From Afar, Sahba Motallebi Continues to Be a Role Model for Iranian Women

Sahba Motallebi
Sahba Motallebi Courtesy of the Rhythm Foundation
Remember the "Axis of Evil"? That's what George Bush called North Korea, Iran, and Iraq back in 2002. It was hateful, ignorant, and in some ways led to today's tumultuous times.

The Rhythm Foundation’s "Axis of Love" concert series seeks to counter this by employing cultural diplomacy to move the needle on political and social understanding. The concert is a coproduction with MDC Live Arts as part of their Ojala/Inshallah series.

This series will feature a rare opportunity to hear music from Iran on January 27 at the North Beach Bandshell. Persian classical music is a deeply spiritual and contemplative art form, central to Iranian identity. Sahba Motallebi is an award-winning virtuoso player of the tar and setar, which are lute-like stringed instruments.

Motallebi will be accompanied by Naghmeh Farahmand on tonbak (goblet drum) and daf (frame drum). Motallebi has dedicated her life to opening people’s minds to Iran through music. One of the world’s oldest and most evocative musical styles, Persian music consists of 12 principal musical modes. A master musician such as Sahba Motallebi weaves these into a larger improvisational performance. She builds emotional bridges between the mind and soul.

Motallebi’s life is a progressive example for many in Iran, a state that has roadblocks for women. As a teenager, she cofounded the groundbreaking women’s music ensemble Chakaveh and later joined the Iranian National Orchestra, beginning her career as an international performer. One of her key missions is to be a role model for other women. Brought up within the religious order of Persian Bahá’í, which predates Islam, she is familiar with being persecuted and marginalized. As a result, she is determined to encourage humanity, religious unity, justice, and women’s liberty.

In late 2005, a bizarre anti-Bahá'í media campaign was launched in Iran, falsely asserting the religion was created to undermine Islam. The largest non-Muslim minority in Iran was then barred from seeking higher education. Perversely, the government tried to use her as a propaganda tool. She refused to participate and escaped Iran at age 27 to study in Russia and Turkey before coming to the California Institute of Arts 13 years ago. She cannot go back. “They will kill me. Being a female musician in Iran is a crime. Especially because I give concerts all over the world without any hijab or scarf, showing that a woman is free, these things are crimes in Iran,” Motallebi says.

Motallebi is one of the only female masters of the tar and setar, instruments normally played by men. “Naghmeh Farahmand and I are trying to introduce audiences to Iran through our music.” Motallebi says. "We are all about our souls, not about our genders.”

She has lived through dark times in Iran and now uses the world stage to encourage peace. “I composed a few pieces that show how war affects people and affects my soul,” Motallebi says, “[and] how stressful war was in Iran and about peace in the future.” She hopes the audience will share in the experience,

The bigger message is to her people back home. “When I came here I said I would be a role model for people in Iran,” she says. “They are going to see me as a person that is going to talk on their behalf, on behalf of women who don’t have civil rights.”

Motallebi now lives with her husband and two children in Los Angeles. When she is not performing, she spends time teaching. She has released instructional online music videos, a series of books, and has produced ten recordings of her work.

Axis of Love With Sahba Motallebi. 8 p.m. Saturday, January 27, at North Beach Bandshell, 7275 Collins Ave., Miami Beach; 305-672-5202; Tickets cost $20 to $50 via
KEEP MIAMI NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Miami New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Miami, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.