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Afghan Master Musicians to Perform in Cambridge


A rubab (Marcus Yam photo)

Bostonians are about to have a rare chance to hear traditional Afghan music performed by some of its most-skilled masters. They will be gathering to perform along with Afghan musicians who were schooled in western classical music in Kabul but who now live in exile in the U.S. Billed as a Concert in Solidarity with Afghan Musicians, it takes place on March 20th at 7:00 PM at the First Church, 11 Garden Street, Cambridge. Produced in association with the Longy School of Music, the concert is happening on the Persian New Year, Nawroz, which is widely celebrated in Afghanistan. The participating musicians aim to direct attention to “the Taliban’s inhumane ban on music and persecution of Afghan musicians.”

The concert has been organized by Arson Fahim, who though only 22, has already had successes as a pianist, composer and conductor. Two weeks before the Taliban took over Kabul in August 2021, Arson left his home there to start studies at the Longy School of Music. It was an unexpected destination for someone born in a refugee camp in Pakistan, and who had not started playing piano until he was 12. Arson tells how a few months after returning to Kabul, he was at a children’s learning center. “From behind a closed door came this wonderful sound. Someone was playing a beautiful piece of music on the piano,” he remembers. “I knew I should not go in uninvited, but couldn’t help myself.” The teacher was giving a lesson, but he let Arson walk up to the piano.

I gently touched it and pressed every single key, for the first time in my life. From that moment, I knew I had to learn piano. I had to become a musician.

He says he took his first piano lesson that day.

Over his last seven years in Kabul, his life was completely entwined with the Afghanistan National Institute of Music (ANIM), which drew several of its faculty from among working musicians based in Boston. They guided him in his piano studies, especially in performing Chopin whose music held a special place for him. And when there was no one to conduct the school’s orchestra, they taught him how to do that.  Though he was too young to have come to Boston when the AMIN orchestra played two well-remembered concerts at the New England Conservatory in February 2013, he hung on the stories his schoolmates told them of what it was like to perform here and at the Kennedy Center and Carnegie Hall. Other trips took the orchestra to Sydney and Davos.

Arson was determined to be part of that, especially after ANIM’s founder, Ahmad Naser Sarmast, was injured and lost much of his hearing in a suicide bomb attack in 2014 when the orchestra was playing on a program being held to denounce suicide bombings. Arson could see firsthand the bitter irony of how the power of music could lead to tragedy. He was determined to use it for healing. A year later when a young woman name Farkunda Malikzada drew international headlines when she was attacked and murdered by a mob of men outside a mosque, he felt compelled to compose. What emerged was haunting piano solo imbued with the tonalities and rhythms of traditional Afghan music. A raft of other compositions have followed.

He’d planned his travels to the U.S. to study at Longy long before the Taliban takeover two weeks after he left Kabul. Since then he has been deeply worried about his parents and sister who remain there. He is also concerned about the future of music there now that the Taliban have banned it. “When they find musical instruments, they break them and burn them. My musician friends have hidden their instruments far away from their homes so that when the Taliban conduct raids, they find nothing. It is heart-breaking to see that in the 21st Century, we have to hide something as beautiful as music.”

His dream, he says, is to return to a post-Taliban Afghanistan and start a music school in the high mountain valley of Bamyan that was once graced by two monumental statues of the Buddha carved into a cliffside.

I see such a powerful message in having a music school in a place where they destroyed culture and art. Afghan musicians around the world are going to do this. We’re not going to give up.

Fahim had some interesting things to say to Lee Eiseman and Steve Landrigan in a recent interview.

Arson Fahim (Adriana Arguijo photo)

A.F. I wrote Broken Mountain right after the Taliban came to power and the government fell, and that was about two weeks after I had arrived here and started my studies at Longy. It was a very weird time. On one hand, I missed home and my friends and worried about them, but on the other hand, just having started this new journey where I got to meet new people, and have new experiences, it excited me about the future.

I was feeling this mix of grief for my country, and though being excited, at the same time I felt guilty about being excited. Of course I wanted to deal with all these emotions was by making music. Overnight, the Talban had pretty much banned music and the world saw pictures of them destroying instruments and videos of them basically just torturing musicians in public, just to make other people terrified of playing music or listening to music.

So I decided to put on a concert. I didn’t know a lot of people here then, but more than 70 people volunteered. Because of COVID we had to do the concert online but it went well. We did arrangements of Afghan songs and I wrote a piece, Broken Mountains, for that concert. I decided to do it again this year. And this time I wanted to invite some more Afghan traditional musicians and composers and to revise Broken Mountains for full orchestra. Which is exactly what I did. So, this time we have a rubab player, one of the best in the world.

