A Joyous Reunion: Kayhan Kalhor & Duke’s Iranian-American Community

This article was originally published on the Duke Performances blog

The early spring of 2020 will live long in our collective memory as the beginning of a historic time that changed the way we interact with each other and within our society. For me, it was also the advent of a profound shift in how Duke University’s Iranian-American community experience art and music.

On November 11, when Duke Performances presents Kayhan Kalhor in Baldwin Auditorium, we have the opportunity once again to gather on campus to hear Iranian music together. Kayhan, an internationally acclaimed Iranian virtuoso on the upright bowed string instrument known as the spiked fiddle, or kamancheh, was originally scheduled to perform at Duke in September 2020. 

Connecting with Iranian Culture during COVID-19

For more than a decade, I have helped the Graduate Student Association of Iranians at Duke (GSAID) and Duke University’s Persian Student Association (PSA) in presenting a celebratory concert of classical Persian music in honor of Persian New Year, or Nowruz. The 2020 celebration was scheduled for March 19. Performers from across the country and North Carolina were set to travel into the area several days in advance. Our family was looking forward to hosting them at our home as they prepared for their concert and rehearsed together. And then—just days before the concert—the rapid spread of the COVID-19 virus forced Duke University to announce a campus-wide shut-down.

While the concert was necessarily cancelled, COVID-19 did not stop the Iranian-American community from engaging in art and music. Rather, we, along with all Americans, found new ways to celebrate our culture. We used technology to its fullest extent by moving our events online. We organized unique biweekly community gatherings that combined lectures by distinguished scholars on topics of historical and social interest, interspersed with Persian poetry, music, and singing. In December 2020, our program celebrating the Winter Solstice attracted a huge, worldwide audience. Similarly in March of this year, the community’s online Nowruz event was highly successful. Today, we continue hosting these twice-monthly online programs.

“COVID-19 did not stop the Iranian-American community from engaging in art and music.”

The long hours of being at home during the pandemic offered an opportunity for many of us to explore and develop new skills. I explored a late-blooming side of my musical ability: I began taking online lessons learning to play the hammered dulcimer, or santur, a classical Persian instrument.

An Emotional Return of a Maestro to Duke University

Admittedly, despite a full schedule of online lectures and cultural events over the last eighteen months, we have greatly missed traditional in-person concerts. When we learned that Maestro Kayhan Kalhor had accepted Duke Performances’ invitation in November of this year, members of the Iranian American community across North Carolina were ecstatic.

Kalhor was born in Tehran to a Kurdish family from the mountainous western city of Kermanshah, where I grew up. Kayhan, a child prodigy on the kamancheh, experienced great hardships in order to pursue his music education. Just a few months after the Iranian revolution, at age seventeen, he crossed Iran’s northwestern border on foot, walking through Turkey and three European countries, accepting low-paying jobs to support himself along the way. He finally settled in Rome, Italy, and later moved to Ottawa, Canada, to obtain a music degree at Carleton University.

Four years after Kayhan Kalhor left Iran, he lost his parents and a brother in an Iraqi missile invasion during the Iran-Iraq war. 

His life experiences found expression through his emotional rendering of traditional Persian music, and today, Kalhor is a globally renowned and respected performer and composer of Persian classical music. He is an integral part of cellist Yo-Yo Ma’s Silkroad Ensemble. After the Silkroad Ensemble won a Grammy in 2017, UNESCO added the kamancheh instrument to its list of Intangible Cultural Heritage. Kayhan has also collaborated with artists including the Kronos Quartet, Brooklyn Rider, the New York Philharmonic, and his playing is on several film scores.

Kayhan and his wife, Zohreh, currently live in Tehran, and it has been almost eight years since he visited Duke University to perform at the Nasher Museum of Art in front of a sold-out audience. His November 11 performance will mark another milestone for so many of us during this pandemic: the return to the joy of experiencing live music together, once again.

M. Mehdi Emamian is the senior research and development engineer for the Free Electron Laser Laboratory and Triangle Universities Nuclear Laboratory for Duke University. He is also the advisor to the Graduate Student Association of Iranians at Duke (GSAID).