A large component of my introduction to the world of Persianate literature and culture has been the Irani setār. My induction into the setār world has been through my very talented (and patient!) teacher of the past few months, Pejman Zahedian. I strongly recommend a stroll over to his soundcloud. I wanted to share a basic outline of all that I’ve been learning over this past year. The first of these posts is an introduction to the setār.


The setār is a long-necked lute, with a half pear-shaped body made of tut (mulberry) wood. Originally with seh (three) tar (strings), the modern setār has 4 strings, and is one of the main instruments of Persian art music. In the Qajar period, however, it remained in relative oblivion.

The setār has movable frets, and every fret consists of 3 or 4 threads according to tradition. The strings are plucked with the grown nail of the index finger. The rhythm involves the main up-stroke (rāst) and down-stroke (chap), as well as steady tremolo (riz) and a quick tremolo ornament (dorāb).

The strings have different tunings for different dastgāh. For dastgāh-e Māhur, the tuning would be (bottom string to top string):


                                      Do          Sol           Do           Do

Key of C:                       C             G             C             C


The setār has whole, half, and quarter-note divisions. A flattened note is bimol, a sharp note is diyez, and a koron is approximately quarter-tone flat (for eg., akoron lies between A♮ and A♭).


The setār is said to be a descendent of the ancient Iranian tambur of Khorasan, which in turn is credited with being the ancestral form of nearly all lutes now known in the East.


Texts and sites consulted:

Tile #2: the fruit

Tile #2: the fruit

In his memoirs, the Mughal emperor Babur speaks longingly of his ancestral home in the Ferghana Valley. He longs for cities such as Samarkand, the capital held by his legendary ancestor Timur, and praises the wine, fruit, and gardens of Central Asia. In a letter to his companion Khwaja Kalan, he writes: “How can one forget the pleasures of that country (Kabul)? Especially when abstaining from drinking, how can one allow oneself to forget a licit pleasure like melons and grapes? Recently, a melon was brought and as I cut and ate it, I was oddly affected. I wept the whole time I was eating it.” 

In my second Farsi class, the instructor hands us a sheet with names of fruits. Seebalbalututfiranginarenj. There were narenj trees in my grandmother’s garden in Peshawar. The narenj is larger than an orange, smaller than a grapefruit, and the flavour lies somewhere between oranges and lemons. Back in Farsi class, the teacher is telling the class what a narenj is, and I remember eid at Amiji’s. Helping ami and my aunts marinate and grill, then squeezing the narenj on the teekay before our annual meat frenzy. I could smell lamb in everything for weeks after.

Last Tuesday, Pejman introduced me to the Irani setar. He said the body is made of mulberry, called toot or shahtoot. I remember green mulberries, which look like fat juicy caterpillars. I used to climb the toot tree near our house in Quetta, and get rashes from getting too close to centipedes. Pejman said he used to do the same in Tehran when he was growing up. 

Toot and narenj; Delhi and Samarkand; Quetta and Tehran; Peshawar and Toronto. I’m oddly affected too.

Tile #1: the grant

Tile #1: the grant

There have been a few distinct moments in my life when I have felt music exerting its pull, drawing me inexorably into its orbit. It feels like a game of dominos, which has been set up tile by tile, day by day, up until the day that the first tile tips. And the full pattern only emerges once the last tile falls. And it’s always magical.

In April this year I applied for the Ontario Arts Council Access grant, and in September I got the confirmation letter in the mail; the first tile of a yet unclear pattern.  This time I’d like to take some of you along for the ride. For the next two years I’m going to be learning new languages, old instruments, folk tales and shared histories. I’m not sure where all this leads to, but I can’t wait to get there!

If you’d like to know more about the project, you can read excerpts of my application here. Till the next post!