Hamed Nikpay and Moshkin Ghalam find familiar sounds in flamenco

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There’s a good reason why singer Hamed Nikpay and dancer Moshkin Ghalam incorporate elements of flamenco into their interdisciplinary performances—and it’s not just because they like the beat.

“Basically, both of us, when we met each other, we had those motifs in our work,” says the Iranian-born Nikpay by phone from his San Francisco home. “But the thing is, when you go back in history you see the influence of Persian culture on the Arabs, hundreds of years ago. And history tells us that once the Arabs attacked the south part of Spain, they brought Persian themes and scales to those countries as well. So in our culture, when we listen to flamenco music, it strikes us as very familiar. We enjoy that, even if we don’t understand the language. Because of that background, it’s pretty close to our favourite music.”

It’s not that Nikpay and Ghalam have become flamenco purists; far from it. YouTube footage of the dancer finds him mixing Iberian-inspired footwork with elements of Persian and South Asian ritual movement, while Nikpay’s sonic approach adds elements of jazz to a sound that’s clearly rooted in Iranian classical music. The singer, who is also an accomplished player of the mandolinlike setar, says that he and his collaborator are interested in melding global cultures in a way that reflects their current reality, with Nikpay based in the Bay Area and Ghalam in Paris.

“My inspiration is from traditional classical Persian music, but I rearrange that,” the singer explains. “I’m writing the songs based on the traditional side, but the way I do the arrangements is western, mostly: flamenco and jazz. And the way he dances is coming from the classical forms of Persian dance, but he mixes it with flamenco and kathak, Indian dance. Both of us are fusion artists, so we have more material to synchronize the form of the dance and the body with the melody and rhythm of the music. We’re a good match.”

In Vancouver, the two performers will be backed by a four-piece band that includes bass guitar, flamenco guitar, percussion, and soprano sax, with the last taking on the role of the traditional Iranian violin, the kamancheh. Untraditional though this lineup is, Nikpay’s lyrics are generally drawn from the Persian poets of the past. As he notes, it’s difficult to be “stronger and deeper than the hundreds and hundreds of pages of the good classical poetry we have in our culture”.

But he’s not above finding poetic inspiration in unconventional places, as he does in his song “The Owner of This Land”. Based on an anonymous poem found on the street during Iran’s Green Movement protests, it’s a pointed rebuke to Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s belligerent attitude toward internal politics and international relations alike.

“As artists, we are here because of our people, so I owe it to the people not to support this regime,” says Nikpay. “I have to be in the first line of supporting my people. And although I don’t want to act like I am at the centre, as a human being I’ve decided to work for peace.” -

Hamed Nikpay and Moshkin Ghalam play New Westminster’s Massey Theatre on Saturday (December 15).

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