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Sunday, December 21, 2014

Voices of Afghanistan

Voices of Afghanistan

Ustad Farida Mahwash, vocals
Homayoun Sakhi, rubâb, vocals, musical director
Abbos Kosimov, doyra (frame drum)
Khalil Ragheb, harmonium
Pervez Sakhi, tula (flute)
Ezmarrai Aref, tabla

Voices of Afghanistan is a traditional Afghan musical ensemble showcasing some of the finest musicians from Central Asia and Afghanistan. Legendary Afghan songstress Ustad Farida Mahwash is accompanied by rubâb master Homayoun Sakhi and The Sakhi Ensemble, which specializes both in the rich traditions of Afghanistan and its neighboring lands, and in bold contemporary works. Homayoun Sakhi, the group’s musical director, has devoted his life to studying the rich music of his region, and has also emerged as one of its greatest living composers. A performance by Voices of Afghanistan is a journey through time and space, reprising the glories of the Afghan past, and reaching all the way to its increasingly global contemporary life and expression.

Sawol-jawab—the interplay of questions and answers—is the foundation upon which much of Afghan music rests. With implications beyond the stage, this interplay posits that only the most thoughtfully constructed questions can elicit meaningful answers. Mahwash and the musicians of The Sakhi Ensemble test this belief in every performance. For their inaugural tour in fall 2012, artistic director Homayoun Sakhi has created an acoustically rich crossroad in which the musicians explore the interconnectedness of the seeker and sought, sacred and secular, traditional and contemporary. Afghanistan is a regional hub of cultural and social activity and is home to a vast array of musical genres. Principle among these is the ghazal, a traditional of folk songs with traditional melodies that speak to the human need for love, grace and transcendence.

Long considered “the voice of Afghanistan” and the first woman to be granted the honorific title of Ustad (Maestra), Farida Mahwash is celebrated around the globe for her ghazal repertoire. Mahwash’s story is one of unyielding perseverance as witnessed by the great personal risk she encountered by performing in public during the early years of Taliban rule. After decades of political turmoil, she was forced to leave Afghanistan in 1991. She moved to Pakistan where she took refuge from the two warring sides of the time,
each of which warned her to sing for their cause or else face assassination. Her plight was recognized by United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and she was granted political asylum in the United States in 1992.

Mahwash was born into a conservative Afghan family. Her mother was a Quran teacher and religion loomed large throughout her upbringing. For many years, her interest in music was suppressed. Upon completing her studies, Farida accepted a position in the Kabul Radio Station. There, she was discovered by the station’s director who encouraged her to pursue singing as a career. Her robust and mellifluous voice and her command of the subtle art of ornamentation has gong on to dazzle audiences worldwide, as she shares her country’s rich musical heritage through performances and recordings.

Homayoun Sakhi was born in Kabul in 1976 into one of Afghanistan’s leading musical families. From the age of ten, he studied rubâb—the lute-like national instrument of Afghanistan—with his father, Ghulam Sakhi. They worked in the traditional form of apprenticeship known as ustâd-shâgird (Persian for “master-apprentice”). Sakhi’s artistry demonstrates how an imaginative musician working within a traditional musical idiom can enrich and expand its expressive power while respecting what had been passed down from master musicians of the past. Sakhi’s personal story illustrates the extraordinarily challenging conditions under which he and his fellow Afghan musicians have pursued their art. During Afghanistan’s many years of armed conflict,
when music was controlled, censored, and finally, banned altogether, the classical rubâb style to which Sakhi had devoted his career not only survived but reached new creative heights. He was granted residency in the United States, and settled in Fremont, California, bringing with him the sophisticated and original rubâb style that he had developed. Fremont, a city of some 200,000 that lies southeast of San Francisco, claims the largest concentration of Afghans in the United States. There, Sakhi established himself as a leader of the local musical community, and received National and International acclaim for both his work as a performer, teacher and composer. From his base in Freemont, Sakha has sought out the finest available artists from Central Asia to accompany him in The Sakhi Ensemble (see below). Also, as a composer, he has created works for Kronos Quartet, Hannibal Lokumbe and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. And he has collaborated with celebrated musicians from around the globe, most recently Ustad Farida Mahwash. Sakhi is now creating some of his most passionate compositions to date for and Mahwash and Voices of Afghanistan.

