Ambitious Iranian Ismaili, Mansour, Reflects on His Musical Career and Life in the UK

Iranian Ismaili Musician, Mansour. Photo by Tom King

Iranian Ismaili Musician, Mansour. Photo by Tom King

Mansour, an Iranian Ismaili,  is a skilled musician who has been living in the United Kingdom for thirty  years. He  is qualified as a music conductor and also teaches and writes music. Over the years living and working in the UK, he has taught students from almost every nationality. His interest in music goes back to his childhood when he was living in Iran. He started learning Western classical music and developed his interest in this field. In his work, he has been using Western classic which has got, as he says, a touch of Iranian music. From his experiences over years, Mansour believes that music is a “source of harmony which can build the bridge for people to reach one another.”

Marjan Esmaili of the Institute of Ismaili Studies in London caught up with her compatriot, and conducted an interview to know more about Mansour’s work and his experiences of living and working in a multicultural environment such as the UK. An abbreviated version of the interview was published in New Londoners recently. At Voices’ request, Ms. Esmaili met with Mansour once again and the interview published below incorporates both the original unabbreviated interview as well as questions that were not covered by that (first) interview. 

Marjan Esmaili. Photo by Mehrdad Mortezaee Marjan: Please tell us about your background and the kind of music you work on?

 Mansour: I am qualified as a music conductor and also teach and write music. My background goes back to my childhood when I used to listen to classical at the age of ten. I developed my interest in classical music and concentrated mainly in classical music. I am familiar with the Iranian music but my training is in Western classical music.

Marjan: Share with us your experience about different  forms of music – Iranian and Western – and their fusion?

Mansour: I am naturally a citizen of the world. Both Eastern and Western music are in my work. My medium is Western and although Western music has got limitations, I still could bring a touch of Iranian music into it. This fusion between Eastern and Western music is quite exciting. There are some well known musicians such as Shahdad Ruhani and Kambiz Roshan Ravan, who have done this fusion between Western and Iranian music which has made their music enriching and exhilerating.

Marjan: Do you think that mixture of different cultures is a strengthening or a weakening power in the field you have been working?

Mansour: To answer this question, first let us briefly have a look at the history of humanity as a whole. All human beings are interdependent on each other. Without this interdependence there is very little life. If there is life, it is a life of very poor quality; that is fact – whether you like it or not. Second, if you look at the history of music in the European context, you will find out that music started with Greeks, and then Persians took over, developed it and gave it to Arabs. Then the Spanish passed it to Europeans and the cycle went on and on. These, therefore, have been all positive forces influencing music. Even if we take the UK, at one point of history, my teacher used to call it a land without music but that land without music has turned to a musical land today which is source of pride for every one. So I do not see the interdependence of one on the other as a weakness. It is all a source of strength.

Marjan: Do you think in a country such as the the one you have made your home for the past three decades, the multicultural society that we have in the UK can enrich both the guest’s and the host’s abilities?

Mansour: An enabling environment is very important for both migrants as well as the host country. If that enabling environment is not there, it creates frustration, hostility and jealousy. This generates negative forces from both sides. I experienced a very hard time at the beginning, but my nature was always to forgive and forget and move forward. Things that might have been  happy experiences turned to be real nightmares. Why should that be the case? So I think if we develop an enabling environment, every one would benefit – migrants as well as the host country. Some musicians who lived in this country imitated the host country. In music, there is a degree of imitation but after a while every one adds one’s  own unique interest and character to the music and makes it flourish. If you look at the history of all cultures, the cultures became enriched by attraction with one another and not by being in isolation.

Marjan: How have you coped with your life in exile?

Mansour: Unfortunately this experience is a sad one. You are attached to your home land the same way you are attached to your mother. And to separate yourself from your land is a very painful experience. I still find it very difficult to think that I am not part of Iran. Although I have made UK my home – and there have been great opportunities in this country for me –  I always feel very strongly about my country. It is very painful to get uprooted from one place and go to another place. My intension was definitely to return home but there was the Iranian revolution and things did change beyond my expectations.

Marjan: What are the areas that as a musician you think you can contribute to the society in which you have been living for 31 years?

Mansour: I have developed methods in rhythmic and pitch development. I struggled in music education myself and I wanted to remove these problems. I researched for years and years and finally found the solution. I identified many problems within the medium which I am working in music education. There was a great deal of confusion in this area and my hope was to contribute to music education and find solutions for those problems. Since I was from a different culture I could see the problems within the Western music better than some one from inside the culture. And that was a point of strength for me. Now with the help of my own background and the background which this country made me familiar with, I have done my research and hope to get support in order to publish my work one day. This is my great hope for the future.

Marjan: What do you think about music in Muslim countries? Who is your favourite musician?

Mansour: Just to be precise, I do make distinction between Islamic music and music in the Islamic world. These are two different concepts. So let’s be clear about that first. I must admit I know extremely little about this area. This is not my area. But I know it is a huge area, extremely diverse with many branches. One example could be the Quranic music. It is a field of its own. Then we have Sufi music. Again it is a field of its own. There is also the influence of Islam in secular music. If you take Iran for example, the culture is Sufi even at popular level – whether you like it or not. So the Islamic influence is there, you can feel it in every aspect.

