Woman and Jalal Kimia playing dafs (Courtesy of Jalal Kimia)
Two members of the Rumi Daf Ensemble, with Jalal Kimia at right, perform for Nowruz in 2021 with a traditional haft-sin (Persian New Year table) spread. (Courtesy of Jalal Kimia)

Nowruz — the Persian New Year — will be celebrated by millions of Americans on March 20, a day of renewal as spring approaches. And in the U.S., Nowruz is “not complete without music,” says Jalal Kimia, an Iranian-born, Washington-based percussionist.

Originating in ancient Persia (now Iran), Nowruz has also been celebrated in Central Asia, Western Asia, South Asia, the Caucasus, the Balkans and the Black Sea Basin for more than 3,000 years. The holiday, whose name means “new day” in Persian, coincides with the vernal equinox, when the sun moves across the Earth’s equator, evenly splitting daytime and nighttime hours.

Playing the daf, a frame drum used in popular and classical music, Kimia has performed with Iranian traditional and folk groups at numerous Nowruz events. He also teaches and offers daf/drum circle sessions.

Today, Kimia plays in the Rumi Daf Ensemble, which is dedicated to the dynamic rhythms and beats of his ancestral homeland. “Music is my tool to introduce our culture to the world,” he says.

“Every region of Iran has its own unique style of music,” Kimia says. The provinces of Khorasan, Kurdistan, Gilan and Lorestan have song rhythms dedicated to Nowruz and their own up-tempo music and dance moves. Northwestern Iran, with its sizable Kurdish population, has a rhythm called sakkizi and its own specific dance.

“I would like to introduce my instrument and my culture, not just for the purpose of promoting it, but to use it as a bridge between people,” Kimia says about his upcoming Nowruz performances.

Upbeat music for Nowruz

“Iranians all over the world love music,” says Lily Afshar, an Iranian-born classical guitarist and a professor of guitar at the University of Memphis who also plans to perform at a Nowruz concert. A graduate of Florida State University, Afshar is the first woman in the world to earn a doctorate in classical guitar. She holds numerous international honors and has taught master classes and performed concerts worldwide.

Lily Afshar in hijab playing guitar (Courtesy of Lily Afshar)
Lily Afshar performing (Courtesy of Lily Afshar)

For many Iranians, musical training begins early, according to Afshar, with families sending their children to study the guitar, the piano or the tar (a long-necked lute). In keeping with their strong musical traditions, Iranians invariably observe Nowruz with song and dance, she said.

Afshar says Nowruz music is upbeat, celebratory music. She enjoys music from her childhood, which brings to mind days she spent in Iran with her family. “For me, playing my Persian ballads brings me close to those memories,” she says.

When she began her concert career, Afshar performed mostly Spanish music. But about 20 years ago, she began adding Persian ballads that she had arranged for the guitar. Those ballads, she said, “are beautiful and bring freshness” to her repertoire and are much loved by audiences.

Afshar is planning something different for a Nowruz concert March 26 at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, California. The concert will feature several Iranian-born artists, including Afshar, along with the Pacific Symphony. “This will be the first Nowruz concert where I perform as a soloist with the symphony orchestra,” Afshar says. She will perform a Vivaldi concerto “because of its light and springlike character,” she says. “I want everyone in the audience to fall in love with the beauty and magic of the guitar, and feel both the joy and warmth of the Vivaldi concerto.”