Exclusive Interview with the Grammy Award Nominee
The Guitar Duo
Strunz & Farah
By Dr. Farzad Farahmand:
Published in the May, 2012 issue of the Calabasas Times Magazine:
Today it is my honor and pleasure to introduce two very special guests, the guitarists/composers, Jorge Strunz from Costa Rica and Ardeshir Farah from Iran. The two artists met for the first time in 1979, and together they formed the guitar duo known as Strunz & Farah. Their music has often been categorized under New Age, World Music, Latin Jazz and International. However, their sound is too original to be placed in any particular category. It is influenced by a combination of Afro Caribbean, Latin American folk, Flamenco and Middle Eastern music, with a strong emphasis on the concept of improvisation.
Their early recordings defined “World Music” on guitar, before the World Music category even existed.
And speaking from personal experience, words cannot possibly describe the experience of being present at their live concert performances. It is often described as an inebriating experience, without the possibility of overdose or any harmful side effects. All thoughts of the past and the future fade away, giving way to the complete experience of the music in the present moment.
Welcome Strunz & Farah to the Calabasas Times Magazine. It is truly an honor for me to be in your presence, because this is not just an ordinary interview for me. I cannot believe I am saying this, but I’ve been a big Strunz & Farah fan for 22 years. It all started when I heard your music for the first time on the radio and called the station to find out the title and the artist. The track was, “Twilight at the Zuq” from the CD Primal Magic. I remember that the next day I immediately went to the records store and bought Primal Magic which was among the very first in my CD collection.
The tracks on Primal Magic revive special memories for me from my college years at Cal. State Northridge or CSUN. Personally, I call the music, Spring music, and in the spring of 1991 shortly after the release of Primal Magic, I got the news that Strunz & Farah were coming to perform at the CSUN campus. You gave an extraordinary live performance at CSUN, on a night that I certainly will never forget.
Sorry if I am getting carried away!! I am just excited to see my idols, but I’m sure that our readers prefer more to hear your story than mine! So let’s begin....
Farzad: Could you please tell us how Strunz & Farah came about.
Strunz: I met Ardeshir in 1979 through a mutual friend. Actually Ardeshir’s friend, Aldoush Alpanian, a Persian, Armenian singer. Well, you might as well tell the story Ardeshir. You know it better….
Farah: Yes, I knew Aldoush since childhood in Iran, and he had just come from London to visit Los Angeles. As we talked, he told me that he is looking to make a band and is looking for people to put together for the band, and that he had a guitar teacher and a friend in London that had given him some names of people in Los Angeles to get in touch with. One day he showed me the list of names and I saw the name, Jorge Strunz on the list. Someone in London had apparently given Aldoush Strunz’s phone number. And I had seen Jorge Strunz and his band a few years back, on previous occasions, before Strunz & Farah in a band called “Caldera”. One night for the fist time I saw him at the Roxy theater. And it was such an amazing experience, similar to the experience you had at CSUN. Jorge was amazing together with the whole experience of the band. This was a few years before Aldoush came for a visit from London. The next day after the concert I went and bought the latest LP of Caldera. At the time I was a student at USC and I kept on listening to the record.
Aldoush came in 79 when I had graduated from USC. And when I saw Jorge Strunz’s name in his book, I said let’s call him and see what happens. Jorge was nice enough to invite us that afternoon to his residence which was in Santa Monica at the time. So we picked up the guitars and started jamming.
Strunz: Caldera was a fusion band. So it was all electric guitars, drums and synthesizers and that sort of thing. I was thinking it would be nice to get back to acoustic. Flamenco was my roots and I liked the acoustic guitar more than I liked the electrical guitar. And so I thought it would be nice to do acoustic again, and I had the idea of having 2 guitars. I was simply looking for another acoustic guitar player that was compatible with the ideas that I had for playing. I had been playing with several different guitarists from LA, but nothing ever clicked with those people.
Farzad: You mean there was no Chemistry between you
Strunz: Yes that’s right. When I met Ardeshir, we started playing a piece called Czardas. It’s a famous Hungarian Violin peace, and it’s a very fast piece. We were able to harmonize and play through most of it very quickly. And I realized it would be very smooth and easy to perform with Ardeshir because that went by very quickly, where with some of the other guitar players it took 10 rounds to get everything going.