Again there are relationships between geometry and architecture and music in Islamic music. Leila Bakhtiar has done a very good study of the Sufi music and the relation between architecture. The concept of rhythm is also more complex than that in Western music. It is always esoteric. It is this esoteric aspect of the rhythm which has to be understood carefully in the Islamic context, especially Sufi music. There is so much that could be said about this aspect and I think it is best that you talked to someone else who is an authority in this subject. There are experts who have done a great deal of work here.

Regarding my favourite musician, I cannot name any particular person as my favourite musician, but the best option to have a sample of Islamic music would be the Mawlavi order.

Marjan: There seems to be some dispute about the role of music in Islam. Is it forbidden as many Muslims tend to believe?

Mansour: My personal understanding, I think it goes very well back to Plato. For what I have heard,  I have never come across the concept of  music and art being forbidden in Islamic context but I know it has been somehow set aside. The popularity of music in Muslim countries suggests that music is very much part of Islamic culture and art. 

Marjan: There is a rich talent in the Ismaili community in music. Why has this talent not been exposed on world stage?

Mansour:  I should like to speak for myself first in this regard. I have not been able to take my music to a higher level for personal reasons, mainly related to my illness for the past several years. I know I had the skills,  the resilience and commitment to make that thing happen, but I could not exploit this for the reason I have indicated. I may note that I was one of the pioneers in the field in the Jamat –  I was the first conductor in the community in the UK, the first professional musician. 

However, there has been lots of inspiration within the community. We have some upcoming musicians coming on professional level. It is just the matter of time, I believe. The Ismaili community will do very well in the years ahead in the music field. Music is a very difficult route. Difficult in the sense, not that some body stops you, but it takes time. Because every body is going in different directions. To coordinate all theses resources and interests in a professional manner takes time.

Marjan: Can you mention some of your contributions in the Jamat?

Mansour:  I have worked with the Ismaili community for the last 18 years. I also set up an orchestra for Mawlana Hazar Imam’s visit to the United Kingdom in 1994 and I have had many groups within the Jamat working with me. Also I have worked with other communities. Whenever I have had energy and the time I have done many groups in different sizes – small and big groups.

Marjan: Have you published any of your works so far and what are your plans in the future in this regard?

Mansour: I have conducted many Orchestra works; I also have about a thousand compositions and I have published some CDs which were made especially for the (Ismaili) religious community in London. Most of my work though has not been produced for the market. It is something of the level which could  be used for academic purposes, including in  universities.  Regarding my future plans, I am planning to publish two albums; a Piano Album and a Violin Album. I am also planning to publish some works which are especially for the Iranian audiences but my other works are for general audiences. My big challenge though is to get these works published, and I hope the market is  receptive enough to the kind of work I am going to produce.

Marjan: Finally, you think music can make the world a better place for us to live?

Mansour: That’s right. Music can build the bridge for us to reach one another. Without doubt, I believe, classical music is a source of harmony; Classical music I can recognize as a universal medium. I believe that classical music is more a universal language than popular music. Popular music is all angled to the local needs while in the classical music you have to go beyond that boundary of human self.

So the answer is definitely yes. Music is a universal language. It is a source of harmony which can bring people together and is close to every one’s heart. Personally, I have been teaching pupils from different ethnic backgrounds. Music has been a means of making people closer to each other. Music helps people understand other cultures. I have practically worked with every nationality you could think of. It has always been, from my experience, a source of strength.

Marjan: Thank you, Mansour, and may all your wishes be fulfilled.


About Marjan Esmaili: Ms. Esmaili joined the Institute of Ismaili Studies (IIS) in 2004 on a two year program, and then completed her Masters in Global Media at the School of Oriental and African Studies,  London, in 2007. Since then, she has been working with the IIS, first with the website and currently with the alumni office.

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6 thoughts on “Ambitious Iranian Ismaili, Mansour, Reflects on His Musical Career and Life in the UK

  1. What you write about the enabling environment is very a propos. I think we can all learn from this statement, as Mawlana Hazar Imam continues to remind us, even within our own community…”we are very individualistic”. ‘Therein lies the rub’ (Shakespeare) ..enabling enviroments where the potential in all of us can be channeled and appreciated. But even in excellence , one starts somewhere..the baby is allowed to try to stand up and fall..until she RUNS!

    May you continue to create and inspire!

  2. Mansour is a genuine and dedicated musician. I believe I met him at the very first IIS Summer Seminar at Oxford University in 1990. All the best, Mansour, and I do know that it has not always been easy for you. In fact some of it has been uphill I am sure, but your persistence and belief in yourself is something we can all learn from. Please come to Vancouver and do something here.

    Pervis Rawji

  3. I am delighted – thrilled, in fact – to finally put a face (and get to know) a man whose orchestral work with the UK Jamat I have long admired.

    As I read this, I can’t help but wonder what kind of passion and creative sparks would fly if one could arrange to have Mansour, Hussein (Janmohamed), Amin Bhatia, etc. in the same room…

    My compliments to Ms. Esmaili for an insightful interview.

  4. Par excellence! Please keep me informed of the excellent work you continue in the future via my email. Ya Ali Madad

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