Kurdistan is an ancient and fertile land, with high mountains, hard to cross passes, rivers running in deep valleys, cold winters, and mild summers. It is home to a people who arrived there in the course of migration of Persian and Indian tribes, each wave of newcomers mixing with the native population. References to the name of the Kurds can be found in Greek and Assyrian records as early as 7th century BC. These records indicate that the Kurds lived in the region neighboring the source of the Tigris river, and the southern section of lake Vān.

The Kurds were originally a group of migratory tribes of herdsmen. In the middle of the 19th century about one third of the Kurdish people were nomadic tent dwellers under Persian and Ottoman rule. After the world war I, the Kurds found their soil divided between the five states of Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Russia.

The Kurds live today on a long strip of land that runs along the Iran-Iraq border and neighbors the northern border of Syria. The province of Kurdistan in Iran is home to the majority of Iranian Kurds. This province is also known as the region of Ardalan. The capital of Kurdistan is Sanandaj. Parts of Azerbaijan, Mehaband and the province of Kerman are also settled by Kurdish people.

The Kurdish language has three main dialects called Zaza, Gourani and Kermanji, each of which has different parlances. The Zaza dialect is spoken in the northern regions of Turkey as well as in the province of Azerbaijan in Iran. The Gourani dialect is spoken more in the province of Kermanshah; neither of these dialects has a written form. Spoken by more than half of the Kurds, Kermanji is the most important of the above dialects. It has a written form and is considered the semi official language of the Kurdish people. The Kurds have a solid cultural link to Persia and their language has strong roots in the ancient Persian languages of Pahlavi and Avestan. The Kurdish folklore literature has its sources in the Gathas, and Zoroastorian mythology.

About Kurdish Music

The forms of music found in various parts of Kurdistan, all known as Kurdish music, vary depending on the climate and geography of the regions as well as their contact with the neighboring cultures. For example, the melodies found among the people living in the mountains are different from those found among the people living in the meadows. However, the poetry and the rhythms are common to both areas.

Kurdish music, similar to other Eastern music, is monophonic and modal (more specifically, based on the maqam system, which is loosely translated as modal). However, because multiple instruments with varying pitch range, color, and ornamentation capabilities are used to play the same melody, it is also heterophonic. In addition to` specifically Kurdish modes (maqams), Kurdish music also utilizes all the modes and dastgahs found in the traditional music of Iran.

There are two forms of Kurdish music. The first is based on the maqam system. Similar to traditional music of Iran, improvisation plays an important role in Kurdish music. While a maqam is used to designate a certain melodic structure, a musician may improvise within this structure by employing variations on ornamental figures, rhythms, and melodic forms. The maqams of Kurdistan, preserved by oral tradition throughout generations, are based on microtonal tuning systems where one can find intervals of half step, full step, three quarter step, and one and a quarter step. [These intervals are not necessarily in a equal-tempered 24 tone scale.]

The second form of Kurdish music is based on a set of melodies, known as gourani or closed, which have distinct and structured rhythms. The word gourani is derived from gabaran, which literally means "one who worships fire." This word is related to the ancient rituals of fire worship among the Zoroastrians. Through the passage of time gabaran was changed to gouran. Gourani is also the name of a tribe whose members speak Kurdish and are known for their poetry. The members of certain groups of dervishes (Ahle Hagh) in
Kermanshah and certain regions of Sanandaj, use this word to refer to the songs performed during their spiritual ceremonies. Because of its distinct rhythm, gourani is often accompanied by other instruments, and in some cases by clapping.

The poems used in most Kurdish music are filled with stories of romance and unrequited love. These poems have often two verses, which are divided in ten, eleven, or twelve syllables, and are based on the Gathas of the Zoroastrians. Kurdish melodies are very simple; their range is usually confined to a few notes. The form of the music is often strophic, and every gourani has a particular melody which is sung with various stanzas. At the end of every stanza the strophe is repeated unchanged throughout the song. Every gourani is characterized by a specific strophe. Similar to a lied or a chanson, gouranis may be accompanied by instrumental sections, which have three parts: prelude, middle section, and the ending. The prelude and the ending are performed by the group, and the middle section is performed in the form of call and response.

Gouranis fall into several categories, each performed with specific melodies for specific occasions. Some examples are work gouranis, shepherd gouranis, romantic gouranis, religious and spiritual gouranis, festive gouranis, Chemari (mourning) gouranis, war gouranis, children gouranis, women gouranis, and Ramadan gouranis.

Before Islam, the "religious and spiritual gouranis" were used by the Kurds in their worship rituals of Ahura Mazda (the wise and supreme god of Zoroastrianism), fire, the sun, and the moon. Within Islam, new gouranis were developed for worship of God and paying tribute to sacred figures. The dervish houre, Azan (special forms of reciting of the Koran), and zekr [also a ritualistic dance performed by the dervishes during devotional ceremonies] are among these types of gouranis. The "festive gouranis", which have strong and exciting rhythms, are used for marriage, circumcision, or holiday celebrations, and are often accompanied by dancing and clapping. The "war gouranis" have moving rhythms and are often used with poems which induce feelings for nationalism and the protection of freedom. "Children gouranis" have very simple rhythms accompany children's poems. "Women gouranis" are sung by women during their everyday chores, such as milking the cows, carrying water from the springs, or picking flowers. "Chemari gouranis", which are sung in the funerals while carrying the dead (especially a young deceased), are accompanied by sorna (a wind instrument) and dohol (a large percussion instrument), and have very sad poems. "Ramadan gouranis" are mostly used during the month of Ramadan to declare the coming of dawn [when people have food before fasting during the day]. Accompanied by sorna and dohol, they are played in elevated regions of cities and villages.

Hooshang Kamkar, Spring 1999
Translated by Bijan Mottahedeh and Shahrokh Yadegari.