Community Profiles, Connect

Whispers of wonderful melodies: Community radio DJ Sohrab Mafi hopes to elevate human consciousness through music

November 30, 2020

Benjamin Bombard

The door to the former bank vault is slightly ajar. In the adjoining, low-ceilinged room, Sohrab Mafi stands below a pair of light-box pictures of bright blue skies partly clouded, struggling to explain irfan, a nuanced mystical concept. We’re in the basement home of his printing business in downtown Salt Lake City. It’s called Zion Printing, but not because the building was formerly a Zions Bank. Upstairs, dozens of printing machines sit quiet, while down here, a time-worn teddy bear rests alone on a nearby couch. Mafi is dressed in a creaseless black button-up shirt and spotless white slacks. He’s 59 years old, with silver hedgehog hair. As he speaks, his soft voice, with its pleasing Persian lilt, resonates the strings of a Chinese zither and the array of very large and very expensive chimes above it.

Mafi is neither a percussionist nor a zitherist. He is, in fact, not a musician at all. He’s a radio DJ, a player of other people’s songs. As a show host on KRCL for the past 30 years, he has performed an intricately arranged set of tracks designed, as he says, to create a spiritual environment conducive to altered states of personal experience. Behind the vault door lies Mafi’s own spiritual environment.

The vault has been converted into a shrine to music. A native of Iran and an ardent member of the Baháʼí Faith, Mafi has an all-consuming, almost religious passion for a mostly ambient, often trance-like, rhythm-driven genre of music commonly referred to as new-age. “I hate to call it that,” he says, “but….” The room is painted a ruby red that under most circumstances would feel assaulting, like blood flowing around an elevator’s doors, but somehow, inside the vault, the color is soothing.

The walls to either side of the door are lined, floor nearly to ceiling, with CDs. They’re loosely organized with red labels: Turkish/inf., Karunesh, Nat.Amer., S. Micus, Peruvian/Andes, Kitaro, and more. A pair of high-end studio monitors flank a cyclopic flat-screen TV on the wall opposite the door. Mafi takes his seat in the room’s central cortex, an audio production station comprising three computer screens, two turntables and six Denon CD players. As a strip of LED lights on the floor fluctuates through the spectrum, Mafi will spend four to six hours ensconced in this sanctuary, composing a three-hour set-list for Ethnosphere, his radio program that airs Sunday nights, 7p.m. till 10 p.m.,on KRCL 90.9fm.

At the moment, the studio is suffused with a flowing ambient soundscape composed by Robert Carty, a local electronic musician, and Mafi is demonstrating how he preps for a show by laying out a grid of CDs on the production station’s desktop. One of those CDs remains constant: Jon Anderson’s “Change We Must,” the title song of which headlines Ethnosphere every week.

Mafi wields music the way most people wield words. It’s his purest form of personal expression, the language he’s most comfortable speaking. So, when Jon Anderson boldly sings, “Change we must, to live again,” he’s singing what Mafi feels to be true and wants his listeners to understand. “It means that every moment until I die, I should be ready to accept new things and learn new things and change my point of view for the better.”

I ask him what happens when we die.

He responds, with a dash of delight in his voice, by way of a story. Several years ago, he was working the printing presses late one night. To pass the time, he started counting his blessings, giving thanks for a steady income, for meaningful work. And he wanted to send gratitude to his mother, who died of cancer in 2008.

“I wanted to do this action,” he says, putting his fingers to his lips to blow a kiss. “And in that instant, which seemed to last much longer than that, the motion changed, and you don’t need to send it out: She’s right here.” He says his fingers never left his lips, as if this world and the next were one and the same.

Life In and Out of Balance

Mafi has given a lot of thought to what lies on the other side of this life. Like most organized religions, Bahá’ísm is deeply concerned with the afterlife, and it teaches that, when you die, however you die, your soul can go to heaven—which is not a place, but a closeness to God—or to hell—where God is very far away. Mafi believes that a lot of “beautiful inspirations” come from the afterlife, where, he says, “wonderful melodies continue to play.” Throughout adulthood, he has suffered a series of major depressive episodes, and they’ve pushed him so close to the end of this life that he could hear whispers of those melodies.