We have an Afghan young female cellist and composer Meena Karimi who will be joining us. She is playing one of her pieces called Dawn. We are also playing a medley of Afghan song, by another Afghan who arranged it for the ensemble called Qambar Nawshad. He’s currently the conductor for the Afghan National Symphony Orchestra, which evacuated to Portugal. Another piece is by Milad Yousufi, a graduate of Mannes Conservatory in New York who is a composer, pianist composer artist and calligrapher. We’re also being joined by Negin Khpalwak, the first ever female conductor of Afghanistan, and kind of a symbol of woman’s rights in the country. And Qais Essar, one of the world’s leading players of the rubab, the national instrument of Afghanistan.  So a lot of very inspiring people coming together for this event. And again, we’ll also play Broken Mountain since it’s so appropriate for this occasion and still describes exactly how I felt.

Even the title is about Afghanistan. This place has so much history and cultural and artistic heritage. And these beautiful “mountains” are being f taken away, being broken

It conveys more than anything what I was going through, a mixture of grief and sadness and pain and worry, but it also describes my just anger for what happened in my country—both what the U.S. did in my country after all their huge promises. In the end the U.S. betrayed the country, and let it die.

I don’t try to send specific messages through the notes. You can only discover these exact meanings only if you read the program notes, or if you hear me talk about it. There are no words in the score, though a soprano sings syllables. I hope my emotions come through the melodies

For me, one of the most important things that the Taliban took away was a woman’s rights, especially since I have a 13-year-old sister whom I love so much.

And I wanted to be able to express how I feel about the Taliban, not allowing women and girls to study and work. That’s one reason I wrote a part for a soprano soloist. Her high notes came across like the screams of frustration, of the woman of Afghanistan who have had to go through so much over the last 100 years, and throughout basically our history especially more recently in the last 40 years.

Is having men and women perform together a radical thing?

In the past 20 years, we were starting to have this. We had our orchestra and woman playing at all was a very symbolic thing. Playing together was starting to become more and more common. But now today, of course, there is no music at all, let alone music being played by men and women together.

Tell us about the players in your expanded version of Broken Mountain and the concert generally.

It’s mostly volunteers from Longy but also from other music schools around Boston, and even we have some people coming from other states, but it’s all volunteers. Even the Afghan musicians are volunteering to play this. I’m playing the piano for my own piece.

Cayenna Ponchione Bailey (Oliver Oppitz photo)

The conductor is Dr. Cayenna Ponchione-Bailey. She’s an American who’s been in the UK for some time. She’s been researching Afghan music a lot and she’s been to Afghanistan, she helped organize a tour of Zohra, the Afghan Woman’s Orchestra, to the UK.

Last summer, I collaborated with her on organizing a concert with the Oxford Philharmonic where we commissioned eight Afghan composers including myself to write new pieces for orchestra and Afghan instruments. This is the first time a group of Afghan composers have been commissioned. So, she’ll be coming from the UK to conduct the concert.

Are there Afghani traditional tunes in what you’re writing ?

Definitely. Yes. Some of them are arrangements of Afghan songs and our rubab player will be playing a couple of pieces of Afghan traditional songs. But also in the pieces that are compositions by Afghan composers we are all inspired by our music, our heritage.

In my piece I use scales that are more common in Afghan music and kinds of rhythms that are more common in Afghan music.

What is the origin of these scales and rhythms?

A king in India, sent it to the King of Afghanistan as a gift. Back then it wasn’t even Afghanistan, it was just Persia. But A lot of Afghan music we use Saragam, which is the Hindustani, classical way of notating. The music is based more on ragas and ghazals than any Western kind of notation.

So it’s inspired by that, but over the centuries, it has definitely developed its own voice. Over the past few decades there have also been a lot of influences from western pop music, such as electric keyboards. Western classical music was never really that developed in Afghanistan. Our school got into it, but we never had a real symphony orchestra which could play Mahler or those kind of pieces through more just playing arrangements of songs that are simplified for the ensemble.

Just in the past 10 years did we really start studying notation and Western Classical music, and then the school shut down before we could really build expertise. Most of the faculty were from European countries or from America, with quite a few from Boston, including a lot of graduates from NEC. So Bob Jordan and Derek Beckvold are two people who were teaching in Afghanistan they were among my teachers. And they helped me come to the come to the US.

They connected me with my remarkable host Mark, Churchill, and they’ll be doing a free improv based on Afghan melodies in the concert.

