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How an Iranian musician took ancient Persian poetry to the top of the U.S. charts

By Gena Somra, for CNN
updated 9:49 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Iranian musician Hafez Nazeri creates music that crosses cultures
  • Latest album has contributions from 38 Grammy Award winners
  • Album draws on ancient Persian poetry by Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi
  • 'I want to create a revolution with love,' says Nazeri

(CNN) -- Arriving in New York City at the age of 19 to study music, Hafez Nazeri knew he wanted to do big things.

Now, little more than a decade later, the young Iranian classical composer is riding high with a chart-topping album featuring 38 Grammy Award-winning musicians.

"I left Iran with the hope of maybe one day creating music that can connect with the entire world, music that can show another dimension of my culture, and my history," Nazeri says. "I came to New York with the hopes of integrating two cultures, and creating a new product that is no longer Eastern or Western."

It appears he is well on his way to accomplishing that goal.

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Nazeri's debut album, "Untold: The Rumi Symphony Project," hit number one twice on Billboard's Classical chart-- a first for an Iranian musician.

"To be number one, this means the world is now listening," Nazeri says. "It is an amazing honor for me, but I feel like it's not about me alone. The success is for Iran, not for me."

Growing up in Iran, Nazeri says he was fortunate enough to be part of a family with strong musical roots.

"I had the opportunity to grow up in a house which was sort of the center for all the great musicians, poets and philosophers, and musical instruments were my toys," he says.

Nazeri's father Shahram Nazeri, who also performs on the album with his son, is one of Iran's most beloved and famous classical singers, and Nazeri says, one of his greatest teachers.

"My father, the tone of his voice, the style of his singing is unique. He broke a lot of Persian classical singing rules and he created his own style by incorporating Rumi's poetry in Persian classical music for the first time 40 years ago."

Rumi, is Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi, the 13th century Sufi mystic, poet and philosopher, whose works have been translated into many of the world's languages and whose influence has transcended ethnic and geographical boundaries. Much of Rumi's poetry focuses on love -- more specifically love for the Divine.

And for Nazeri, like his father before him, that love finds a perfect home in musical expression.

"I think music is the sound of God, the sound of the universe for me. Music also has the power to go inside the heart. If you really hear music," says Nazeri. "No matter what it is, if it touches you, you will love it, no matter what background you are from, or what religion you practice."

"One of my ultimate goals," he says, " is to make sure that one day Rumi is as popular as Shakespeare."

And his album is merely the beginning, Nazeri says.

Following in his father's footsteps, he brings not only the essence of Persian culture -- but also Rumi's message to an even wider audience than ever before.

"I want to create a revolution with music," the young musician says, "with love rather than hate, or chaos and bloodshed."

"There is another more powerful force in this universe," he continues, "and that force is love, and it's music. And I would love for that message to be the sound of us in this modern time."

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