BWW Interview: Katayoun Goudarzi & Shujaat Husain Khan Continue a Musical Journey with the Release of "Ruby"

The melding of musical styles is too dry a term, and perhaps a foolish one, but it is hard to put into words what occurs on some occasions. The harmonious relationship between Iranian-born singer Katayoun Goudarzi and one of India's foremost and prolific classical musicians Shujaat Husain Khan defies proper description.

Suffice to say their latest recording, Ruby continues their long-standing collaboration, and Goudarzi's interpretations of the Persian Sufi master, dervish and poet Rumi. "This particular album is quite different than anything that we have done in the past," Goudarzi explains. "I sing all the songs, I don't recite in any form. We also had decided that we wanted to have very simple, approachable and relatable tunes. A lot of times we improvise; in this particular case, we wanted to make sure the tunes were constructed prior to recording. We wanted listeners to be able to relate to it immediately and be a part of it."

Khan is of similar mind. "This is not a production," he says, "it's just two people sitting down and doing some music. The whole idea is to highlight nature and simplicity more than production. It's very, very simple; I don't know how else to explain it."

Take then, into account this structure, and the lead track, "Adrift." There is a feeling of improvisation: energy slowly builds through traditional instruments; these, and Gourdarzi's voice place the listener inside the music and the words.

The simplicity of Goudarzi and Khan's partnership is stated without reservation. "The way it works between Shujaat and I is really quite amazing," Goudarzi admits, "it's something I've never experienced with anyone else. He has a very deep understanding of poetry. When we talk about a certain ode, or a few verses, before I even start to explain it, he grasps it. He knows exactly what I'm talking about, and when we go into recording it, sometimes I'm just amazed at how he transcribes those words into music. It's so fluid, it's so natural, and it makes our collaboration such a pleasure, completely effortless, seeing this."

Listening to the intricate nature of the interplay and time changes of "Whirling Tree," (especially Khan and Ajay Prasanna on sitar and flute, respectively) one would not believe every track was done on the first take. Goudarzi stresses that point: "We never play a piece twice. Sometimes we even leave it; that was the organic way of recording it, and that's how we should leave it."

"We are two people who are kind of similar, who just want to express emotions through music and words," Khan adds. "Most people want to make everything into a commercial (venture). This is more of just two or three musicians doing everything simple, where the focus is not taking away from the words and the melody.

'I don't want to use the word successful, but something that has some meaning in this whole world of music. I like everything to happen naturally; I just sit down and talk about something. (Katayoun) sits down with words she wants to talk about, I look after (the) music, we get together and put something together."

More now about Rumi, into whose words Goudarzi places her voice. A dignified delivery on "Whirling Tree" does not take away from the passion in those original words. There too is a flow on "Clouded," in which Goudarzi conveys love of the words, their author, but also for the acts involved. Rumi spared no emotion in his poems, and within his own history lay the groundwork for what would come.


Born Mowlana Jalaludin Mohamed, Rumi descended from a line of Islamic scholars and succeeded his father as head of the learning community (medrese) in Konya, Turkey. His contribution to poetry, however, came out his deep friendship and mystical relationship with the wandering dervish Shams-e Tabrizi. Their time together was barely more than two years; Shams' disappearance led Rumi to grief, and to thousands of lines of spontaneous poetry. Among these include the Divan of Shams of Tabriz, a work of some 35-hundred odes. More impressive is the Masvani, 64-thousand lines that encompassed six volumes and took the final twelve years of Rumi's life.

"Rumi's poetry appears to be very simple," Goudarzi explains, "and a key word here is appear. And he himself constantly says, 'you can take what you want from my poetry'. So we wanted it to appear to be simple and we wanted for people to connect to it.

'I think with some of the greatest artworks in the world," she goes on, "everything always appears to be very simple. When I look at some of the greatest paintings, it appears to be simple, but then there's nothing simple. Same thing with music: sometimes I listen to some tunes, they sound very easy on the ears, it doesn't matter who you are you can connect with them. Generally there is a lot of depth in very many layers to that work, but they appear to be simple and that's the key word.

'The best way to say it is it just feels right. When I read something, I just know what feels right. I suppose after you read something for so many years, you have a connection to certain words and certain verses and certain approaches, and you just know it when you see it. It's not some scholarly way of going through this; I like that organic, emotional connection and when I have it, that's just it, it feels right, it works for me, and we go from there."

Katayoun Goudarzi

On the question of Rumi's poetic method as "ecstatic," a first glance would lead one to consider the English Romantic period, and Goudarzi believes there is some parallel. "What's really interesting about him is that he doesn't consider himself to be a poet," she says. "And beyond these beautiful lines of poetry sits a thinker, and it surfaces quite vividly. After the loss of his beloved (Shams), came this amazing work of art, this outpouring of thousands of lines of poetry, all love poems and they were so beautifully constructed, he didn't write them down. So he is quite an intriguing genius, that when you get started with him, there is no escape, you just get hooked and I experienced that, because I got started I had no plans in investing my time in his poetry, but somehow he does that to you."

