Lily Afshar

Try mentioning your Iranian background in a circle of cultured American friends. Instead of the usual questions about politics they may ask, “Do you know of Lily Afshar?” This is because Afshar is one of the world’s leading classical guitarists, with remarkable innovations furthering the influence of the instrument.

In fact, someone once asked Afshar herself where she was from. That “someone” was Maestro Andres Segovia, the terrifyingly eminent virtuoso authority on the classical guitar. The setting was a master class held in Los Angeles in 1986. A group of 12 young guitarists had been selected out of hundreds of international competitors vying for the honor of playing in front of the guitar legend, hoping for an approving nod. That simple nod or—God forbid—a shake of the head could begin or end a young artist’s career. If a performer could remain intensely focused on her art, keeping her mind and fingers from going rubbery in front of this ultimate say-so on the classical guitar, she was ready to take command of any audience. To showcase her skills, Afshar had chosen to include Sevilla by Isaac Albeniz—it would be futile to pick a less demanding piece, Segovia would spot artistic timidity before the first measure was played out. During a lyrical passage in Sevilla, the Maestro stopped Afshar. “Where are you from,” he asked.

Afshar is from a musical family. Her grandmother was a tar player, and her father was a violinist and a pianist (as well as pilot and engineer). Her romance with the classical guitar began at the age of ten when she first heard the instrument at a cousin’s house. The very next day her father got her a guitar and signed her up for private lessons, later enrolling her for night classes at the Tehran Conservatory of Music. Afshar remembers very clearly her father giving her instructions in music theory. He was the one who inspired her to aim for an international reputation. “There was nothing his daughter couldn’t do,” says Afshar. “He encouraged me to get to the top of my field and I ended up getting my doctorate and becoming the first woman in the world [italics mine] to get a doctorate in classical guitar performance.” With this degree of parental love and support, it is no wonder that on first hearing a Segovia recording as a child, Afshar said to herself, “If Segovia can do this, I can too.” Years later in 1986, she would sit in the presence of the great master himself, embracing her guitar; ready to show him that she is just as good. And she wasn’t nervous at all. She thought of Segovia as a grandfather. Family!

There is a photo of that event with grandpa Segovia coddling Afshar’s guitar like an infant grandchild. Aptly, Afshar had named her guitar “bambina:” Spanish for little baby girl. The artist, with her dark wavy hair accenting the rural colors of her dress, stands like a proud young mother, while onlookers crane their necks for a view of “bambina.”

Four successful guitar albums and a (recent) DVD later, with a Doctor of Music degree form Florida State University, Afshar now leads her own master classes. As she juggles a busy concert schedule with a professorship at the University of Memphis, she makes time to travel the world sharing her musical knowledge with aspiring future guitarists—it helps that she speaks five languages. During these travels she continues to soak up world cultures, heeding her own advice that a good musician must possess “loads of culture,” as it can be critical to music interpretation. Her concerts and master classes in Iran are always packed. “They love the guitar,” she says. “Everywhere I go, Kerman, Mashad, Shiraz, Tehran, there are youngsters coming to hear good music and to learn.” The problem she is attempting to address in Iranian classical guitar education is the lack of good editions of music with proper fingering. So the educator often carries her own editions in her suitcase. A related problem she has noted is that Iranian guitar students tend to borrow their interpretations from recordings, rarely relying on their own ideas. I think this may also have to do with the student trying to stay on the teacher’s good side. After all, this is how Afshar remembers preparing for that master class with Segovia, “…I knew what kind of things Segovia liked and what kind of musicianship he looked for…” While classroom diplomacy is universal, in Iran it can reach debilitating proportions. I have heard many good musicians trained in Iranian conservatories complain of being dinged in grades for breaking tradition. Perhaps breaking tradition is a fine art in itself, and Afshar aims to teach her students the right way to do it.

An important lesson in tradition breaking that Afshar teaches the classical guitar world is reflected in her choice of programming. Aren’t classical guitarists supposed to be playing the Bach Chaconne or the Fernando Sor Variations—or at worst a Lennox Berkeley Sonatina? Whoever heard of modifying your instrument with extra frets so that you could mess around with avaz e dashti in dastgah e shur? How dare she ask gifted composers to base their guitar compositions on Morgh e Sahar? Well she dares, and the result is fresh territory for the guitar, or rather a nostalgic return of the guitar to the territory of its birth. Afshar often makes a point of the last syllable in the word “guitar” being of Persian origin and she references physicist Michael Kasha’s works [see footnote] on the true origin of the guitar and other instruments whose names end in “tar.” Instruments as in the se-tar, which she plays.

Dr. Afshar has high praise for tar and se-tar virtuoso Hossein Alizadeh and popular se-tar singer Mohsen Namjoo, saying, “[They] are incredibly innovative and they have, each in their own way stretched traditional boundaries.” She also likes Keyvan Saket. “I love his Albinoni Adagio on the tar,” she declares. “It makes me cry. It’s the first time I hear a tar player playing Western pieces. He has incredible technique, but the great thing is that he plays the pieces just like the original and you think it was written for the tar and orchestra.”

As Afshar directs her musical energies to Persian instruments, it is highly likely that she will bring upheavals of her own to our classic traditions. Already challenging the standard se-tar techniques she says, “I think, the middle and ring fingers in combination with the index finger could create more arpeggios and strumming techniques than just using the index finger, just like it is done on the guitar.” Alizadeh occasionally does that already, but it took him years to get there. Standing on the shoulders of our tar and se-tar giants, and with the discipline of the classical guitar under her belt, Afshar is launching her se-tar adventures from higher grounds. She used to practice guitar 10 hours a day, and still practices 5 hours a day on top of her rehearsals with other musicians. At one point she had to cancel a concert because she injured a finger through overzealous practice. Her fierce drive keeps me eagerly anticipating what we may hear from her se-tar or Persia-inspired guitar a few years down the line. Another reason for my anticipation is that for the Afshar family, the sky has always been the limit, literally—Lily Afshar’s grandfather helped found Iran Air! He was one of the first Iranians at Columbia University. Her sister went to Harvard. Her father studied at Stanford. Two years ago, in recognition of her international artistic and academic stature, she was invited to perform at the highly regarded Fajr Music Festival in Iran. So she has the connections to hang out in the stratospheres of Iranian culture and contribute ideas to some of the Segovias of Persian music.

She may have had in mind her future contribution to our culture when she pondered Segovia’s difficult question, “Where are you from?” The young Afshar answered in the cultural context, “I am Persian.” And the master said to her, “Yes, I can see you have the flamenco spirit and the Persian blood in you,” going on to correctly predict, “She will be a beautiful celebrity.” What would Segovia have said if Afshar had said she was from Iran? That is a question she is in default of answering for History. What she has answered for Iran, however, can be seen in the hundreds who throng her in Vahdat Hall or other concert venues in Iran asking for autographs, or just to shake hands. The fans are so excited after hearing her that sometimes they press her hand too enthusiastically, making it necessary for her to wear a protective glove after concerts. So when you go backstage to congratulate her after the Music Festival, don’t press her hand too hard. Those hands belong to Iran, in fact they belong to the world.

Note: See Guitar Review #30 pages 2-12, 1968 for the original Michael Kasha article.

by Ari Siletz