When it first happened, he was in his mid-20s, and he turned to intensely emotional and moody Japanese shakuhachi and Indian bansuri flute music for the same reasons that somebody with more mainstream music tastes might have turned to “Everybody Hurts” by R.E.M. or Townes Van Zandt’s “Waiting Around to Die”: Sometimes when you’re down, you just want to listen to music that’ll keep you there.

Mafi has done a lot of personal work to understand what was going on inside himself at the time. He says it didn’t have anything to do with a chemical imbalance. It was his spirit that was out of whack. It craved to be expressed more fully, and that put his life off kilter. “Y’know,” he says, “like the Philip Glass album, “Koyaanisqtasi: Life Out of Balance.” Learning to bring life into balance is very important.”

Years later, Mafi had grown out his white beard, and his white hair was long and flowing. He was finally embracing his Baháʼí faith and Persian roots, and his outer look reflected his inner self. But when customers would enter his downtown Salt Lake City print shop and look around for the person running the show, they’d see a guy dressed more like a Middle Eastern guru—which he is not—than an American business owner—which he is—and look right past him. Honoring his inner self was costing him business. Again, he fell into a deep depression.

There’s a picture online of Mafi at this point in his life. It’s the image that, before meeting him in person, I had in mind for years when I heard him on the radio. In the photo, he looks, if not happy, at least content. Mafi, however, sees something different in that image. He sees a look of sadness. Once again, his life was out of balance. This time, he was forced to find equilibrium between his heart and how it was received by the world.

So, he cleaned up. Cut his hair. Shaved his beard. It’s hard not to find this a little sad, to not lament the fact that the world of men and money and power had bent another well-meaning and productive individual into a shape more to its liking. And although Mafi’s outer appearance may have changed, who he was inside had not. He remained deeply committed to his faith. He continued to quote Baháʼí scripture and ran his business according to a teaching passed down from the faith’s founder, Bahá’u’lláh, which is printed and displayed prominently at his shop: “Work performed in the spirit of service is a form of worship.”

Living the Principled Life

Mafi is by nature a meticulous person to the verge of a perfectionism that he seems to be constantly pulling himself back from. He still recalls a fingerprint left on the edge of a dinner plate by a waiter serving him at a restaurant 45 years ago. That kind of laser-focused attention serves him well as the owner of a lucrative printing business, where each dollar depends on many details, and he curates his radio show with the same fastidiousness. Every second of his three-hour slot is neatly accounted for. The music is timed in perfect rhythm with his noticeably infrequent interstitial dialogue. When he does speak on-air, he does not prattle on or posture or ham it up like a lot of DJs. His delivery is laconic and whisper-thin. Soothing. It’s the voice of a yoga teacher gently nudging you out of shavasana to tell you the artist and the name of that 15-minute song that nearly lulled you to sleep.

Mafi has euphemistically referred to his program as a showcase for “music that is non-threatening to the ear.” That’s not to say, however, that it is non-challenging or homogeneous. On his show, droney and effervescent atmospherics perfect for the reception room of a holistic spa can share a sonic canvas with haunting minor-key folk music, eclectic pop-rock, Japanese choral chants, classical minimalism, the soundtrack to Blade Runner, or a synth track by pioneering electronic musician Jean-Michel Jarre, one of Mafi’s favorite musicians and one that has followed him around the globe.

When he was 13 years old, Mafi, the youngest of four children, left his home and family in Tehran and, with his mother’s blessing, moved to India. He couldn’t wait to share his ardent belief in Baháʼí, its message of world peace and belief in ecumenical harmony, with the uninitiated. While Baháʼís don’t actively proselytize, they do believe in pioneering new territory untouched by the faith and attracting converts to a religion as young as Mormonism by virtue of their piety and uprightness.

