Iranian Musician Hoping to Bridge Cultural Gulf : Profile: Reza Torchizy, whose band will perform in Irvine, wants to strike chord of understanding among different ethnic groups.

When he’s talking about commonplace matters, Reza Torchizy’s hands don’t draw any particular attention to themselves. But when he speaks about the music of his native Iran, those hands come alive, going through the trilling motions of playing a kamancheh (a relative of the violin with a banjo-like animal-skin head, held on the lap and played vertically), or tapping on an imaginary tombek , the expressive hand drum he plays in the band Oshagh.

Torchizy, who makes his home in Irvine, is a dermatologist with a practice in Santa Ana. Twice a year, he takes leave of his profession to tour the United States with Oshagh, which he believes to be the only such group playing traditional Iranian music in the States. On Sunday, the eight-piece group, plus a vocalist, will perform close to home at the Irvine Barclay Theatre on the UC Irvine campus. “Sure, I lose money” by leaving his practice to tour, Torchizy says, “but music is my first love. I love this music, and I love to perform for people, both for Iranian-Americans and the American society and all its minorities here.”

 He was a founding member, with other eminent expatriate Iranian musicians, of Oshagh, which formed in Orange in 1984. The group has since played about 160 concerts across the United States, with additional forays to Europe and Canada.

Aspects of the music, Torchizy says, predate Christ, while in some respects he finds a kinship in American jazz.

“I love jazz because it has such immediate decisions about rhythm and melody in it,” he says. “It is very close to the type of improvisation we have in Iranian music.”

For most of its history, Iranian music has existed without a formal method of notation, instead being passed down by oral tradition, or, as Torchizy said, “from instrument to instrument.” Between that and Iran’s prime location for infusions from other cultures–often in the form of invasions–the music has changed considerably through the centuries.

“You can almost hear our history in the music. Anything that happens in any society affects the culture. Because of its special location, Iran has been affected by many cultures, such as the invasion of the Arabs in the 6th or 7th Century, the invasion of Alexander before that. All these events and the mixture of the peoples affect the music,” Torchizy said.

Some of Oshagh’s practices break with tradition. Two of its members are women, something that would still be proscribed in Iran. Further, it wasn’t until this century that Iranian music would generally be performed by such a large band. For about 14 centuries, and particularly since the rise of Shiite Islam in the 16th Century–which regarded music as a distracting frivolity–music was almost a private affair, played either solo or in very small groups, generally for an equally small audience. There were few occasions when it could be played for large gatherings.

While there exist some ancient scholarly studies of the mechanics of Iranian music, the state religion’s antipathy toward things musical contributed to there being no formal notation system for preserving it until early in this century.

Things had changed considerably by the time Torchizy was born four decades ago in the northern Iranian city of Mashad. His introduction to music came through his family. His mother played the tombek at home, and there would always be music at family gatherings. He began studying with a music teacher when he was 7 and by the time he was 12 was playing in both Mashad’s university orchestra and its radio and television orchestra. When he went to medical school in Tehran, he continued playing in an orchestra–which performed traditional and Western music–and attending a music conservatory.

Even with the formalized instruction of Iranian music available in this century, it remains very difficult to master, containing a bewildering rhythmic complexity, as well as 12 melodic modes that feature subtle gradients of the quarter tones, or “notes between the notes,” common to Middle Eastern music.

Torchizy said, “We have the regular rhythms like yours, the two-quarters, six-eighths and such, then we have the irregular rhythms, most are made of seven beats or five beats. Then we have have irregular irregular rhythms which can go from seven to five to 13 to five to seven in one song. That’s very complicated for musicians, but because of the nature of the melody it comes very easy and smooth; you cannot even feel the changes of the rhythm.

“Then when we use the quarter tone, it isn’t stable all the time, making it more difficult. They change from mode to mode, and we have 12 different modes, and these quarter tones in them are very close together, but they are not exactly the same. It gives Iranian music a special taste and character.”

Following the revolution in 1979 that toppled the shah and brought the Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamic fundamentalists to power, Torchizy left to continue his medical education in France, relocating to the United States in early 1984. He had scarcely arrived here before he, music director Esmail Tehrani and other Iranians living in Orange County and Los Angeles formed Oshagh (a couple of members have since moved and now commute from Texas and Arkansas for performances).

Torchizy says that these days, his time is evenly divided between medicine and music. He is also chairman of the Iranian-American Council of the Historical and Cultural Foundation of Orange County, which is presenting Sunday’s performance at the Irvine Barclay.

For performances, the members of Oshagh typically wear a mixture of Iranian and Western clothing, a result of their being unable to obtain products from their homeland. But, with the hard-line stance of the current Iranian government appearing to soften in recent months, Torchizy is hopeful the band may someday be able to perform in Iran.

Traditional music has flourished there recently, though the reasons for that are not ideal.

“All the other types of music have been banned,” Torchizy said. “At the beginning of the revolution, they tried to suppress the traditional music as well, but something that is very strong in Iran is the people’s love of their traditions. I can’t say that (government officials) support the traditional music now, but they leave it alone, and it’s growing, because the other types of music have all been eliminated.

With the antipathy many Americans felt toward Iran after the seizure of the U.S. Embassy there in 1979, some Iranians living in the United States have been subjected to bigotry.

Torchizy, however, says, “I’ve personally never received any negative attitude or impulse, though I have heard of such things happening. I have lived most of my life in Iran, then in different European countries, and about eight years here, and I can say the United States is really the land of liberty. I never have encountered here any of the prejudice or any of these actions that I’ve seen frequently in other parts of the world.”

He hopes the music of Oshagh plays some part in increasing America’s understanding of its Iranian community.

“When the music talks, it is with an international alphabet that can communicate to people more easily than talking, maybe,” he said.

“This is our goal, to not only remind the Iranians of our culture, but to show to the American society that we are this people with this historical and cultural background. . . . We are trying to create a better understanding of this big minority–there are close to 1 million of us in Southern California–that is living here.”

Original Article From Los Angeles Times