Plus Ardeshir liked Flamenco guitar and Latin music and I enjoyed Middle Eastern music, and Flamenco of course has a lot of Middle Easter influence. So our cultural basis was so clear to each other. It wasn’t a mystery.
Farzad: I know your music is not really Flamenco
Strunz: No! It’s not Flamenco, it’s Latin American which is related to Spanish.
Farzad: There is a connection between Flamenco and Middle Eastern music
Farah: It definitely is specially listening to Paco De Lucia, the Flamenco master
Farzad: Paco is your friend I heard
Strunz: Yes, we know him.
Farzad: I read that Paco De Lucia recommended Jorge Strunz to replace Al Di Meola in their Trio.
Strunz: That’s right, that’s right. That was in the mid 80’s.
Farah: Paco in an interview said that Flamenco comes from the Persians.
Farzad: Paco said that? There is also an Arab influence if I’m not mistaken.
Strunz: Yes, Flamenco is a combination of Arab and Persian in addition to Spanish.
Farzad: Could you please run us through the process of composing or creating a piece, for example, how do you get inspired and how do you name your tracks, for example Ida Y Vuelta, Twilight at the Zuq or Zumba?
Strunz: Well, I’d say that the guitar itself is inspiring. It is fascinating to a guitar player. I mean the people might enjoy it just as much but for the player it’s particularly fascinating because you are producing the sounds. That’s one of the main inspirations just hearing the sound of the instrument. Then it’s the music itself. In my case there is a lot of Latin American inspiration. I was born in Costa Rica originally, and raised in different Latin American countries, as well as England like Ardeshir was.
Farzad: There should be a lot of pressure on you to top your latest recordings, because your latest work is always the best.
Strunz: That’s right. At least that’s what we think. We always have 2 guitars at the center of the music, but we try to change the environment around the 2 guitars as much as we can. Different musicians, sometimes with different cultural backgrounds. So it varies around by the kind of people that we play with.
And you asked how we name our tracks. The title has to always fit the music. The music always comes first and then comes the naming. We mostly choose the titles, but my wife has helped me with that as well.
Farzad: Are you always confident that you’re going to come up with new material? Sometimes life may not allow you to be in the right mood.
Farah: Yes, Those are all challenges. It’s not like we don’t have the confidence. We have the confidence but it takes a lot of work.
Strunz: A musician is used to giving himself up to the muse which is like sitting there and looking out the window with a guitar. You wait and it just has to come. And then you develop the idea and once the ideas come, then it is busy work.
Farzad: Sometimes you may get a mental block
Strunz: Well, sometimes nothing comes. But I tend to tape record everything on cassette, like you do, of many ideas so I can always go back.
Farzad: It gets more and more difficult to top your previous work and yet you’ve always managed to do so.
Farah: Well, every time we do an album, the main thing is that we try to maintain the identity of our work. For example sometimes people tell us why you don’t pick up electric guitars. We don’t want to go too far and lose the identity, but at the same time there needs to be something that’s different from the previous project to be exciting and new. That’s a very important factor in making people interested in buying the album. Especially if you have 14, 15 albums, what do you do for people to buy number 16, 17 or 18? So we try to come up with anything that’s fresh and culturally different.
Strunz: Of course the moment is very important. The moment in time has a lot of effect on the music. Because life changes and times change. The music evolves
Farzad: Yet still some things are maintained. The actual root and the identity is preserved.
Now I’d like to share a personal experience with you. Your music influences a lot of people. It brings out life in the listener, and the feeling of love and peace. It promotes peace not only at an individual level, but in my opinion at a collective level as well. I remember it was somewhere around 1998 or 99. I was going to school in Northern California at the time, and you came to give a concert in a nearby town called San Ramon. Very beautiful place, in nature and away from everything. For me that was the highlight of all the concerts. I’ve been to so many of your concerts that I lost track. Probably 8 or 9 times!! But that one was very special because in the middle of the concert the entire audience lost their sense of time and space and they started dancing. The young, the old, black and while, it didn’t really matter. Everybody was the same and fully enjoying the present moment side by side. And at that moment a thought passed my mind. I thought that this music has the power to transcend all cultural boundaries. Since then I’ve considered you as the Ambassadors to peace.