The influence of Goudarzi's father, due to his fascination and study must be noted. "When I was a little girl, I had a lot of exposure to classical Persian poetry, through my father, though he was an engineer," she says. "But his interest and focus was (this), and he would study it religiously, and have a very scholarly approach to his study. It's sort of like being a secondhand smoker, I suppose; I mean I was just getting exposure. And a lot of what he was talking about constantly at home, I mean when you're a kid, you just absorb it, but I really didn't have any comprehension of what he was talking about.

'Later on though I became intrigued with the fact that over that intensive love between Rumi and Shams, and how the loss of Shams led him to one of the greatest masterpieces of Persian literature, over 40-thousand lines of poetry, and I decide I wanted to learn a little bit about it."

Goudarzi also sheds light on the high esteem for poetic works in her homeland. "Poetry as an art form in Iran, it's sort of inseparable from one's life," she explains. "Every single person in one way or another is somehow exposed to poetry, even the jokes, anything comes in a form of a verse. So that's part of everyone's life. You can't really take it away, they embrace that culture and it's quite beautiful to me."

Khan is the son of Ustad Vilayat Khan, and the musical lineage is now in its seventh generation. "Often in our part of the world, we have families where if the son's next to continue in the (family's) footsteps," Khan explains, "sometimes it is their own choice. Usually in fine arts it happens very often. So I come from a family of seven generations. It's a plus point, growing up in a home already (where) there is music going on, it makes a huge difference. I think before I was born my mother had to go to go to concerts while she was still carrying me, because it's been proven children in the womb are already listening. Usually musicians or children or musicians enter the same business or the same work. How their life turns out depends on their destinies, but it usually happens."

Khan says with laughter he got a head start on sitar at the age of three. "Between seven and eight is the usual starting point," he says. "There was a little sitar with my toys. I saw the people sitting and playing music, so as a child one tries to imitate that. So that's how it starts; by six I was already giving small concerts."

Music in Khan's family was for him as intense. "When you hear music constantly, 24 hours of the day," he says, "music is constantly surrounding you. Students are practicing; you're going to concerts, parents are practicing, talking about the music, talking about the business of music, how to deal with people, how to talk to people, great artists coming and spending time together and laughing, talking, cooking, joking and doing music together. All these things kind of seep into the body; and as you grow older they all manifest itself in musical language. So when I'm performing, you hear stories and music can and laughter genius of all these great masters I get across to people. It's a wonderful thing."

The Hindi term "Gayaki Ang" identifies Khan's sitar style, which was pioneered by his father. "Ang means style and gana means to sing, gayaki means vocal style. At one time, the sitar repertoire was mostly right-hand strokes, the stroke pattern was predominant. What he started doing is using the left-hand technique, of where the melody became more predominant. So he was following the vocal of all compositions that were sung. It's something that a generation after them, every instrumentalist of my country has to follow that vocal style to have people enjoy it. Because vocality and language is so close to human beings, that's something that connects people with people automatically."

Shujaat Husain Khan

Where the musical vibe is powerful, Goudarzi and Khan remain committed to keeping that as natural as possible. "I don't know if I can even do it any other way," Goudarzi admits. "With Shujaat as he puts it beautifully, everything just flows. We talk about it. When we were (preparing for Ruby) we were on the phone when he was in India. We would set a time once or twice a week, talk for an hour or two, go over the meanings, the translations, the transliterations, the beats the rhythm the meter all of these things are being discussed, but we don't sit there playing it, writing it down this is where that's going to be--none of that happens. After we know we are ready mentally we show up in the studio and that's it. The album gets recorded, and we're done. For us it's a breeze, and that's why it's such an enjoyable process. As soon as we're done with one record we're immediately thinking about the next one, because now we have some new ideas for the next one. That rarely happens."

The bigger picture for Khan, part of the organic nature of the music, goes even further: "For me, this is an extension of who I am. When you pick up Ruby and you listen to the sitar portions of the compositions, then you listen to a part of my soul, a part of who I am. When you listen to Katayoun, this is who she is.

'I don't want to call my music earth shattering or different or genius. I want people to understand this is just music. Two people singing laughing, some rhythm in there, some sitar pieces in there some profound poetry, something simple messages of music some flute that comes in...I want the people to understand when you put finger on wire, on an instrument, you cannot get more real than this. It never went away but I want this people in this world to have an option. I want to give people an option of listening to music of who I am coming back to nature and simplicity."

As for their musical coil, "I hope we can just go on," Goudarzi says, "because he's one of the greatest musicians in the world music genre of our time, and it's a pleasure to work with him."

Ruby is a step onward in Goudarzi and Khan's works. For those familiar or not, the music may take one immediately, or force more thoughtful listening. In either case, it is music and poetry brought forth that will, as good writing of any kind should, take you somewhere.

The album is slated for release on November 6th, and a tour is being discussed for 2016. Goudarzi is especially grateful to a fan base that has become global, but also to the "curious minds" of American listeners. "One of the things I've experienced in the US is that people are so open and so curious," she says. "It's a matter of listening to it, when you give it a shot you will experience something, and from there, new windows will open, and you may see something that you've never seen before, whether it's in music, painting, theater, it doesn't matter. It's just a matter of allowing yourself to be exposed to it, and you might find something really refreshing and new."

Photo credits:

Katayoun's photo (seated): Anthony Rhoades

Shujaat Khan's photo (blue background) and Katayoun & Shujaat in concert: Bonnie Perkinson.

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From This Author Tory Gates

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