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  • "Sound: The Encounter" consists of Syrian saxophonist Basel Rajoub, Iranian bagpipe (neyanbân) player and singer Saeid Shanbehzadeh, and Saeid's son, Naghib Shanbehzadeh, performing on Iranian and Middle Eastern percussion.
    Sebastian Schutyser/Aga Khan Music Initiative
New Aga Khan Music Initiative project brings music from Syria and Iran to the United States

New York, USA, 6 December 2013 – “Sound: the Encounter”, the Aga Khan Music Initiative’s latest addition to its international performance roster, begins a three-city United States tour on December 7 with a world debut concert at the Asia Society in New York City.

“Sound: the Encounter” brings together three adventurous musicians from Iran and Syria to perform a repertory of newly developed and arranged pieces rooted in traditional folk and classical music and reimagined within a new artistic frame.

The group consists of Syrian saxophonist Basel Rajoub, Iranian bagpipe (neyanbân) player and singer Saeid Shanbehzadeh, and Saeid’s son, Naghib Shanbehzadeh, performing on Iranian and Middle Eastern percussion.

For their United States tour, the group is joined by Syrian oud virtuoso Kenan Adnawi. In addition to the bagpipe, Saied Shanbehzadeh plays a variety of folk instruments from the Bushehr region of southwestern Iran, which forms part of Iran’s Persian Gulf coastline and has old cultural links to its Arabic-speaking Gulf neighbors.

The concert at Asia Society, presented in collaboration with the Aga Khan Music Initiative, is part of Asia Society's ongoing initiative “Creative Voices of Muslim Asia,” which is made possible by support from the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, and is presented in conjunction with the exhibition “Iran Modern,” on view from 6 September 2013 through 5 January 2014.

Following the Asia Society concert, “Sound: The Encounter” will perform at the Lower Manhattan cultural center Alwan for the Arts (8 December), at Meyer Auditorium, the performance space of the Freer and Sackler Galleries, the Smithsonian’s museums of Asian art (12 December), and Asia Society Texas Center (14 December).

Like many cross-cultural musical explorations, “Sound: The Encounter” began with a chance meeting. This one took place in China in 2011, when Basel Rajoub and Saeid Shanbehzadeh were both performing at the Shanghai World Music Festival. “We were there with different bands,” Basel recounted. “I went to Saeid’s concert, and was surprised to discover that in Bushehr, the part of southwestern Iran where Saeid is from, they play a kind of music that’s similar to the music of the badu -- the bedouins --who live in the Middle East. There are many songs that have the same melody, but different lyrics. And of course the lyrics are in different languages: the badu sing in Arabic, whereas the Bushehri sing in Persian.”

Later, the two artists met in Paris -- again by chance -- and decided to try playing together. Saeid’s son, Naghib, joined them on Iranian percussion. “We started by just jamming, and trying to play solos and melodies,” said Basel. “After that we started to work on the hard things: how to put my saxophone with Saeid’s bagpipes. There were a lot of conversations in between, though we don’t share a spoken language. Our lingua franca became music.” Saeid added, “We didn’t restrict ourselves to playing just Iranian and Syrian music. We’ve been inspired by a lot of traditional motifs and melodies from the Persian Gulf as well as by jazz. We’re three artists with three different mindsets, and what’s important is to understand what we can do together with our musical knowledge.”

For their United States tour, Saeid, Naghib, and Basel invited Syrian oud master Kenan Adnawi to join them as a special guest. Kenan and Basel first met a decade ago, while attending the Damascus High Institute of Music. In that context, they knew one another as performers of classical music, both Western and Middle Eastern, and it took some time before each recognised in the other an interest in folk music and in contemporary approaches to improvisation. Currently a resident of Philadelphia, Kinan rehearsed the concert programme with Europe-based Saied, Basel, and Naghib via Skype and Viber. The present tour marks their debut as a physically united foursome.

“Sound: The Encounter” received critical support from the Aga Khan Music Initiative during the project’s development phase. Part of the Music Initiative’s mandate is to support musicians from the Muslim world who are striving to reassemble diverse expressions of a shared musical heritage in contemporary forms. “There’s very little interaction now between Iranian and Syrian musicians,” said Fairouz Nishanova, director of the Music Initiative. “Through ‘Sound: The Encounter’, we’re trying to reconnect not only musicians, but communities. Music turns out to be a good way to do that. Musicians can tell stories to one another, and to listeners, through their instruments. In the case of Saeid and Basel, you have two people who don’t share a spoken language and had never played together, but their musical conversation flows naturally, and has continued to evolve. Both of them, it turns out, are resourceful storytellers.”


The Aga Khan Music Initiative (AKMI) is an interregional music and arts education program with worldwide performance, outreach, mentoring, and artistic production activities. The Initiative was launched by His Highness the Aga Khan to support talented musicians and music educators working to preserve, transmit, and further develop their musical heritage in contemporary forms. The Music Initiative began its work in Central Asia and subsequently expanded its cultural development activities to include artistic communities and audiences in the Middle East and North Africa, West Asia, South Asia, and West Africa. The Initiative designs and implements a country-specific set of activities for each country into which it invests and works to promote revitalisation of cultural heritage both as a source of livelihood for musicians and as a means to strengthen pluralism in nations where it is challenged by social, political, and economic constraints. In North America and Europe, the Music Initiative’s work focuses on performance, outreach, and arts education. Multidisciplinary artist-in-residence programmes provide a unique opportunity for students to experience the creative challenges of intercultural music making.

Video on Vimeo:

AKMI tour credits:

Director: Fairouz Nishanova
Senior Project Consultant: Theodore Levin
Tour Logistics and Management: Rebecca Guillaume and John E. Pendleton
Documentary film: Carlos Casas

For press enquiries or more information, please contact:

Sam Pickens
Aga Khan Trust for Culture
PO Box 2049
1211 Geneva 2
Telephone: (+41 22) 909 7200