Strunz: Well, in a musical sense. In a sense that’s very true. Music has that power to take you to a serene and peaceful place.
Farzad: Could you tell us a little bit about what you were doing before you started playing professionally?
Farah: Well I don’t remember. I started to play very early. I used to play the accordion. I remember I bought my first accordion when I was in 4th grade. So music has always been part of my life. But eventually I went to school and graduated from USC with an Architectural and Civil Engineering degree.
Farzad: That’s right. If you are Persian it is expected of you to either be a doctor, an engineer or a lawyer. But you’re among one of the few who actually followed your dream.
Farah: Many incidences happened in 1979. Graduating from USC, the Iranian revolution and meeting Jorge. A lot of things happened in 1979.
Farzad: When did you leave Iran?
Farah: I left Iran in 1969.
Farzad: Were you doing anything professionally before Strunz and Farah?
Farah: Yes, early on I was working with some Persian artists who came to Los Angeles after the revolution.
Farzad: And then you two started working together in 79, and a year later you released your first album Mosaico?
Strunz: Yes, we met and 6 months later I suggested that we put together 2 to 3 prototype songs, record them and see how the process goes.
Farzad: So you were not originally planning to record in the first 6 months.
Strunz: Well, we were looking to record something, but I was still with the band Caldera at the time. I could see that the end of the band was in the horizon, but I was still fulfilling my obligations with Caldera and Capital Records. So when Caldera finally came to a close we decided to pursue our plans to put a demo together. And it took us 6 months to complete our first album Mosaico.
Farzad: Were you recording before Caldera?
Strunz: Yes. I was in New York; I was professionally recording and playing. I’ve been doing it ever since I left college in 1966.
Farzad: Another question that comes to my mind and I’ve always been wondering about is that you’ve been playing every day and night for the past 33 years together, also of course for many years before that. Do you ever get any problems with your hands, your fingers or your wrist? As a Chiropractor I wonder about this!
Strunz: I’ve had occasional tendinitis,
Farzad: Yes! Happens with repetitive motion
Strunz: Yes, repetitive motion. But it goes away. It hits me for about a month and it disappears. Sometimes you get these little cysts that come up but they go away too. Nothing bad. So far so good.
Farah: Actually for me guitar playing is a good remedy for my hands. I think you get more problems with using the computer or the mouse or lifting heavy things.
Farzad: Yes, I agree with that
Strunz: It’s good for the hand. I mean there is repetitive motion, but there are many different motions that you are doing. It’s not like typing for example, which is very repetitive.
Farzad: So you have your very own record label. “Selva Records”. That was a great decision!! Now you’re free from contracts and record companies.
Strunz: There were some complications with our record company and having Selva Records makes thing a lot easier.
Farzad: This question is about your technique and where it comes from. Just like you may listen to a song by a singer that you know, but you’ve never heard that song before and can still recognize the artist; guitar is not voice, and yet when people hear a Strunz & Farah piece that they have never heard before, they are able to recognize that it’s by Strunz & Farah.
How did this distinct style come about?
Strunz: Well, that’s a hard question to answer in some ways because you learn how to play and then you spend a lot of time polishing the technique and making sure that you know how to play the instrument properly. And then you hope that the sound that comes up is as you say distinct and unique. It evolves. But this is an area that’s mostly innate. It’s something that you are born with, something you have the gift for.
Farah: A lot of people actually ask the question of where our technique comes from. It doesn’t come from the outside. You need to have it in the inside.
Farzad: The public sometimes refers to your music as Flamenco. But by definition your work is something entirely different. Could you please explain the difference?
Strunz: Yes, Flamenco is a Spanish form from Andalucia, southern Spain. It’s been developing for maybe a thousand years. So it’s a very particular regional European form which is played only by the nails of the right hand. No pick, only nails and it has very specific rhythms like Fandango and Alegrias. They have names for these rhythms and the rhythms are very particularly defined. We are influenced by this music and it’s probably the most advanced guitar music that there is on the planet.
