Zarbang/Zakir Hussain | South Bank Centre, London

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The Independent Culture

What do we know about Iran? An endless tug of war between diehards and progressives, and that's about it. Of Iranian music most of us know even less. Yet one of the benefits of the Iranian revolution was the emancipation of its classical musicians in the rush to get back to roots. On Friday we had a rare glimpse of the riches now being preserved.

What do we know about Iran? An endless tug of war between diehards and progressives, and that's about it. Of Iranian music most of us know even less. Yet one of the benefits of the Iranian revolution was the emancipation of its classical musicians in the rush to get back to roots. On Friday we had a rare glimpse of the riches now being preserved.

First was Narges Torshizi, a tiny woman who proceeded - with a medieval modesty of mien - to show what could be done with the tombak, a wooden drum shaped like a wine glass. Rain on a roof, heard through a drainpipe; the pounding of feet on a hollow wooden floor. Her art was austere, but gradually the ear became attuned to its subtlety. The fluid rolls and the delicately picked-out staccatos were created by hands which were mesmerising to watch.

Next came the Samani brothers - two with larger tombaks and the other with a zither - and the stakes were dramatically raised. If tentative at first, they soon became riveting. The zither conjured up shimmering edifices of crystalline sound, while out of the drums - played with every part of the hand, in every conceivable way - came drama: copy this, beat that! Whenever one felt they'd exhausted their armoury of effects, they brought out more.

After the interval with the full Zarbang Ensemble on stage, all hell broke loose. One of the arts now enjoying a renaissance in Iran is the music originally designed to pump up national resolve against the Mongol hordes in the 14th century. Here we got the savage beauty of its chants, while giant tombaks pounded in a sky-shattering roar. It was a wrench to leave early to sample Zakir Hussain and the Masters of Percussion in the Festival Hall next door.

Tabla-king Zakir has had a glittering career. Laden with honours, he has won Grammys and Globes galore, and played with everyone from George Harrison to jazz avant-gardists. I found him dazzling his capacity audience alongside sarangi-king Ustad Sultan Khan, whose fiendishly difficult instrument was sounding - as it should - like a disembodied human voice.

I, too, was dazzled, but I didn't feel involved. Why? Because it's a safely predetermined art that Zakir purveys. Each piece runs along well-oiled lines towards its obligatory concluding orgasm. And Zakir is obviously very pleased with himself. After 20 minutes I slunk out, and went back to Iran - rougher, more dangerous, more real.

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