The Ritual Maqam of the Yarsan

Yarsanism is a heterodox religious current of Sufism established around the 11th century. Its community lives mainly in the Iranian Kurdistan (province of Kermanshah and north of Lorestan). The Kurdish maqam (which differs from the Eastern Arab, Turkish, and Persian forms) is a modal piece for tanbur, a long-necked lute, and voice. Lyrics are taken from sacred poems. Maqams are exclusively performed in religious ceremonies such as the jam, are meant to be heard only by initiates, and have been transmitted from generation to generation by the oral tradition for centuries.

This four-CD set constitutes the first recording of these pieces publicly available. Ali Akbar Moradi has recorded them for two main reasons. First, the repertoire grows thinner with time and it becomes imperative to "save" what remains of it (72 pieces, to be exact). Second, other musicians "of debatable skill" (dixit the liner notes) were preparing to release their own commodified versions. This edition comes with approbation letters from religious authorities -- liner notes also include an informative historical essay and a description of the lyrical content of each piece.

Moradi had already released an album of Mystical Odes and Sacred Music on Inédit. This generous set (with a two-CD price tag) features him again at the two-string tanbur. His warm voice is occasionally overdubbed to recreate call-and-response figures. Some maqams are less than two minutes long, only a handful last more than five, and all have a kind of light solemnity found only in Islam-related sacred music. Moradi puts all the necessary sincerity and emotion to push these songs beyond their sometime linear musical structures. There is a lot of richness in the variations from track to track, but this album is better appreciated one disc at a time. Sound quality is excellent, making this an invaluable document about a declining culture.

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