Do you think that the Taliban’s prohibition against music is one extreme of a pendulum that is going to swing back to normalcy?

I definitely think so because the Taliban took power once before in the late 90s and they tried to do the same then. You could get your hands cut off for just owning a cassette; they would still break instruments and kill musicians, but as soon as they lost power, music resumed.

It’s extremely important for us to preserve our traditional music, but I think it’s also important that for those of us who want to be able to play the piano or to play Beethoven or to write in the style of western classical music to have the expertise and knowledge and the access.

And we have traditional dances that are so important to our culture. In the past 20 years every day, when I sat in the car, people would be listening to music on the radio, and we had music shows on the TV.

Qais Essar, rubab player

The rubab generates so much musical energy and people can be almost hypnotized by it.

For Afghans for me and a lot of my musician friends, and even non-musician friends, it’s more about it being a symbol of our music. It’s just so distinctly Afghan.

It’s very common in Afghan music and it’s usually monophonic music. Musicians would make a melody just as beautiful as they could, and when they are more many musicians playing the same thing together, they’re not necessarily harmonizing it, but they’re all embellishing it different ways too.

I gather that next Monday’s Longy concert is free, but you are encouraging people to contribute to certain organizations directly rather than through this event itself.

The concert more than anything is about raising awareness. Because sadly, so many people even musicians here in the U.S. don’t know about what’s what these musicians are facing, and we want more people to know about this to speak up about this for musicians. I’m hoping that they can just say something on their social media or they can play a piece of music and before playing it, say, a few words about the musicians of Afghanistan and just raise awareness about this.

And as the title of the concert suggests the concert in solidarity with African musicians. It’s about sending a message to the musicians within Afghanistan. “Your art is really valuable and people around the world, still care about the art, that you make the music that you make.”

Before you came to Longy you’d had never had composition lessons.

I would just improvise on the piano and I did some arrangements, but I never had a composition lesson. I was just self-taught basically. And I think that’s a rather actually an advantage for me because I was never taught to conform to a certain style. I just had to explore until I found something that worked for me. But finally, being able to have a lesson with my composition teacher was Alexandra, du Bois, and she’s incredible, and she really inspired me and just, I think more than anything she gave me the courage to switch from my piano major and focus on composition full time. Before then I’s had no idea that that this is something you can do for a career.

Longy also exposed me to what music in general can do for communities and for social change. For example, we don’t study Western traditional classical theory in our classes. We look at music from around the world. However, that’s in the Hindustani music or gamalan music or West African music. We try to find all the beauties and all the things that make musics from around the world.

I always loved Afghan music, it was always right there, I never really thought about it. So looking at it through different kind of lens, almost made me appreciated more than I used to when it was always right there.

I’m just extremely lucky. I was born in Pakistan and I grew up listening to Urdu music, and with my family at home, we would listen to Afghan music. We had teachers from India, so I would listen Hindustani ragas. But during all this time, I also had access to internet, so I always listened to jazz and pop, but of course I love classical music. That’s what I was studying. So I had so many influences that as a composer make my voice.

Today it’s not about writing in the style of Mozart. It’s about having your own unique voice. And I think considering the places where I’ve lived. the languages, I’ve spoken and the people I’ve known, I’ve developed a unique voice without me reading having to search for it that much. A lot of composers are not so fortunate.

And of course, I was lucky in the way that I had access to education, not all Afghans, have that. We only had one music school in the country that had about 200 or 300 students and I was one of them so out of millions. I was incredibly luck and fortunate not having to go work on the streets to make money to have dinner, I was able to focus on studies.

I was fortunate, yes. But what being fortunate means is in the U.S. is very different than what that term would mean in Afghanistan. If there’s a bomb blast and you don’t die, you’re very fortunate because pretty much every day a few people die in blasts. Every Afghan has been very close to it at least a few times in their lives. For us, if a bomb, goes off at a spot where we were 5 minutes ago, we think, “Oh cool. I am very fortunate. I got to survive.” So many Afghans are in the survival mode and we don’t have the luxury of thinking about trauma

This concert is a way of dealing with that. More than anything, the reason I wanted to do it was because I was feeling guilty and depressed. The only place where I could put my emotions and energy without feeling bad about it, was this concert.

For a lot of Afghans, we deal with trouble and anxiety by laughing at it.

Sort of like Jews who have been laughing at their misfortunes for thousands of years? Any volunteers for an article on the Pashtun-Jewish connection? A Rabbi and an Iman met in a bar…

Stephen Landrigan is a former print journalist and concert presenter.

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