Together these remarkable Afghan artists bring together and perform a blend of ghazals, Afghan folk songs imbued with Sufi mysticism, and ever evolving new takes on Afghanistan’s musical legacy. Through their spellbinding performances, they purvey hope for a new era of freedom and joy yet to come in their beloved homeland.

The Sakhi Ensemble
In addition to Ustad Farida Mahwash and Homayoun Sakhi, the ensemble includes:

Abbos Kosimov of Uzbekistan is considered one the most entertaining and explosive players of the Central Asian frame drum called doyra. Uzbekistan and Afghanistan share a great deal of history and culture, including the doyra. Kosimov grew up in a family of musicians in Uzbekistan. He began studying doyra at age ten with Tochi Nogamo. He mastered the basics quickly, and then began to branch out on his own, leading him in unexpected directions. “I practiced a lot,” Kosimov recalled, “six or seven hours a day. I listened to jazz, drum set players, conga players, djembe players, tabla, and I mixed it all together and put it on doyra.”
The doyra is a roughly 2000-year-old instrument, originally played by women and used as an accompaniment to singing. Around 1950, men began to play doyra. The instrument became smaller, and the style and repertoire began to develop in new ways. But no prior player has come close to Kosimov’s innovations. Inspired by North Indian tabla players, Kosimov worked on his finger tapping technique, perfecting soft and hard strokes, and developing personalized rolls and slaps. He mastered rhythms in different time signatures—7/8 and 11/8 in addition to the usual 6/8. In 2008, Kosimov was asked to be a guest performer on one of Ustad Zakir Hussain’s Masters of Percussion tours in the. Homayoun Sakhi met Kosimov around this time. Kosimov’s facility with Afghan and Uzbek traditions, as well as North Indian classical music greatly impressed Sakhi. The two masters quickly formed a musical and personal connection and have performed together ever since.

Khalil Ragheb was born in Kabul, Afghanistan. He started playing music when he was nine years old and, when he was 16 years old, began making guest appearances in an Amateur musical group. Soon, he was asked to perform with one of the leading Afghan orchestras for Radio Afghanistan, backing one of the country’s leading vocalists Ahmad Zaher. As Ragheb matured he also began singing, garnering the attention of educators throughout the region with his riveting performances. He was awarded scholarships to study first in Iran, and then Germany. Upon earning residence in the United States, Ragheb moved to Freemont in northern
California—an area known to many as Little Kabul. There, Ustad Farida Mahwash invited him to work with her, and he joined The Sakhi Ensemble on harmonium. At the same time, Ragheb established and began hosting a new TV show “Sound and Image of Afghanistan,” which continues today.

Perviz Sakhi, Homayoun’s brother, plays the tula, an end blown flute played by shepherds in Afghanistan for hundreds of years. Perviz was Born in Kabul in 1983 and, like his brother, he apprenticed with their maestro father Ustad Ghulam Sakhi. He came to specialize in the six-holed tula flute, which he loved for its “soft, calm and sweet sound.” Many of the most famous tula songs are love songs, typically inspired by the wandering life of the shepherd, who is so often separated from his beloved.

Ezmarrai Aref was born in Kabul, Afghanistan and began studying Afghan percussion from an early age, working with a number of masters over the years. He plays the tabla drum, best known for its use in north Indian classical (Hindustani) music, but also a mainstay in a variety of Afghan traditions. Since moving to the United States’s Little Kabul (Fremont, California), Aref has performed with numerous groups, including Ustad Farida Mahwash, The Sakhi Ensemble and, now, Voices of Afghanistan.

Praise for Voices of Afghanistan in the press:

“The passionate mixing of sensual and sacred was uncontainable…these gifted artists left us cheering for the art that endures devastation.” 
Opera News/SF Magazine

Ustad Farida Mahwash’s “beautifully expressive voice retains remarkable range, flexibility, and soul-searing intensity. And her spirit continues to soar”
The New York Times

“Fiercely virtuosic”
San Francisco Chronicle (of Homayoun Sakhi)

“The passionate mixing of sensual and sacred was uncontainable…these gifted artists left us cheering for the art that endures devastation.” 
Opera News/SF Magazine