"You know how it is with parties in high school," says Sepehr. "Every Thursday night (because we had Fridays offthere), we'd be at a party, sitting around with our guitars, playing the hits from those days, 'Stairway to Heaven,' Emerson, Lake & Palmer, James Taylor."
These two Iranian kids, who globe-trotted with their parents throughout childhood, found themselves jamming with each other again 10 years ago here in Washington, the adopted home of each. "We kept collaborating on and off for the next few years, and finally four years ago we became an official duo," says Shahin.
With their fourth CD, "World Cafe," recently released by Higher Octave records, Shahin & Sepehr find their profile high enough in "world beat" circles that they can regularly tour abroad. "We were in Italy this summer and got interviewed on national TV," says Shahin, "and the woman at the station showed us all these magazines with reviews and articles about us. I had no idea we were getting so much attention!"
Shahin came to Washington in 1979 to attend American University and was in two bands, Amsterdam and Feast or Famine, before getting together with Sepehr. "The first was kind of a ska/reggae band, the second more of an alternative rock kind of thing," he says. The Gypsy/latin/jazzy/Middle Eastern sounds of Shahin & Sepehr are "just an evolution of the whole process of absorbing different musics and interpreting them," says Shahin. "We're the outgrowth of everything each of us has done up to this point."
A job with the EPA brought Sepehr to Washington 10 years ago from California, where he'd had some success as a folk singing guitarist on the coffee-house circuit. He says he's happy to not have to worry about singing now, as the duo's music is almost entirely instrumental, a fact that gets them played -- to their slight discomfort -- on "smooth jazz" radio stations. Shahin insists it's not jazz at all: "If you listen to the music, you'll hear that even though it falls into the instrumental category, we stick to classic forms of songwriting with verses and refrains. There's no improvisation, really, to speak of."
When I mention that "World Cafe" has more than a little in common with Herb Alpert's Tijuana Brass of the '60s, Sepehr says, "I don't mind you saying that at all. I think those were wonderful records, and people used to look at me like I was crazy when I admitted to really liking them." Similarly evocative melodies float from the duo's nylon string guitars (instead of Alpert's trumpet), and they're backed up by a similarly tight band.
In concert, the duo is now augmented by three additional musicians (another guitar, bass, and drums and percussion), and it's that lineup you can hear Friday at the Birchmere (703/549-7500) and Sunday at Annapolis's Ram's Head (410/268-4545).
While their fans seem to have no problem enjoying the music, defining it is another matter. "Shahin calls what we do world music, and that's accurate because of all the influences we bring to it," says Sepehr, "but I call it contemporary instrumental with definite roots in rock and pop."
On this record, they show their pop roots with versions of Cat Stevens's "Wild World" and Nat Cole's "Nature Boy," the latter particularly evocative with its Gypsy cabaret arrangement. Less successful are the clear attempts at dance club hits, like "Cafe L.A." Most successful is the Gypsy guitar workout "Florian's Cafe" and the flamenco version of "Wild World."
"There's definitely strong colorings from Spanish music," says Shahin, "but we create a fusion of West African and Arabic melodies with Western grooves or samba rhythms." He's especially proud of bringing Persian music -- the music of his and Sepehr's parents -- into the mix. "We are not overtly political with our music," says Shahin, "but Sepehr and I have been on this mission, subconscious perhaps, to portray Iranians the way they are, not as how they are portrayed in the media, when they get on camera shouting 'Death to Americans.' Through our music, we've embraced all other nationalities and said, 'Look what we can do together. Let's have fun together.' If there's any kind of deeper message there, that's what it is."
* To hear a free Sound Bite from Shahin & Sepehr, call Post-Haste at 202/334-9000 and press 8115. (Prince William residents, call 690-4110.)
Dancing to Another Tune
It didn't work out that way. "We found that after seeing a band in the music hall, people didn't want to hear more music," says owner Gary Oelze. Rarely did more than a handful of people stick around to hear a second band after the main show ended, and those who did complained about the sound.
Oelze and his partners pondered the situation and have come up with the Birchmere Band Stand, a performance space that will emphasize dance bands on nights when nothing is happening in the Music Hall. The Gonzo stage was expanded, the sound system revamped, and a 50-by-30-foot permanent hardwood dance floor was installed. "If you're a dancer, you're going to love this floor," says Oelze. "It's not glued down onto the concrete, but sort of floats on a foam cushion. It's a dancer's dream."
Oelze says the Band Stand will likely host a monthly swing night, beginning Oct. 27 with the band the New Morty Show. And look for cajun and zydeco bands three or four times a month, beginning with Terrence Simien's on Nov. 2.
A Jazzy Scene
Johnson's "Chocolate City Groovin' " CD debuted at No. 36 on Billboard magazine's New Adult Contemporary chart last month, and is up to No. 35 this week, with a bullet. The single "The Neck Factor" is getting lots of airplay on "contemporary jazz" stations around the country, with N2K about to release a second single, "Morning Light," featuring vocalist Alyson Williams. Johnson will perform Nov. 16 at Blues Alley (202/337-4141).
Harris, for his part, made enough of a splash with his April N2K debut, "Comes Love," to be noted in the industry media. In its November issue, Keyboard magazine names Harris one of six rising piano stars (along with the likes of Cyrus Chestnut and Diana Krall) in a feature titled "Jazz Piano: The Next Generation." Harris performs at Takoma Station Nov. 13 and 14 (202/829-1999).
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