But Mafi was just a boy. For the most part, he was alone, and music, he says, was his closest companion. He listened over and over again to the handful of tapes he’d packed from home: recordings by Giorgio “The Father of Disco” Moroder and Greek composer Vangelis, as well as Jarre’s groundbreaking early electronica album “Oxygène.”

He spent four years in India, and along the way he lost his beloved Jarre album. After moving to the U.S. in 1979 to stay with family in Dallas, he came to Utah on vacation and fell in love with the place. Salt Lake City reminded him of Tehran, of home.

He moved to Utah two years later  to study engineering at Utah State University. One day,  walking through the hallways of the Union Building, he heard music coming from the movie theatre. It was Jarre. It was the album he had lost.

Jarre’s album had been repurposed as the soundtrack to the film Gallipoli. And although he heard the music echoing through the hallways of the Union Building, he wasn’t interested in the film. All he wanted was the music.

A man of deep principles, Mafi has developed a series of tenets for how to listen to music, the golden rule of which is, Don’t label it. Don’t compromise your personal experience by over-familiarizing yourself with the artist, the album art, or even the name of a song. That explains why Mafi back-IDs the songs on his radio show so infrequently; why he posts his set lists on his Facebook page only after the show is over; why he’s never seen Chariots of Fire or Eyes Wide Shut or nearly any other film associated with the soundtracks he plays on his show, and he plays a lot of them; and why he’s never once mentioned on-air the erotically charged title of a particular album by the sitarist Al Gromer Khan.

Mafi’s worry about unduly influencing his and his listeners’ perceptions of the music may be a reaction to the common prejudices against new-age music as being fluffy, anodyne, culturally appropriative, faux-spiritual, and fancifully ornamental. In a word, woo. Vangelis himself once said that new-age music “gave the opportunity for untalented people to make very boring music.” If you want people to open their minds and ears to music tied down by such heavy cultural baggage, it makes sense to cut the strings.

Change We Must

Mafi has spent half his life in the printing business, and all that while, playing music has been a side gig. He’s ready to change that. It’s time once more to rebalance his life, to align his path in greater accord with his spirit. He’s done well for himself financially throughout the years, but without a wife and children with whom to share his prosperity, he wants to put it to use for the benefit of the wider public.

In the very near future, he plans to shutter his print shop and invest his time, money and efforts into a pair of free-to-the-listening-public online streaming radio stations. In place of commercials, Mafi says there will be snippets of wisdom cherry­picked from a variety of faith traditions.

One of the stations will be a 24-7-365 Ethnosphere channel. It would take a team of Sohrab Mafis to curate that much music with the same assiduity that he brings to his radio show week in and week out, so for the most part the music will be automated. Mafi will, however, DJ his station for a handful of hours a day, and he’ll share three hours of that programming for broadcast on KRCL in his regularly scheduled Sunday night slot.

The other station, called RadioIrfan, will feature exclusively Persian music. Irfan is the term Mafi had struggled to explain when we stood chatting in his basement as light shone from behind the door of his inner sanctum. In essence, irfan is gnosis: the true, spiritual, deep-in-the-core-or-your-inner-self experience and knowledge of the divine nature of human existence. It is knowing who and most importantly why you are.

The idea for the streaming radio stations sprung from benthal despair. In the benighted trench of his most recent depressive episode, Mafi thought very seriously about ending his life, and he wondered what he would find if he followed through with it. He consulted the Baháʼí teachings on suicide, and learned that the Ultimate Reality—what other religions refer to as God—would judge his soul mercifully. And he came to believe that there would be music. music on this side of the door to the afterlife, and music on the other side.

In the end, as he told me, he arrived at “a sense of maturity that came from of the depths of sorrow. I learned that, look, music is going to be there. If you want to live, live for something else. Don’t live for that.”

The streaming stations are Mafi’s way of living for something else while also living a life of his own. He can’t escape the fact that music is his life. It’s how he worships. In that way, the radio stations are Mafi’s way of worshipping through work in service to others, of inspiring, as he puts it, “altered states of personal experience” in people around the world and “changing their present moment through music.”

Benjamin Bombard is a writer, a public radio producer and a proponent of turbulent weather.