‘My father was a dervish ... If you didn’t know them you would have thought they’d taken ecstasy’
Tulca’s debut album is full of sweeping yet intimate music drawn from Irish and Persian traditions
“We’re better together than apart. That’s always something that’s been close to my heart.” Dr Paul Roe, clarinettist and academic, sees the irony in his words in the midst of a pandemic that has put distance between so many of us.
Over the past few years Roe has been busily collaborating with an eclectic mix of similarly curious people, drawn from the worlds of music, science and medicine, and with roots in Ireland and Iran. Shahab and Shayan Coohe (both members of the experimental group Navá) are central to this band, named Tulca by fiddle player Ultan O’Brien, who sees their collaboration as akin to a flood or deluge.
Roe has taught Shayan in the Royal Irish Academy of Music, and Shayan and his brother have long collaborated as classical Persian musicians whose musical traditions are rooted in improvisation.
I have a really strong connection with Shayan and Shahab. With Shayan it was a teaching relationship that grew into a mentoring relationship, and I felt I learned more than my students, to be honest
“I have a really strong connection with Shayan and Shahab and I’m curious about their cultural reference points,” says Roe. “I’ve always been very interested in their story. As a teacher of Shayan for the last seven years, it was a teaching relationship that grew into a mentoring relationship, and I felt I learned more than my students, to be honest.”
Roe had also been collaborating with another Tulca member, piper Mick O’Brien, who was learning the classical flute. O’Brien, for his part, was teaching Roe how to play the traditional whistle. The symbiotic relationship between each of these members of Tulca is at the heart of their alliance.
A few years ago, Roe contacted Prof Jim Lucey, a consultant psychiatrist and former medical director of St Patrick’s Hospital.
“I love working with people,” says Roe, “because it’s the people that matter, not the discipline that they do. I’m not interested in a generic psychiatrist, or a generic musician. I want to work with Jim and Shahab. I was interested in enacting something that is emergent and spacious and invites curiosity.”
Tulca’s debut album, Just Be, is a sweeping yet intimate collection of new compositions and traditional tunes drawn from the Irish and Persian traditions, with a meditative spoken-word piece by Lucey in its midst. Mountains of the Mind is an invitation not to listen, but to hear; revealing insights shared from two of his patients.
“This collaboration means an awful lot to me,” says Lucey. “Collaboration is not bounded by particular disciplines but it does require invitation and an openness. I’ve admired Paul for many years. When we met and chatted, it was a breath of fresh air for me. I was going through a time in advance of Covid where I was absolutely open to the idea of having access to another world and another conversation, and then to be allowed participate with only my speaking voice, that was really exciting for me.”
Lucey is anxious to underscore the small-p political aspect of their collaboration, too, and its utter intertwining with his latest book, A Whole New Plan for Living, which he describes as “psychological first aid for these challenging Covid times”. For him, Tulca embodies a crucial aspect of his own journey.
“We want to have a momentum in our lives,” he says, “and I love hearing the musicians when they speak of transience in their lives because I think we need to talk about the evanescence of things too. As we found ourselves locked down, we talked about the project of this album. Then I started my own journey within this, because that’s what collaboration creates: a kind of drive to look in and out, and that became my book: A Whole New Plan for Living.
“It seemed absolutely natural to me that this whole new exciting venture would become the outcome of that plan,” Lucey continues. “We talked about what it is to be individual, what it is to be authentic, to be hopeful, to be political, and I found myself allowing the experience of collaboration to take me from consciousness, and the volatility, complexity and uncertainty in so many parts of our lives, to this point where each of us has revealed themselves to each other, in lots of very interesting ways.”
Roe is quick to underline the essence of creativity as something that defies the laws so frequently laid down in the lives we lead these days.
“We want to blend Jim’s book with the CD in some way,” he says, “because they reflect one another’s aspirations, which is that they’re an invitation to create your own story. It’s an invitation towards tolerance: of different styles, which are definitely left-hemispherical instead of right-hemispherical. It’s about the imagination, about colour and shape, and not prescriptive or specific.”
For Lucey, Tulca’s invitation to “just be” embodies core ideas of what wellness is in a world that so often seeks to commodify our very beings.
“This project is about an appreciation of wellness as being an amalgam of social, emotional and intellectual choices we make about our lives,” he says. “It’s about the collective as well as the individual.”
The dervishes sit down together and play a drone that’s transforming, ever changing. They have gatherings in Iran where they would play the same thing for two or three hours, and they would go into another world
One of the album tracks, Always Be, resonates in many different ways, depending on whether it’s viewed through the prism of western or eastern philosophy, as Shahab and Lucey illustrate.
“In Persian music, my father used to be a dervish,” says Shahab. “These are people who sit down together and play a drone that’s transforming, ever changing. They have gatherings in Iran where they would play the same thing for two or three hours and they would go into another world. If you didn’t know them you would have thought they’d taken ecstasy, but it’s just the repetition, exploring the same note.
“Always Be; it’s always written on the note B because we always explore this note B with harmonies, but we always come back to that note B. Iranian music is about being able to go beyond music; being present but being in another galaxy at the same time. Not caring about time, but caring about how you feel. If you’re a clean or a pure person inside, you will enjoy it, and people will experience that with you. That’s the concept of eastern philosophy and eastern music.”
“Just be: that’s the question: can you show up and just be, as you are, without any artifice?” says Lucey. “It’s a tricky thing, because we identify so strongly with our own expertise. But when you let go of expertise, all of a sudden there’s a whole lot of other things possible. All of a sudden musicians speak and think and all of sudden psychiatrists can be musicians.”
For his part, Shahab approached this collaboration with a mix of passion and trepidation.
“Writing the music for this album was a big challenge for me,” he says. “My background is in Persian classical music, which is based on improvisation. As a kid I used to improvise with my brother all the time, and when we play together we have this sense of collaboration. Once onstage, the quality of chemistry is as if we are reading one another’s brain.
“Writing music for this group of people was a challenge because I had to adjust my skills and be attentive to the musicians of the band,” he adds. “To write music for Irish musicians is to give them space to flourish, and to explore for themselves. I often spoke in colours when I was writing and was describing the music to them, but that’s what happens in Irish music. When you listen to someone like Martin Hayes, every time he plays there’s a different quality to his music and different colours.”
“I suppose coming together is ultimately about loving each other,” says Lucey. “But it’s very hard to love each other unless you try and love yourself. In our culture, we don’t have a way of expressing it as clearly as Shahab just did.”
For Roe, it’s about being authentic in the world.
“I don’t want to go back to playing classical music where I’m nailed down to the chair and to play exactly what’s on the page all the time”, he says. “It’s the same with traditional music. Shahab doesn’t want to play the tunes the way Martin [Hayes] plays them. It’s about being respectful of the tradition but also bring to it the possibilities that we are evolving all the time and the music evolves with us.”
Just Be by Tulca is out now: tulca.bandcamp.com/releases. A Whole New Plan for Living by Prof Jim Lucey is published by Hachette Books