Interview: Koubeh – Revoicing Iranian Folk Music in Brooklyn

Interview by Sohrab Saadat Ladjevardi 

Since early 2000 a talented diaspora of a number of Iranian-born musicians have been producing sumptuous sound landscapes here in New York that both incorporate tradition and go beyond it incorporating jazz, blues, alternative rock, chanson, flamenco, heavy metal and electronica.

Well known bands, such as HYPERNOVA and KIOSK moved to New York which was the right artistic location and space to make music without the pressure to get a permission from the Department of Culture in Tehran which required pre-approval of all public performances and CD releases.

KoubehOne of the newer bands coming out in 2019 is Koubeh based in Brooklyn, New York.

Current Line Up: Kaveh Haghtalab on drums, Yasi Omrani on bass, Sima Shahverdi on vocals, Jack Gruber on piano and keyboard, and Sima Shahverdi on vocals.

Here is a short interview with Koubeh’s leader and drummer Kaveh Haghtalab who’s also a member of NY’s freewheeling jazzy band SoSaLa performing on the kamancheh instead.

Sohrab Saadat Ladjevardi (SSL0: How did Koubeh form?

Kaveh Haghtalab (KH): A friend of mine called me and asked me to bring a band and play an acoustic set for a venue. I called my friends, Sima, Nima and Mani and they were interested. So we got together, put a set list together and basically played a bunch of Iranian folk songs. Nima, Sima and I, realized we have common interest in music and at the time I was thinking about starting a new project based on Iranian folk music, so the timing was great. Koubeh was formed in winter 2019 in Brooklyn, with the addition of Yasi as a bass player and later Anoush as a guitar player. We were Iranian musicians who were based in Brooklyn, got together with an idea to make music that is unique to us and at the same time to express our Iranian roots. Later Jack was added to the band’s lineup as a piano and keyboard player.

SSL: What does KOUBEH mean?

KH: The word Koubeh in Farsi means door knocker. The idea for choosing this name came from an identical word in Arabic language, which is name of a dish and was also the name of a venue that invited three of us for a gig before forming the band. Throughout the years, door knockers have become one of the symbolic elements of Iranian classical architecture and traditions. They also produce a pleasant percussive sound which we all love as musicians.

SSL: What are the primary musical influences of the band, and who brings them to the table?

KH: There is a wide range of influences. We all love Iranian folk music. Nima is into Balkan music which works great with our arrangements and especially on the songs that we have him play accordion. Yasi is into funk and Latin, which I share that interest with her and that makes arrangement easy. Sima is into Iranian folk music and is getting more into jazz. I love all of these styles plus Latin, Brazilian, Caribbean, Rock and Blues. We’ve used a mix of these styles in our arrangements and it has been working well.

SSL: Where are all the members from? Are they all from Tehran?

KH: On the current line up, Yasi and I are from Tehran, Sima is from the city of Karaj. Jack is from DC but he lives in New York. Nima Farzaneh, one of the cofounding members of the band and current collaborator, and Anoush Saboktakin, who has been an also a contributor to the band and played with us on two of our shows, are both from Tehran.

SSL: Who does the songwriting in the group?

KH: I’ve been doing most of the arranging and writing work. We also play two of Nima’s original songs. But everyone contributes ideas.

SSL: You had three sold out shows in a row in New York city, including at venues like Nublu. How did the band get so much recognition so quickly?

KH: Since Nima and I have been active in the world music, Iranian and jazz scenes in the U.S for some years, this process was faster. Also there is a community of Iranian-Americans in New York that received our music well, and then the word of mouth spread and helped gathering audiences with different backgrounds which is what NYC is about. We are proud that our music appeals to both Iranian and non-Iranian listeners. 

SSL: What is the band doing during the pandemic?

KH: Mainly songwriting and arranging new material. We’re planning on going to the studio and recording an EP later in the spring. And hopefully start touring in fall when venues are back to normal, as we have had promoters and festival organizers reaching out to us for shows in the U.S and Canada.