Sima Bina Means Great in Any Language

[Another exuberant email report from one of our favorite Californians. Ed.]

Charlie Cockey

[July 2000. Originally appeared in La Folia 2:5.]

I went to a concert tonight by a really fine, nay wonderful, Iranian singer named Sima Bina. I have two of her CDs, and when I saw she was playing I immediately found a home for my Barbara Bonney tickets. There was a terrifying flirtation with desperate disappointment this afternoon when a filthy rumor that she had cancelled reached my ears, but it was just that, a filthy rumor, and the show went on, and boy did it!

Visualize a stage covered with flower arrangements and beautiful Persian rugs, and a slightly concave riser, about bench height or a tad higher, and microphones set for five. Then a man comes out and gives a talk in Farsi — midway he asks a series of questions and the crowd replies “bali” (yes) each time. Then the lights go down, and out onto the stage walk five beautiful women in brilliantly colored clothing — long dresses, yellow, orange, blue, you name it, and they take their places across the stage.

On the extreme left: percussionist (tambourine, a maracas-like instrument, a frame drum like a bohran, and a medium sized bass drum she slings over her shoulder — on the back she slap-whaps it with a thin long stick, and on the front she booms it with a thick stick curled at the striking end like an unfurled fern or unripe shepherd’s crook). Next to her the tar player (tar — a four stringed instrument with a medium-sized body made of a gourd that looks a bit like two hearts joined at the tips, played with a stiff plectrum). Then the star, Sima Bina, singer (and at the end of the evening, small frame drum player) — and a true and major star she is. Somebody told me she’s probably in her early 40’s, been around a long time, well, if that’s the case I have tonight seen the definition of “timeless.”

Then the kamancheh player. (The kamancheh, also rather I think ignominiously known as the stick fiddle, has a narrow neck, joined to what looks like a hazelnut, with, in place of the light brown flat top, a banjo-like resonating area. It is a bowed instrument with a wonderfully distinct upper and lower string sound differentiation, both on the nasal side, and both in their unique way sinuously seductive. Usually a stick extends from the bottom for about 10 inches or so, depending upon the player’s preference, and is stuck into some surface to hold the instrument steady (most players tend to move the instrument around a fair deal with their fretting arm, as well as moving themselves a fair deal while bowing with their right arm, hence the need to secure it), but tonight the lady played it without any stick, instead, with only a kerchief for padding, rested it on her thigh. I’m assuming that she played the kamancheh thus to make it easier to sing while playing. They all sang, actually — and since it’s monodic music, they always sang unison — although the “backup” singers sang fairly unornamented notes, while Sima sang gorgeously filigreed melismas throughout. And finally, far right, the frame drum player, whose scampering fingers kept raindrop busy rhythms burring along, while by moving her right hand a tad towards the center and tapping with her middle three fingers she would get a satisfying resonant thrum.

And there they were: five women onstage, all clad in colorful Khorassan traditional garb; and center stage, Sima Bina, beautiful, smiling, singing. The entire evening was monodic music, but man oh man, is there a world of subtle variation in that form! SB’s voice just snaked around the melodies like a lover’s tongue, sometimes sliding sometimes stuttering sometimes going right to the core of it all. An amazing palette of tones and textures, incredibly varied lines, full of sudden surges and wonderfully uneven-rhythm lengths, often highlighted with drum punctuated momentary full stops. Truly wonderful. Very, very nice!

And the crowd! They adored her!! Clapping along, followed by standing ovations, cheers, screams and all. At evening’s end, when the lights came up, we were on our feet, and wouldn’t let her go. She returned to the stage and passed out flowers to the crowd, handing or tossing them hither and yon — and then the audience passed and tossed them even farther (what a difference between the “I Me Mine” of most other audiences when they receive mana from the stage — instead of greedy hoarding, honoring the intent of the singer-giver, and passing the gift wider, farther, to more people).

When she finally gave in and the group sat down to begin encores, the audience went crazy, yelling and whistling and calling, but there was one word that stood out over all the others: “Hana’i! Hana’i! Hana’i!” — a popular text by Rumi. I think if she hadn’t sung it pandemonium would have ensued, but she surprised everybody by singing it in a version I was told was very different from what most people were familiar with, one she had apparently learned from an old man in a village near the Afghanistan border (and though he wasn’t named, I wonder whether it might have been Haj Ghorban Soleimani, although he may be gone by now). All the encores were performed with only drums and voices, and clapping by nearly the entire audience.

The first half of the program was mainly songs from Khorassan, then ending with some wild up-tempo numbers from Shiraz. The second set was more uptempo throughout, ending with a song that must have a really wild dance to go with it — it’s just impossible to imagine that in a less sedate setting people wouldn’t be up on their feet, pounding and twirling like mad. The texts of most of the songs were about love (the word aziz — darling, or perhaps beloved, was ubiquitous), and the audience both devoured it and returned it tenfold. This was a really terrific concert, top to bottom. Too bad it was a concert only — if she were playing tomorrow, I’d be first in line for a second helping.

And later, Charlie adds:

Well, I’ve already discovered two errors. In my previous letter I wrote:

Then the star, Sima Bina, singer (and at the end of the evening, small frame drum player) — and a true and major star she is. Somebody told me she’s probably in her early 40’s, been around a long time, well, if that’s the case I have tonight seen the definition of “timeless.”

Well, she’s even more timeless than that!! I just checked on the two CDs I have for her, and they give her birth as 1944 and 1945 — either way, this means she is actually about 55 or 56. And that is all but unbelievable!! She really is timeless! She really looks like she’s in her thirties — and sings like she’ll never stop!

Also, another error (and this one is more egregious): The crowd was calling out “Nava’i,” not “Hana’i” — there is no such word as Hana’iNava’i is a famous poem by Rumi. Sorry for that one.

[No problemo, Carlito. Keep ’em flying! Ed.]