Sea of Mystery: An Interview with Sonbol

There are some people whom, when you cross their path, you can immediately tell that they’re passionate about everything they do. Whether it be their work, their faith, their service, their family or their art, they pursue it to their utmost, and Sonbol is one of those people.

Sonbol is a New Zealand based singer and songwriter, and in fact her husband played a big role in my family’s life, as it was him who told my parents about the needs in Papua New Guinea, which then resulted in my family moving to Papua New Guinea and living there for 20 years, so I’ve always been profoundly grateful to them for this.

I first heard Sonbol perform about 20 years ago while I was studying in New Zealand, and our paths have continued to cross in different parts of the world over the years. She’s produced several albums, and the last time I saw her, we were both passing through the US about a year ago, when she was on her way to Prague with Tom Price to record her new album with the Czech National Symphony Orchestra.

Sonbol has now finished that album titled Sea of Mystery, and so I decided it was time to catch up with Sonbol to find out more about her, her music, and her new album.

Baha’i Blog: Can you tell us a little about yourself and your musical background?

I have always loved music, and ever since I was a child I would go on stage at local shows in my hometown Bandar Abbas in Iran. I was trained in singing and music by a maestro who at the time was heading the department of arts and culture in our town. I took piano and singing lessons for a period of 2-3 years and was involved with local bands in my teens.

At the age of 15 I was offered a singing contract on a regular TV show in Iran that was aired nationwide, but I turned that offer down and decided not to go down the path of commercial singing in Iran.

The following year I left Iran just before the revolution happened and went to England to pursue my studies. I trained in computer studies and worked as a systems analyst for a few years until eventually in 1990 due to my husband’s continued and persistent encouragement, I started to compose and record songs based on the Baha’i Writings and poems written by some of the early Baha’is. I have always loved poetry, and whenever I was uplifted by the beauty of these poems it was very natural for me to put them to music. In fact, when I started to put music to the Written Word and the poems of the early believers, your father (Dr. Sirus Naraqi) gave me a lot of insight. When he was still in the Papua New Guinea, he used to write to me and send me poetry and verses to put to music. One of those was a selection from one of the Tablets of Baha’u’llah which I had never seen before. This piece is titled ‘Ey Salek’ and can be found on my first CD ‘In His Remembrance’. Dr Naraqi was indeed a most valued advisor and his guidance was instrumental in the path I chose as far as the style of music composition, and he helped me to stay focused on the classic Persian Poetry that is written out of love and devotion to Baha’u’llah, and the love of the divine.

Some of these poems are not easy to comprehend, and one can read them a few times and still not quite understand their meaning, but somehow melody would bring out the essence, and I also found that by putting music to these words, we could remember them better because music and melody gave them another dimension.

I recorded my first album titled ‘Glad Tidings’ on cassette in collaboration with my cousin Farahsheed Golbarani, who is a very talented musician and composer, and together with him we composed and recorded another 2 cassettes titled ‘Portal of Love’ and ‘Dawn of Hope’. A compilation of these cassettes was released on our first CD titled ‘In His Remembrance’.

Baha’i Blog: What was the idea behind this particular album and what makes this album unique?

Sonbol - Sea of Mystery cover 400x356

For the last 18 years I have been working with a highly accomplished musician named Stephen Small as my musical director, arranger and orchestrator. Although he has a Phd in contemporary music and has been lecturing at the Auckland university for many years, he has knowledge and experience in many music styles including Persian music. I have recorded several albums with his help including ‘Along the Tigris’, which was recorded live with a double quartet and piano.

It was Stephen who originally came up with the idea of recording our next CD with a full orchestra, and after a couple of years of him pursuing this idea, I eventually agreed to do it. My inspiration was firstly to record a classic album that would stand the test of time and I think nothing can serve that purpose better than a live orchestra; and secondly, to use this opportunity to bring out the best in some of the previously recorded songs that could really use an orchestral background, and thirdly to create a recording with a high standard of production and sound. Along the way between myself and Farahsheed, we also came up with some new songs. This CD has 13 songs from which 6 are new songs.

