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Illuminating My Heritage through The Santoor
“Mamman, what is that sound?”
“Ramtin joon, that is the Santoor. Do you like its sound…?” My mom’s voice trailed off as Azita, my mom’s friend, opened the door and ushered us into her home.
“Yes!” I exclaimed and proceeded to spend the next few hours tinkering with the Santoor. I plucked and prodded, trying to make sense of the seventy-two stringed instrument.
“Have you heard of the Santoor?” Bahman, Azita’s husband, questioned and I shook my head “No.”
“Well, each region has its ‘dastgah,’ similar to American keys. Unlike Western music though, the Santoor increases in increments of quarter-steps, not half-steps. The quarter-steps allow the Santoor, or Hammered Dulcimer in English, to acquire a variety of scales, which are the twelve dastgahs.” Little did I know my favorite “dastgah” would come to be Esfahan, ironically, the city where I was born.
Fascinated by Bahman’s explanation, I announced, “Mamman, I need to take lessons!” Learning to play the Santoor allowed me to experience Iranian culture in the United States. Growing up, I told people about my background, but I could not explicitly share Iran’s culture.
The Santoor allows me to elaborate palpably the history and culture of my home country. The Hammered Dulcimer describes the history of a 2000-year-old empire through the preservation of music. The language, culture and people of Persia changed as the empire progressed. However, the music evolved to accompany the development of the nation, while also keeping its roots through “radifs”—musical traditions.
While performing at a global music festival in Salem, Oregon during the summer before my ninth grade, I witnessed the collaboration of the world through music. As I enjoyed musicians from around the world join together in an orchestra, I quickly learned political barriers do not hinder music. For me, performing does not mean showing off one’s talent in the Santoor. Instead, when I perform, I offer a glimpse into the culture of a country which receives daily attention about its struggles and little consideration about its successes.
Three years after the music festival, the lower school music teacher at Catlin asked me to play the Santoor and I was brought back to the stage of my first performance in third grade. Taking in the scene, I realized the same beanie-bag chairs and pillows lined the corners of the library.
“Hello everyone, my name is Ramtin. I remember sitting in the same spot you are. It feels very weird standing up here now. After my performance, I can tell you more about the Santoor, and answer any questions you may have.”As I lifted my Santoor to the library stage, I could hear whispering between the kids.
“What is that? Where is it from? What is he going to do?” Questions flooded the students’ mind, provoking my own.
My hands raced across the strings, entrancing the elementary school children. As the tempo of the song increased, I could almost hear the kids’ hearts palpitate. The music emanating from the Santoor transcended all types of diversity—it brought the entire lower school together in unity. Playing in the same spot I had as a third grader, I contemplated what piqued my interest in the Santoor and I suddenly remembered my maestro Hossein Salehi’s words during my first Santoor lesson:
“My professor did not teach the Santoor as a way to make money, and neither do I. There are plenty of other ways to work less and make more. I educate children in Persian instruments so Persian music and culture will flourish in Oregon and so you can one day teach the Santoor to the next generation.” I watched his hands take off on the strings and I decided then my goal was to not only learn the Santoor for my own pleasure, but to give back by sharing my expertise through teaching.
“When was the Santoor first made?” A child in the front row questioned.
“Abu Nasr Farabi made the prototype of the Santoor more than 2000 years ago when Iran was still called ‘Persia.’ Later, variations of the Santoor emerged in other Middle Eastern countries, and even some countries in Eastern Asia.
“Can you tune the Santoor?” Another child asked.
“Well, tuning the Santoor, as it turns out, is a very complicated process. To completely change the ‘dastgah’ or key of the Santoor, I have to change every single one of the seventy-two strings. Recently, Ostad Salari created a double-sided Santoor, which makes preparing for performances much easier. I can tune the two sides of the Santoor to different ‘dastgahs’ for songs which originate from different regions of Iran.”
“Has your family been playing the Santoor for generations or are you the first?” The fourth grade teacher inquired. She cocked her head to the side, and in a confused look, tried to make sense of the Santoor’s many strings, pegs, and bridges.
“I am the first to play the Santoor; however, art has always been an integral part of my family. My mom is an artist, and in Iran, she had her own art school with more than seventy students. She paints ‘miniatures,’ pronounced mii-nia-tor, one of Iran’s traditional art forms. My great-grandfather was a master violin and tar player.”
“Can you play another song?” One student chimed in.
“Yes!” “Another!” Other students began cheering in unison for me to play again.
I succumbed to the children’s requests for an encore, and performed one last piece for them. Watching the children’s faces light up as my hands glided across the strings, and later listening to them talk about the instrument, meant I had succeeded in sharing a piece of my heritage and Iran’s history.