Princes of Persia
For a second I thought I had misheard something. But no, she actually had started her sentence with the words “when I was in Yemen”. At that moment I noticed that ever since I spent time traveling through the recently reunited Yemen I had never met anyone that had ever spent time there. Absolutely no one.
Today, this may seem anything but surprising, after long years of war, terror and destruction – but back in the early 90s it was a peaceful and unimaginably beautiful country. Such an incredibly long time ago. It felt good to share the travel memories. Climbing through the ruins of old Marib, hiking up to Kaukabam, sleeping by the sea somewhere south of Al Hudaydah, shopping for spices at the souk in Sana’a. Including cardamom, come to think of it.
Wherever I went in that part of the world, I always went to the souks to look for spices. Even in the most unlikely places like Khartoum or Karachi. The shelf in my kitchen always carried at least a dozen different mixes of spices, curries and chillies, I never ran short of cumin, coriander or curcuma.
The one place that I was never lucky enough to travel to was Iran. If someone would have offered me to trade in my days in Jeddah for a week of submersion in Persian culture, I wouldn’t have hesitated for even a split second. And I still hope that I get the chance to do that some day.
Until then I will probably return to this album and listen in on what lays ahead of me. I don’t know how many times Astral Industries label founder Ario Farahani traveled to Iran to collect the sounds and the music of Persia – but judging from the richness and depth of the experience “Cardamom & Laudanum” offers it must have been dozens of journeys.
It’s curious how this album is very easily recognisable as an Astral Industries release and how it’s very different as well. Most of the other albums travel to imagined spaces, sometimes referring to ideas, places, people – but “Cardamom & Laudanum” is so specifically about one place and one culture that I tend to even agree with whoever added the “Folk” category to the Discogs entry for this album.
Such a label may seem a little bit far fetched, but maybe that person thought it is better than a “world music” label. Who knows. What it definitely is: an absolutely magnificent and fascinating headphone journey. Partly because Farahani must have done a world class job going through all of the recordings he had accumulated to select the material for this album – and partly because he chose the ideal partner for this project – Rod Modell.
It’s quite a feat that Modell pulls off on “Cardamom & Laudanum” as the already mystic and ancient sounds of Persia come out infinitely more mystic after they return from Detroit. It sounds as if the collected Persian music heritage had been taken to be deconstructed, reassembled, and placed right in the middle of our minds. Seriously altered and reshaped, it enables us reflect on its essence.
This might just be the only way to immerse ourselves in a culture that is unknown to us – unless of course we choose to devote our lives to studying it. We don’t know the places, and we don’t know the instruments, the traditions the music is based upon, and even if the words or lyrics of the vocal elements on these recordings hadn’t been slowed down to a pace that turns them into something almost instrumental – we wouldn’t understand those either.
The artists and their label tell us about some of the instruments that can be heard. The daf, a frame drum made with goat or fish skin that is held in the player’s hand and played both with the free hand and the fingers of the hand that holds it. The santoor, an ancient hammered dulcimer that has a range of three octaves. The kamancheh, a bowed string instrument that is played with a variable-tension bow.
We may not know the instruments, but we know how they sound as most of these Persian instruments have found their way to other cultures further to the East and the South, going through their own stages of evolution as they would be altered to fit the musical traditions of the respective cultures.
The album is full of places, tales and mysteries. We enter them in Yazd, the “city of the holy”, located right at the center of what is Iran today, with a track that features most of what makes this album so special, musical elements floating on ambient soundscapes, drifting in and out as if depending on whatever the wind would carry over.
Some of the tracks are traveling on rhythms, like “Caravanserai/Den Of Thieves” – a looped percussive pattern that might have come from a particularly well crafted and large daf. The slowly weaving atmosphere that accompanies most of the track is more felt than noticed, hinting both at slow movement in unchartered realms and a space that is filled with noises of things happening we can’t identify – the den of thieves is a dark and mysterious place, but one we are too curious to stay away from.
“The Dervish” is another example, and it may seem logical as we usually associate the word with whirling dancers, but in Persia dervishes don’t dance, they are mendicants, members of religious orders that choose to live in poverty, mainly relying on alms. The tale of the dervish is told by what might be a kamencheh, playing by itself in the midst of the sounds of time and space, just like the dervish lives by himself, practicing his rituals in an attempt to get closer to God.
Some of the tracks bring me back to albums I used to listen to a lot, back in a time that seems just as ancient to me. Anne Dudley and Jaz Coleman’s “Songs From The Victorious City” or Peter Gabriel’s remarkable albums “Passion” and “Passion – Sources”. What Farahani and Modell are doing here is similar, in a translation that is representative of our time, just like those projects were doing it for their time (which doesn’t mean that they have lost their magic, not at all).
The dramatic santoor excursions that emanate from the “Spirit Lamp” represent the most folk-like moments on this album, feeling almost familiar, especially compared to the unusual flute-like sounds that seem to perform trance-like writhing dances while they are “Entering The Sublime”, or against the looming soundscapes that are surrounding the warped voices performing “The Conjuring”.
The most dramatic and seemingly most electronic piece on this album “Thus Spoke Zarathustra/The Djinn” will probably either fascinate you or make you wonder. Slowed down (not pitched down) voices speaking indecipherable teaching, the drums marching relentlessly – I am much more inclined to slip deeper into “The Twilight/The Great Mystery” that closes the album, and that’s not exactly a smooth ride either, sounding like a boat ride on agitated subterranean rivers through caves and tunnels, not knowing where we would end up, Hades or a land before time or some strange new world – there is no way of knowing. What we do notice though is that all the ancient instruments seem to have been left behind, and we might just as well have taken a dive into the same black hole that Matthew McConaughey decided to drop into in “Interstellar”.
Yes, I like what Farahani and Modell are doing here. It’s very obvious that Farahani must have taken an immensely deep dive as well, into Persian music history, and it’s equally obvious that Rod Modell was able to comprehend what was essential about it and give the source material coherence, depth and meaning. I wonder what it would be like to visit a place like Yazd with this music in my ears. Maybe I’ll find out, some fine day.
Release for review:
MYSTIC AM – CARDAMOM & LAUDANUM – ASTRAL INDUSTRIES – AI-30