While on a New York City subway on his way to playing guitar in a stage reading of the play “Paloma” on Oct. 6, California State University, Dominguez Hills (CSUDH) student Surenna Saffari was a bit taken aback when he heard a 23-year-old woman tell a friend “I just want to go somewhere and listen to some cool jazz music on my birthday.”
“I haven’t met any other 23-year-old who would say that. It’s so rare for someone our age to listen to that kind of music,” said Saffari, a 25-year-old music performance major at CSUDH. “Jazz is the true beauty of American music. There are so many gorgeous melodies and songs that came out of the jazz generation and era. They’re really missing out.”
Unlike those his own age, Saffari not only loves listening to jazz, but has been playing it on guitar since he was 11 years old. Over the past few years he has expanded his musical interests to include Flamenco guitar as well.
Saffari tapped both genres as the solo guitarist in the West Coast premiere of “Paloma,” which was performed by the Latino Theatre Company at the Los Angeles Theatre Center in May and June 2015.
According to Saffari, playwright Anne García-Romero took the play to the Big Apple in search of someone to produce it there, which resulted in the stage reading.
“I played guitar solo in the play both in New York and L.A. Throughout the performance I played certain cues, and ins and outs of scenes,” said Saffari, a South Pasadena resident. “At the beginning, end and in the middle of the play there were moments where I played entire original pieces.”
Whereas in L.A. Saffari performed to actors acting with a full set, stage lighting and everything else that goes into a production; in New York the actors only had the script.
“The company was more into it in New York than in the L.A. performance because it was a little more laid back.” said Saffari. “We were a bit unrehearsed after several months of not touching the play. We actually only rehearsed as a complete team in New York the day of the reading.”
“Paloma” is a contemporary love story between New York University students Ibrahim, a Muslim, and Paloma, a Christian, whose interfaith romance is tested in a post 9/11 world.
“The play goes from New York to Spain, so it had a lot of elements of Spanish culture in it, and offered the perfect opportunity for me to play Flamenco music,” Saffari added. “Since the play also took place in New York, it also had an American cultural influence, so I also added some Blues and Jazz sound to my performance.”
A Mother’s Wish
Saffari’s mother “forced” him into music at the age of 9, signing him up for a one-year academic music program in which he met once a week with a music teacher.
“My mother wanted music lessons as a kid, but her family couldn’t afford them. She always thought ‘If have kids, I’m going to make sure they take lessons.’ I’m her only child so she forced me into it, and I hated it,” Saffari admitted. “But since she did pay for the lessons she wouldn’t let me quit. I had to finish the entire program.
Photo by Susanica Tam.
“During the last few weeks of the program they brought out players of many types of instruments. Each musician would play and then introduce me to the instrument to see if I was into it,” he added. “I did start to develop feelings by that time—from completely hating it to starting to like it. By the time the program had ended I had chosen guitar.”
At the age of 11, Saffari studied with a classical guitar teacher who, he said, “really made me develop an appreciation for quality music at a young age.”
“But even after really starting to love guitar I thought, ‘I’m too young, I shouldn’t be this deeply into music.’ So when I got to high school I gave it a break,” said Saffari. “But after high school it was still in me, so I went back to it.”
Saffari’s drive to expand his musical talent paid off when he found “the right professors” in CSUDH’s Music Department, where music students benefit from an intimate program with one-on-one instruction, and a variety of readily-available practice rooms and musical gear, according to Saffari.
“The most important thing to do is find that one professor who you really connect with. It’s the combination of the learning process and getting along with him or her as a person that really helps you excel. You really need to like each other because it’s a four-year relationship,” he said. “I came here to study jazz guitar with CSUDH lecturers Julian Coryell and Matthew Greif. I was already familiar with both Julian’s and Matt’s work as professional guitarists as well as educators. Over the past two years we have met every week, which is wonderful.”
Along with his studies, Saffari is currently in the planning stages of putting together a jazz ensemble with another CSUDH student and an alumnus.
“The group focuses on jazz and improvisation music. Our interest expands from American Jazz, to Brazilian, and to Latin music, which is where my background in Flamenco comes in handy,” said Saffari, who hopes to earn bachelor’s degree from CSUDH in fall 2016. “I am also writing some original music for this group, which I’m hoping to dedicate more time to after graduation.”