Two world leaders of Persian classical music, Hossein Alizadeh and Pezham Akhavass came to Norman for the weekend to share their knowledge with music students and to perform for the community.

“What we create is based on poetry,” Akhavass said Friday afternoon at the student workshop co-sponsored by OU Iranian Studies and the Farzaneh Family Fund. “If you recite the poems and lyrics, you can learn the rhythms more easily.”

Long before the West had Shakespeare, the East had Rumi, Hafez and Khayyam.

A percussionist, Akhavass demonstrated drumming techniques on his bongo-like Tombak, and the deep rattling thunder of the large round framed drum called a Daf. His fingers snapped and tapped in layered rhythms on every surface of the instruments.

In Persian music the Radif, literally translated “order,” provides the structure of the music. There is usually a central note, called Sahed, that Alizadeh said has a kind of musical gravity that makes the musician – and the audience – want to come back to that note. The surrounding notes are added through improvisation within the Radif, often peppered with the distinctive half-flat and half-sharp notes called Coron.

“Improvising is a special sharing of a moment between the musician and the audience,” Alizadeh said, a six-stringed Tar in his lap. “Sometimes we feel our heartbeat is the same as the audience.”

When Alizadeh performs, it is the sharing of those moments of music together with an audience that encapsulates the purpose of Persian music.

“It’s all about us together,” Alizadeh said.

Alizadeh began his classical Persian music training when he was 11, and throughout his career has studied and performed with masters from his own country and abroad. His solo music career has spanned North America, Europe, and Asia and he now enjoys widespread fame for his mastery of Persian Radif.

Akhavass began learning music theory and the Tombak when he was five years old, and in his 20s, he traveled the world performing with renowned Persian vocalist Shahram Nazeri. Akhavass is currently the Global Music Director of the San Francisco World Music Festival and is hailed as one of the most capable artists of his generation.

Both men agreed: Persian music is like a conversation.

“It is not linear, like western music that has a direct destination,” said Akhavass. “It is fluid, not direct. Persians are not direct.”

“Imagine Persian music as a house,” Akhavass continued. “You have to go in, and then there are many doors, many places to introduce you to before you leave. Or you can stay.”

Improvisation is considered to be the final step in the mastery of Persian music, and the duo said Saturday night’s concert would also be largely improvised. It is how they perform.

“We practice, but not by notes,” Akhavass said. “We travel together, we fly together, we eat together, we see beautiful views. All of those give us ideas we put into our hands for the audience.”

Festival coordinator and associate professor Zoe Sherinian feigned shock at the idea of an improvised concert.

“We have already printed the programs,” she said.

Akhavass said when he plays he thinks about spiritual things, about a beautiful place or a word his friend said earlier that day that inspired contemplation.

“You never know when a conversation will change your life,” he said.

Even before it was mentioned at the workshop, at least one student in the crowd knew the link between her country’s music and a culture of healing. Sogol Salary began her Ph.D in construction this year at the University of Oklahoma.

“I knew some of this music from my father,” Salary said. “When I went in, I had a terrible headache. I hoped they would play something that would make it stop.” As she left the workshop she said she felt much better. She was happy to have heard the famous Alizadeh speak.

“He is so prominent and famous,” she said. “Everyone loves him in my home country. His music and improvisation is really new and fabulous.”

The Nowruz Persian Music Concert, part of the Masala World Music Series, kicked off at 8 p.m. Saturday night in the Sharp Concert Hall of Catlett Music Center. The festival takes place every year at the University of Oklahoma.