Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

After fundamentalist thugs broke his wrist for performing banned music, he knew he had to leave

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Amir Amiri's break with his Iranian homeland happened the instant fundamentalist thugs snapped his wrist for performing banned music in public.

"They said they were going to teach me a lesson I'd never forget," says Amiri, who was a teenage santur player and internationally decorated composer when he became the victim of brutal street justice in 1995.

His real crime was playing his santur -- a 72-string hammer dulcimer -- not with the approved right hand but leading with his left hand. Sanctions for his youthful indiscretion were swift. His licence to play music and to carry an instrument were both revoked, and the assault emphasized official displeasure.

"That was the straw that broke the camel's back," recalls Amiri, at 36 a relative newcomer to Winnipeg. He was six years old when he started playing the santur.

"I was scared. They could have done so much more. They could have put me in jail. I couldn't take my instrument out or go to class so it was time for me to go out of Iran. I had no future."

After the overthrow of the Shah of Iran and the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran under Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979, universities were closed, most music was prohibited and a restrictive dress code enforced. Amiri, the only son of Iranian intellectuals, had previously felt the wrath of religious zealots for wearing a short-sleeved shirt.

"Once I was wearing a pink T-shirt and they painted my arms the same colour," recalls the tall, curly-haired Amiri, who arrived in Winnipeg in late 2010 and lives in the West End.

"The amount of crazy going on there is crazy."


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The escalation in punishment from public humiliation to private smackdown roused Amiri to make use of a business card handed to him by a Banff Centre for the Arts official when he won a competition for young composers in Paris. He craved a brief escape to breathe and got it when Banff accepted his application to be the first santur player to study there.

So with $125 from his father, no English and his santur (plus another as a gift to his host organization), Amiri flew out of Iran on Sept. 1, 1996.

He received a typical Canadian welcome -- his luggage was lost.

It was a deplorable situation that could have been an immigrant's nightmare (as it was for Polish visitor Robert Dziekanski who was tasered to death in a Vancouver airport in 2007). Amiri knew enough Hindi, picked up from studying with Indian musicians like sitar virtuoso Ravi Shankar, to make himself understood to an Indian taxi driver.

"I told him what had happened, and he took me home, fed me, went back and picked up my luggage and then took me to the bus for Banff," says Amiri.

"People were unbelievably friendly, Albertans, oh my God, I love them so much. I don't know why people hate them (in Canada). It must be because they are rich or something."

He was also warmly welcomed at the Banff Centre by Isobel Rolston (mother of the noted cellist Shauna), who was the artistic director of the residency program, which specializes in the career development of professional musicians. After three months, he was asked to stay on in Banff, but he wanted to leave his sheltered life for Calgary.

There he received wise counsel from an immigration consultant: Never go on welfare, don't ever commit a crime, learn English and read the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. After getting a work permit, he landed a morning job as a cook at a falafel shop and an afternoon shift at Foothills Medical Centre "cleaning up blood and puke."

But Amiri was an emerging artist and he needed training, so he returned to Banff off and on for four years of study under the mentorship of Rolston.

"She saw something in me and made me what I am today," says Amiri.

When he left Banff to launch his career, Amiri realized that being a santur player would not sustain him in Canada. A friend told him in 2001 that the University of Calgary dance department was looking for a percussionist and after 11 hasty drumming lessons, he got the job. There he came into contact with a veteran musician named Douglas Schmidt, who again offered sage advice on building a career.

"Never say no," he was told. "As a musician, it's not about the gig you are getting, it's about the gig that you're getting that is going to get you another gig. Always say yes.

"That's my motto: Say yes."

That agreeableness got him named artist of the year by CBC Galaxie Rising Stars. He said yes when the Manitoba Theatre for Young People wanted a percussionist for its 2005 production of The Odyssey. He won a 2008 Berry Mitchell Award for his original sound design in Helen's Necklace in Calgary. Last fall he played his santur in Romeo + Juliet at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre and is currently in the studio with violist Richard Moody recording Teheran Project for release this fall.

"I'm very happy here," he says.

"I won't go back to Iran. If I had stayed I would be dead now. Canada gave me the space to discover who I was and what my potential is."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 26, 2012 J6


Updated on Saturday, May 26, 2012 at 7:33 AM CDT: adds video

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