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Uncovering the Hidden Drummers of Iran | An Interview with Ruairi Glasheen

July 6, 2018

‘The true beauty of music is that it connects people. It carries a message, and we, the musicians, are the messengers.’ Roy Ayers.

As soon as I received an email from Ruairi Glasheen about his project Hidden Drummers of Iran, I felt like he’s tapped into something so special and unique, yet so universal; the power of music. Anyone who has travelled the world, whether you are a musician or not, will understand this power. I have memories of sitting in Indian tea shops listening to the ancient melodies of the Rajasthani Ektaara, or travelling on a bus across Burma where the only words understood between myself and my fellow passengers were the worlds of John Denver’s ‘Country Road, Take Me Home’ (which they proceeded to repeat for the entire duration of the night bus).

Music has the power to connect us, and Ruairi’s project illuminates this power, while also celebrating the Iranian Tonbak. Ruairi himself is an accomplished Irish percussionist, having graduated from the Royal College of Music with 1st class honours. For this project, the Hidden Drummers of Iran, he teamed up with filmmaker Yury Sharov and travelled to Iran to explore its drumming traditions, and meet the young musicians keeping it alive. 

We spoke to Ruairi about the project, his experience travelling in Iran and the people he met along the way. Before you have a read, make sure to watch the trailer for the film which is to be released at a future date. 

When did you start travelling? Where did the idea come from to combine travel with your passion for music?

I’ve long been interested and inspired by different drumming traditions from around the world, and it wasn’t until I graduated from Music college in 2013 that I had the opportunity to get out and about to experience it all for my self. I’ve since travelled quite a lot to experience different Music traditions, and it feels quite intuitive to pair my love of travel and music together.

Why Iran? What drew you to the country and the drumming traditions there?

I was actually drawn to the Tonbak first which is a small, heavy, goblet-shaped drum made of wood with goat or camel skin. It’s unique to Iran and not many people play it here in the UK. I was in America last June and had the opportunity to work with some incredible Iranian percussionists. I spoke to them about visiting Iran, and the possibilities of a westerner going to learn and they were hugely encouraging.

What was your experience of travelling through Iran? How did you find the country?

Travelling to Iran was an awesome experience and very different to what I had expected or experienced in other places. The people were incredibly friendly and generously helped us as we navigated our way around. It was inspiring to be in such a vast and ancient cultural melting pot and travelling around the country is relatively easy by bus and train. Outside of the music, we tried to engage with as much of what Iran has to offer as we could. I especially found the natural landscape and environment spellbinding. I had never visited such an untouched and perfectly formed desert as the Mesr Desert and our days there will long remain in my memory.

How did you connect with the drumming community in Iran, and how did you go about learning more about the drumming traditions once you arrived in the country?

I had made contact with musicians in Iran through friends and also directly via Instagram. Instagram is one of the only social media apps that isn’t banned in Iran and musicians there were really receptive. Once we arrived, I started to learn about Persian music as soon as we arrived. We went to concerts, met instrument makers, collaborated, shared techniques and I was lucky to have lessons with some incredible percussionists who were so helpful as I immersed myself into their tradition.

The national drum of Iran is the Tonbak. How does this drum differ from your own Irish drumming heritage? What was similar about the way of playing? Did you get the chance to learn new techniques or rhythms from the young drummers you met?

There are always similarities to be found across drumming traditions- that for me is what makes it so universal. Anyone anywhere can connect through music and as a species, music is one of the only mediums on which all humans can find a common ground on. Specifically, there aren’t too many similarities to the Irish Bodhran, though some of the Tonbak techniques are not dissimilar to other frame and lap drum traditions in the Middle East and Central Asia which I am also familiar with.

Iran is a country frequently in the media, and many people may have formed perceptions of the country before they have even travelled there. What would you like to tell people about Iran, and how do you hope the film may change people’s view of the country?

If I’m honest, I also wasn’t convinced by the often negative image I’d been drip fed by various media sources and decided the only way find out was to book a flight and go… so I did! As I researched my trip and spoke to Iranian friends, I quickly realised that there was nothing to be apprehensive about. Whilst my films will be centred around music and exploration, I do think that they will also offer an honest and insightful view into how young people I’m different places are living their lives and navigating their way through the ever-changing world we live in. As a result, I hope people will be inspired to visit Iran and to engage with different cultures in a meaningful way.

What did you find surprising about the young drummers you met in Iran? How is life for a young musician in Iran different from that of a young musician in the UK?

Whilst it wasn’t necessarily surprising given everyone I met in Iran was incredibly welcoming, I was bowled over by the generosity of the musicians I worked with in Iran. Their life in music is very different to mine in the UK; it’s certainly more challenging because of the strict restrictions on what musicians are allowed to do how they travel can travel. As a result, it’s harder to progress their creative ideas and initiatives. That being said, they are so determined, and not in an egotistical way. Music there is spiritual and an important part of the player’s identity and it was a privilege for me to spend time with such dedicated, talented musicians.

What hopes do you have for the Hidden Drummers project in the future? Would you like to take it to different countries and cultures?

I’m currently in the process of finishing Hidden Drummers of Iran, and as we pursue post-production, we are talking to production companies and media outlets who might be able to help us realise our vision.

Hidden Drummers of Iran will be the first of a series of documentary-style films that uncover and unearth awesome and ancient drumming traditions from around the world. I’m already in the middle of planning the next two instalments and if all goes to plan we will be back on the road this August to filming…

To learn more about the Hidden Drummers project, visit their website, Instagram and Facebook

Annapurna Mellor is a travel photographer, writer and co-founder of Roam Magazine. She fell in love with Asia shortly after graduating and has since spent extensive periods travelling and photographing in India, Nepal, Myanmar and many more. She shoots regularly for brands and publications and her work can be found in National Geographic Traveller Magazine, Lonely Planet, Suitcase and The Guardian. When not on the road, she is based in Manchester, UK.

  • Reply
    Janie Swingle
    July 14, 2018 at 12:12 am

    Fantastic coverage of a country many of us know little about. I’m definitely inspired to visit.

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