I feel privileged that Tom Price, one of the best musicians I know, agreed to conduct the orchestra and produce the album. A unique feature of this album is that it is a marriage of the east and west. The songs are in Persian and the lyrics come from the beautiful poetry of Tahirih, Varqa, Jonun, Nush, Dr. Shapour Rassekh, Molana, and Homa Mirafshar, but all orchestrations were done by a non-Persian musician (Stephen Small), and the music was recorded live with an orchestra that is not Persian, and of course Tom Price producing the album made it even more special because of his experience in both styles of music.

Baha’i Blog: So the album was recorded live in the Czech Republic with the Czech National Symphony Orchestra. Can you tell me a little bit about that experience and what it was like?

Recording with an orchestra was quite amazing. Standing in the studio and watching a full orchestra playing songs I had composed myself and seeing Tom conduct them was an out of this world experience for me, it was quite surreal. However when it came to mixing the album it was very labour intensive. Part of the mixing was done by engineers in Australia and New Zealand, but when it came to the finishing touches, it was done by Tom himself. He came to New Zealand twice, and stayed for more than a week each time to work on the album. During these visits, he didn’t see anyone and he didn’t leave the studio. He practically worked day and night while he was here and I learnt a lot from him, especially in regards to mixing the sound for an orchestra. One thing that is worth mentioning is that for this album he did not use any effects – absolutely no reverb – what you hear is the real natural reverb in the room.

Baha’i Blog: How has the album been received so far and what do you want your listeners to walk away with?

The album has just been released so haven’t had enough time to know the response from listeners, but those I know who have listened to it here are absolutely loving it. It is a humbling experience when you see people respond positively to something you have labored on so hard. I hope and pray that the listeners walk away with a good feeling. I always say there is only one reason to produce music, and that is to uplift the hearts.

Baha’i Blog: You’ve done one album in English, but most of your albums are in your mother tongue Persian. Why is it important for you to sing in Persian, and do you have a message you’d like to share with the people of Iran?

I sing mostly in Persian because it is my mother tongue, but also because the poetry I use for my songs are in Persian. I can sit and read these poems for hours and not get tired. They are full of messages of hope, devotion and faith. The poetry of the early Baha’is, and the original Written Word are very much what I respond to when it comes to creativity and composition. I feel inspired by them and I enjoy putting them to music.

My message to the people of Iran is to read more of these Writings and poetry. The Baha’i Writings are a treasure given to mankind, and I can’t even begin to express how vital the reading of them is for each of us every day. But since the birth of the Baha’i Faith in Iran, an ocean of literature and poetry has also appeared in that land which is hidden from those who do not seek to find them. A treasure of verses that we can both learn from, and get inspired by. Poets such as Jonun whose poetry is not unparallel to Molana; Tahirih whose strength of words and spirit can not be likened to anyone before or after her; Varqa whose exemplary life and faith is an example to us all. There is so much spiritual knowledge in their poetry that by just reading and pondering on them, our characters will be influenced and our sense of purpose becomes more clear.

Baha’i Blog: Thanks so much Sonbol for taking the time to do this interview, and thanks so much for continuing to share your music with others!

You can listen to and purchase your copy of ‘Sea of Mystery’ here on 9 Star Media, and her other albums are also available here.

You can also find out more about Sonbol from her website: www.sonboltaefi.com

About the Author

Naysan is the editor of Baha'i Blog and he has worked in various avenues of media for two decades. He’s passionate about using the arts and media to support and explore the teachings of the Baha’i Faith and he has produced and collaborated on popular music projects like the "DawnBreaker Collective" and the successful Ruhi-inspired sequence of "MANA" albums. His experience as a producer for CNN was invaluable while working on a number of special projects for the Baha’i World Centre, including the "Building Momentum" and "Pilgrimage: A Sacred Experience" videos. If there’s a media-related Baha’i project out there, chances are that Naysan was involved with it somehow!

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Discussion 1 Comment

  1. We’d just like to add that Sonbol’s albums are also available at our digital music and media site, BahaiMusicStore.com, where individual songs and entire albums are available for instant download. Thank you!

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