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Tonight, Hafez Nazeri will become the first Iranian to headline Carnegie Hall. The young musician has been attracting attention for Sounds of Peace, an East meets West program inspired by a certain political mission - or is it? Lara Pellegrinelli reports.

LARA PELLEGRINELLI: Hafez Nazeri likes to think of himself as a troublemaker.

Mr. HAFEZ NAZERI (Musician): I was always controversial because whatever I do, I always wanted to make change. So many people, they don't like it. Conservative people, they don't want to see the change, and they think if you touch, that means you're destroying a tradition.

(Soundbite of music)

PELLEGRINELLI: The 30-year-old was never been big on look but don't touch. He was only three when he started to play the sitar, a traditional Persian lute. By nine he was performing alongside his father, the famous vocalist Sharam Nazeri. In his latest ensemble, the Rumi Symphony Project, Hafez Nazeri is joined by his father, as well as an Iraqi percussionist and Western classical string players. The group is intended to symbolize unity between cultures.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. SHARAM NAZERI (Vocalist): (Singing in foreign language)

PELLEGRINELLI: Nazeri became interested in creating this kind of musical hybrid when he came to New York and studied composition at Mannes College, the New School for Music.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. NAZERI: Western composer, when he talked about Middle Eastern music, right away they talked about quarter tones and how it's so cool and how does it work.

PELLEGRINELLI: Quarter tones would literally fit between the white keys and the black keys on a piano. They're a characteristic feature of Persian music.

Mr. NAZERI: Now, we have a quarter tone between A-flat and A-natural.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. NAZERI: A-flat.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. NAZERI: A-quarter tone.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. NAZERI: A-natural. Even I could sing for you, like to see how it works. Like

(Singing in foreign language)

PELLEGRINELLI: For the Rumi Symphony Project, Nazeri chose to play in a melodic mode that has almost no quarter tones in order to meld the Eastern with the Western. But fusions between Persian and Western classical traditions are nothing new.

Professor STEPHEN BLUM (City University of New York Graduate Center): Western music became important in Iran in the late 19th century with military bands.

PELLEGRINELLI: Stephen Blum is a Persian music scholar and professor at the City University of New York Graduate Center. He says that Western influences became controversial after the Iran-Iraq war in 1988.

Prof. BLUM: The government was very opposed to what they called the cultural invasion of the West, so they encouraged indigenous classical music and also music of the regions, and started to have festivals of regional music in the various languages in the mid-1990s.

PELLEGRINELLI: The careers of musicians like Nazeri's father were able to blossom as a result. But they were a select few. It's even tougher to succeed today.

Prof. BLUM: Young musicians don't have enough opportunities to perform. It's very difficult for them to arrange concerts. And even when something has been approved, the approval can be taken away at the last minute.

PELLEGRINELLI: On the Nazeris' Passion of Rumi tour of Iran, they performed to 140,000 people over four nights at Tehran's Saadabad Palace, former home of the Shah. It was an opportunity accorded perhaps because of his father's stature in Iranian culture. And maybe as a result of the privilege he's enjoyed, Hafez Nazeri doesn't see much difference between being a musician in Iran and the West.

Mr. NAZERI: You know, in Iran we have, like, certain laws and rules and limitations, but I don't think that's a huge difference. For instance, a limitation is like a woman can't sing in public. When you are releasing a recording, or if you are going to have a concert, you have to get the permission from the cultural minister, whoever, you know, represent music in Tehran. They have to know about the poetry you use. And sometimes they let you do it, sometimes they don't.

Ms. SUSSAN DEYHIM (Musician): Right now, I mean we don't have the luxury of being apolitical.

PELLEGRINELLI: Vocalist, composer and performance artist Sussan Deyhim was born in Iran but has lived in the U.S. since 1980. She recently packed the club Le Poisson Rouge in Greenwich Village for a protest and solidarity concert.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. DEYHIM: I am feeling very Iranian. It feels good too. Oh my God. We're going to get that place back.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. DEYHIM: (Singing in foreign language)

PELLEGRINELLI: It was September 24th - the same day Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was greeted by protesters at the U.N.

(Soundbite of protestors)

PELLEGRINELLI: In an attempt to create a music beyond politics, Hafez Nazeri uses the poetry of 13th century Persian mystic Rumi.

Mr. NAZERI: Being Iranian musician and not being political, that's, I think, inevitable. Because anyway, you're Iranian, and when the name of Iran comes, you're already political. But since I use Rumi's poetry and it talks about, you know, love, peace, unity, balance of the powers and all of these energies, I think, you know, you're already talking political.

But I think it's above normal political issues. You're talking mostly about the humanity. You are thinking about, like, how important it is, especially in such a time that we all come together, you know, to love each other rather than, like, you know, hearing all these conflict and hearing all these, you know, negative things from, you know, news and, you know, the bad things that happen in the world.

PELLEGRINELLI: During Iran's contested elections, people there began to change those negative images themselves, says Sussan Deyhim.

Ms. DEYHIM: Suddenly you see this whole new generation of young people who are, like, so Internet-savvy, so cyber-eloquent, you know? It's liberating.

PELLEGRINELLI: It's liberating to a point. As with many places in the world, it may take more than sounds of peace or protest to fundamentally transform Iran -or our perceptions of it.

For NPR News, I'm Lara Pellegrinelli in New York.

(Soundbite of music)

(Soundbite of applause)

SIMON: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

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