Finding Originality Within Art & Creation - Sahba Motallebi


interview & photography by Charlie Spadone

Joshua Tree Music Festival, home to an inspired community of creators and liberators, a sanctuary for many to explore and find new levels of artistic expression. In our coverage from October 2018, we sent two photographers to camp and capture the overall experience and energy that flows through each set, artists display, and vendors booth. This time around we decided to get a bit more personal, conversing with four feature creators in order to get to the root of Joshua Tree’s magic.

Our first feature, Sahba Motallebi spoke with us about finding originality within art and creation…


Can you give us a little background on who you are and what you do? How did you get started on your current path and why do you continue?

My name is Sahba Motallebi, I’m a Persian/Iranian Tar, Setar and Shoorangiz player, composer and music Instructor. I am a wife and mother of two children.

I started playing Setar at the age of 11, in Sari - a small city in North of Iran. One of the greatest Tar and Setar player’s, Hossein Alizadeh (who became my master later) came to check on music students from the capital of Iran, Tehran, and he traveled to Sari to do so. He was impressed by my talent and lead me to continue music professionally.

I started my professional path after I came to Tehran conservatory at the age of 14, I dealt with lots of difficult situations as a female musician in Iran but I never lost my hopes & dreams and went on and composed and performed.


I believed that women can do the same, even better than men in the professional way, in music and arts in general. I changed the Tabou and I broke the wrong tradition of women’s jobs being taking care of children and staying at home. I proved it wrong by achieving the best Tar player’s awards for Four years in a row at the Iranian art festivals, being considered as the one of the most 18 effective women in culture, art and society in 2015, and a role model of an Iranian new generation as a professional musician, mother, wife and teacher.

I’ve been continuing music because I believe it is one of the most important parts of our soul, without that we are not complete as a human being. It changes the best part of our spirit to the best level of our spirituality. It affects our daily morals, mentality, and behavior.

I continue music because it brings people together, people from all over the world, with all cultures, color, religion, language, and proves that there are no borders between us. We are one people, and one earth.

I continue teaching Persian music because I love to pass my knowledge onto the next generation.

What is your current creative focus? Are you working on any big projects you want to talk about? What are your goals for the future?

My current projects are:

1- Creating an Iranian traditional classical and folk ensemble with the best Iranian musicians in the USA.

2- Playing with one of the best Oud players who is from Iraq - Rahim AlHaj. We were at war before (Iran & Iraq). We perform our compositions that we composed while our countries were at war together, and now we perform them together to show people, that we are always friends with each other, that there should be NO war anymore in this world.


3- Being part of an amazing international ensemble called Arturo O’Farrill & the ALJA (Afro, Latin, Jazz, Alliance) and having concerts with them for peace, unity and even more beautiful reasons.

I have a big project that is almost done. It’s a video recording teaching/instructing of all the existing materials for Persian Tar and Setar,  which is almost 10 Volumes (more than 1000 videos) in both Farsi and English, and I uploaded them on YouTube, Facebook, my Telegram channel, Instagram and more online sources as a “free” source for all people to use, to learn how to play Tar.


What influences your style and how does it evolve as you evolve?

I love the Persian classical and traditional musical roots. So I am always influenced by that, and I was influenced by my happy and sad memories and daily happenings of my life since I was a kid up until now. I was always influenced by society and sad happenings for my people in my homeland Iran, such as a lack of freedom, women and men’s differences in their rights, and more. All affect my style.

Where are you currently finding inspiration? How does your inspiration affect your work? Is it direct or indirect?

I am currently finding my inspiration from Love, loneliness, and missing my country and my family that I haven’t seen since 2004, at the same time I am finding my inspiration from my strongest part of my soul, that I am still alive and can serve my people by sharing my music to them to make them happy, and giving them hope while we are dealing with lots of current sad situation in Iran.  All these elements affect my work by composing, performing and creating new ideas directly. I can say each moment of my life is going to affect my work directly and also indirectly. How? I can find the indirect effect on stage while I’m improvising. Ideas come to my mind and I can see and feel how they were in my inner parts of my soul and become alive on stage in my pure moments of my improvising.

Do you think there is true originality in art and creation? Is that possible?

Yes, we are, each of us as a person as an individual are the true originality in our arts and creation, and each of us are unique and special.

Did creating come naturally to you as a child or was it something you learned? Did you find art or did it find you?

Both, naturally and being learned. Both, we found each other in the best places called heart and spirit.


Why do you create? What does creating mean to you?

My mind should create, I would be depressed If I didn’t empty my mind and soul by creating. Creating is like water, food and breathing to me, it should happen, it must happen.

Have you always wanted to pursue music as a career? Do you think of music/art as a career?

I wish it wouldn’t be a career, it’s way beyond to be a career, but unfortunately sometimes it becomes that. I think music is more holy than becoming my career, even teaching is not my career. I have my own rules and terms for my own students.

Besides music, how else do you express yourself? Do these things intersect for you?

I think I express myself by nurturing my children, giving lots of love to my loved ones, making new friends and more.   


What are you passionate about? How does this manifest in your creative expression?

My feelings are changing as I become older - about the question above. Now-a-day’s I am passionate about the pure love between lovers, I think it manifests in me by its hard experiences, pleasant moments, excitements, even depression, and deeper feelings. Recently these are the fuel of my everyday life.

Can you give us a look into what your creative process looks like?

For me it’s all about wanting to create. I decide to create. I have good control of it, I concentrate, then I drink a few hot teas, then I go grab my instruments and sometimes just write my music without playing, and it happens in my mind. I do better and faster and create more music if I continue doing that for a long period of time without any gap between, but mostly it is not going to always happen that way as a busy mom, wife, teacher and a performer.

What was the most challenging project you’ve completed? Was the challenge internal or external?

Working with the Iranian women’s ensemble was the most challenging project for me, both internal and external.


Do you have any advice for non male people pursuing careers in the music industry? How do you balance equality in the music industry? Do you think it can be a catalyst for equality?

I wouldn’t suggest music as a career for anybody. They should really be so very good and amazing if they want to be in the music industry and make it as their career. Yes, I think playing music allows us to forget about things that keep us contained and limited in our thoughts & daily behaviors, like any differences between being a man or a woman. It just falls by the wayside as you transcend yourself organically through the power and gift of music.

Where do you find community that feels safe and supportive for you?

Universities, world music festivals, ensembles that I work/perform with, (I mentioned some of  them above). Baha’i (my religion), community, and the people that invite me to have concerts in the USA are the best audience and communities that I’ve ever had.

What do you think is necessary for a community to thrive?

Just understand you, support your beliefs, bring the best up from you, and support your path and goals.

Is there anything else you would like the readers to know about you?

Make wishes, go for it, make it happen, life's too short, love each other so much, enjoy your moments and live in the moment as much as you can.