Regina Carter and Kayhan Kalhor are undisputed masters of their respective, related instruments: Carter on the violin, which for the most part she’s plied in forward-thinking yet always-swingin’ jazz settings; Kalhor on the kamancheh, the Persian “spike fiddle” with which he’s explored and advanced the traditional repertoire as a founding member of the Iranian classical Dastan Ensemble and the border-crossing Silk Road Ensemble (with leader Yo Yo Ma) and Persian-Indian collaboration Ghazal.
But in recent years both artists, who are making separate concert appearances in the L.A. area this weekend (Carter on Saturday at the Nate Holden Performing Arts Center in a show presented by the Jazz Bakery, Kalhor on Sunday evening at the Skirball Center), have sought something more.
Detroit native Carter, having made side trips to Paganini (playing on his own violin) and standards, became fascinated with the music of the Middle East and North Africa. Using a 2006 MacArthur Foundation grant (yes, that’s the “genius” award), she put together a unique band, Reverse Thread, adding kora (West African harp) player Yacouba Sissoko and accordionist Will Holhouser to a more traditional jazz combo and set out on a research project that took her from the music of Christian Arabs (sounds to which she was introduced in her youth by Detroit’s large population of Palestinians) to sounds of Ugandan Jews and on through Africa both ancient and modern. The result was Reverse Thread (the name of both the band and its 2010 debut album), with exhilarating excursions that start with traditional tunes -- sometimes played over the P.A. at concerts as illustration -- and wind up, well, anywhere the band goes.
“ I looked at music I had gathered and was most drawn to, and it seemed to not be a specific place, but all over the continent,” she says of the project. “I decided, ‘As usual record companies will say your music is all over the place.’ That’s my thing, so why stop now?”
For Kalhor, the inspiration for new horizons was more specific, and weighty. The Tehran-based artist witnessed, and participated in, the Green Movement of 2009 which challenged the results of Iranian elections, an unprecedented rise of the populace, but one saddled with tragic deaths and which ultimately failed. To express the mix of hope, fear and morning that came from that experience, for Kalhor, required not just new approaches, but a whole new instrument.
So with the recent album I Will Not Stand Alone, an incredibly moving cycle of duets with santour player Ali Bahrimi Fard was drawn from those dramatic events, Kalhor debuted the custom-designed Shah Kaman -- “the King of Bows.”
The Shah Kaman was built for Kalhor by Australian craftsman Peter Biffin, combining aspects of the kamencheh and an earlier, all-wood creation known as the tarhu. The new instrument adds a lower, fifth string and a series of sympathetic harmonic drone strings giving a very “earthy” sounds, Kalhor says. It proved a perfect vehicle for what he was trying to get out in wake of the historic episode.
“Every piece was integrated and translated into what I was feeling … at the moment,” Kalhor says of the cycle, which counters the sadness and loss of what transpired with impressions of community, family and memories of Iran past.
Sunday, though, will be a rare opportunity for Souther Californians to see Kalhor in intimate recital as he appears at the Skirball Center, accompanied by Behrouz Jamali on the tombak drum. Whatever setting, whether with a large group or completely solo (as in the solo NPR Tiny Desk appearance in the video here) he reaches deep into both the history of his culture and his own being.