play. Some of these musicians would later provide testimonials regarding the profound impact of Ostad’s music on the listener. Combining extraordinary technique and spiritual inspiration, certain pieces of Ostad’s music are so complex that attempts by Ruhollâh Khâleqi, Director of the National Academy of Music, and others to transcribe this music have met with little success. A few recordings of his work remain, which have been gradually digitized and released since 1995.
Ostad Elahi was raised in a special atmosphere permeated with spirituality. The village where he was born, one of Iran’s mystical havens, is isolated within the tranquil plains of western Iran and has given rise to many prominent spiritual figures over the centuries. His parents, Haj Ne’mat and Sakineh Khanoum, had married at a young age according to the local custom of the time and had nurtured a deep affection and respect for one another. Haj Ne’mat was a respected notable, highly regarded for his honesty, courage, and knowledge. A man of profound faith, he also played the tanbour, an eastern lute reserved for sacred music.
When Ostad was six, Haj Ne’mat had an overwhelming mystical experience that radically transformed him. Renouncing the world entirely, he transferred the management of his lands to a third party and began dressing in the white robes customarily worn by dervishes. His wife supported him fully in his vocation and renounced all forms of worldly activities. Little by little the reputation of Haj Ne’ mat, the mystic, spread and thousands of followers gathered around him. It is in this context that young Ostad began a new life marked by prayer and spiritual gatherings, in which sacred music played a central role.
As a master musician, Ostad's extraordinary skills were equaled only by the humility and depth of his character. Without ever seeking the admiration of his fellow musicians, his technical virtuosity and seemingly endless creativity essentially renewed and transcended the age-old tradition of the tanbour. Though music played an essential part in his life (he would devote several hours to it each day), he never considered music as a means of acquiring fame, but rather as a medium for meditation and a language for prayer.
Rooted in a tradition that has remained secret for several centuries, Ostad Elahi's music is truly remarkable and unique. Eluding classification in any of the conventional categories, this music has historically been reserved for devotional contexts. For Ostad, music was above all a means of contemplation and prayer, and he would therefore only play alone or in small gatherings of family and close friends. The recordings that currently remain of his work were made towards the end of his life under simple and nonprofessional conditions, often without his knowledge. While these recordings (totaling some 40 hours) have mostly been edited and made available after his passing, those who actually had the opportunity to hear him play were profoundly affected by his music, including several renowned artists and musicians.
The sound of the tanbour and certain instruments is similar to celestial sounds. Where does this sound come from? It comes from the Beloved. If the soul's ear has awakened, one can hear secrets that are hidden from those who are only preoccupied with the material world.
In the East, the term tanbour refers to a category of popular lutes of various sizes, proportions, and tones, with the common characteristic that the necks of these lutes are longer than their bodies. The sober tones of the instrument, ranging from dry to mellow, have something immaterial, abstract, and almost ascetic about them, destining the tanbour to a serious and celestial kind of music.
In Iran, the tanbour was among the instruments played at the Court of the Sassanides in the 5th and 6th centuries. Later, some Kurdish religious groups would adopt this sacred instrument to accompany the chants and dances of their spiritual gatherings.
The Musical Art of Ostad Elahi
Born into a family and environment steeped in mystical tradition, the spiritual gatherings of that time revolved around sacred music, which encompassed invocations, chants, dances, and rhythms that were accompanied by melodies of the tanbour. A child prodigy, Ostad rapidly assimilated this sacred repertoire, as well as those of the surrounding regions. In order to fully develop the potential of the tanbour, he developed a complex and subtle playing technique that included all five fingers of each hand, notably the rolling motion of the right hand. Moreover, he doubled the higher string of the tanbour to increase its expressiveness, enhancing not only its potential for ornamentation, but also its overall range and richness. It would only be a matter of time before these innovations were adopted by the next generation of tanbour players. Today, it is widely acknowledged that his instrumental technique and art of ornamentation mark the pinnacle of middle-eastern lutes of the tanbour family.
"There are two things on which my time was truly well spent: the tanbour and spirituality."
Among Ostad's major contributions to the art of tanbour is an original repertoire of over one hundred pieces. Considering the richness of these compositions and their intricate ornamentation, this repertoire clearly transcends the one that preceded it. Moreover, Ostad used this repertoire as a basis for improvisation, an art form in itself which highlighted Ostad's musical genius and enabled him to play with a freedom never heard before in this type of musical tradition.
Through all these innovations, Ostad not only revived, but also transcended the ancient musical tradition he had inherited as a child. When we consider his significant contributions to the art of tanbour (including the physical modifications he made to the instrument itself), it would not be an exaggeration to state that Ostad Elahi was indeed the true creator of this art. Through his efforts, a popular tradition with a scattered and limited repertoire was transformed into a learned music.
The Role of Music According to Ostad Elahi
Parallel to the practice of music, Ostad Elahi reflected on the role of music and its relation to the soul and the Divine. On the path that must lead it back to its origin, the soul finds nourishment in music, which strengthens its fervor and serves as a means of communication with the Creator.
It was not until 1957 when he retired from the judiciary and settled permanently in Tehran that several people were able to gradually discover him. Ostad fully devoted himself to his writings, teachings, and sacred music. As his reputation as a sage and unparalleled musician slowly spread, people from all over the world began to visit him. Several thousand people were present at his funeral. Today, his memorial is an international site of pilgrimage.