The best guitar players are often Flamenco players. They have passion, they have technique, they have color, free rhythm, tight rhythm, and it also has a Gypsy element, an Eastern element and a European element. So it’s a very interesting music.
Farzad: And your style is influenced by it.
Strunz: Yes. But it’s not the only influence. We have also Jazz, Middle Eastern and Latin American influences.
Farzad: Do you use picks or nails?
Strunz: I use both. Picks and hand. Ardeshir uses picks exclusively.
Farzad: Is there a special term that refers to those fast and loud improvisations that you do, for example on your live album in the middle of the 10 minute long track in the piece “Americas’, which just blows your mind away?
Strunz: No, actually there is no name for it. They are just fast improvisations.
Farzad: I remember it was the summer of 94; you were opening for David Benoit. The audience was just going wild with those long improvisations.
How do you feel about your latest release, “Journey around the Sun”?
Strunz: It’s a combination of different things. It’s a very theatrical record I think. It is more theater oriented as opposed to dance for example. I actually like it better than the previous one, Fantaseo.
Farzad: Of course. They just keep getting better and better. The latest ones are always your best!!
The album Mysreio came in 1989. I heard that it was recorded in the traditional way.
Strunz: Yes, that was a live recording. It was done at a church by an engineer who used no digital methods at all. There was a natural reverb in the church and it was recorded late at night so that we wouldn’t hear the traffic.
Farzad: That was before Primal Magic
Strunz: Yes it was right before
Farzad: “Primal Magic” was released in 1990. It was among the very first CDs in my collection and it became the number one album of the year in the world music category, on the Billboard Charts.
And then came your Grammy Award nominated album, “Americas”
Farah: It was nominated for the best World Music album of the year, together with The Gypsy Kings, Sergio Mendez and Ofra Haza.
Farzad: So who are some of your influences? Your favorite artists?
Strunz: Well, when I was a kid I used to love Sabicas, a great Gypsy guitar player from Spain who was the best Flamenco guitar player of the generation. And then of course Paco De Lucia, also John McLaughlin, a great guitar player and musician. I follow mostly the Flamenco world. I have an affinity for it.
Farzad: And the same goes for you Ardeshir?
Farah: Miraculously speaking, yes. I loved Flamenco as a youngster in Iran. I also love rock, Jimi Hendrix. In London back in the 60’s I used to play in a rock band for a while. And then I heard John McLaughlin. A friend of mine gave me his records. And after hearing those records everything completely changed for me!
Farzad: So where do you tour? I know South America, the United States and Canada. How about Europe?
Strunz: Europe, very rarely. We’ve played in France, Switzerland and Bulgaria, but what’s amazing is that we are not that well known in Europe.
Farzad: I think you should become popular in Europe. That part of the world is really missing out!
Strunz: I agree with you, we should be
Farzad: Well, you are already sort of famous in Europe and I myself have somewhat contributed to that. I have a YouTube channel. It features International music from Europe and the World. There are close to 200 videos with 3 Strunz & Farah uploads. Twilight at the Zuq, Gypsy Earings and Zumba. The channel is called FTS International and the link is https://www.youtube.com/FTSInternational It has a large number of viewers from Europe. Those interested can click on the “Video” tab and then type in Strunz and Farah on the video search.
Of course for more information about you they can visit your website at www.strunzandfarah.com
Farzad: Well, gentlemen, thank you so much for your time and for giving our readers, myself and all the fans the opportunity to learn more about you and your art. I’ve been a fan of Strunz and Farah for 22 years!! I never imagined I’d have the chance to someday sit with you two, have a conversation and be able to ask the questions that I want. Words fail me. All I can say is that today has definitely been one of the highlights of my life.
I look forward to following your work and enjoying your music in the years to come….
And I wish you all the best!
Strunz: It’s also been a pleasure for us. Thank you as well for being such a devoted and a long time fan.
Farah: And also special thanks for the Calabasas Times Magazine for having us. And good luck to you Farzad
5 days later, I saw Strunz and Farah perform live at the Catalina Jazz club in Hollywood. It was an exciting performance that as usual melted all thoughts of the past and future, giving way to the pure enjoyment of the present moment. Afterwards, I was left craving for more.......