The musical heritage of Afghanistan finds new voices with the help of an ambitious global social development initiative.
Instrument of change
One of the largest Afghan populations outside Afghanistan is located in Fremont, California. "If you visit Fremont, you would never think that you were in America," says Fairouz Nishanova, the director of the Aga Khan Music Initiative. "It's a Pashtun environment, and its language, clothing, architecture, everything, has been imported from Kabul." It shouldn't be too surprising, then, to hear that it is also the home of one of the leading exponents of the rubab, a variety of fretted lute that sits at the heart of Afghan folk and classical traditions.
"It's performed in all of the village ceremonies and it's also been instrumental in developing that Afghan raga tradition," Nishanova explains. "And Homayun Sakhi happens to be one of the best performers of his generation because he not only mastered the rubab; he also adapted to new styles of playing and he also composes for the rubab, which is something that hasn't happened for a while." Sakhi, who will be performing at the Manarat al Saadiyat in Abu Dhabi on Thursday courtesy of the Tourism Development and Investment Company, fled Afghanistan during the civil war. "I decided to live in California because the Afghan population was high and I wanted to introduce my music more efficiently," he tells me via email, translated by his brother. "As a musician I am very proud to bring that beautiful and sacred tradition here and expose it not only to Afghans but everyone in Fremont."
Sakhi is descended from a musical family stretching back to the 1860s, when the ruler of Kabul, Amir Sher Ali Khan, imported court musicians from India. Afghan music is closely related to north Indian traditions, hence the centrality of the raga form. But the rubab, much more definite in sound than the sitar and twangier than the oud, gives it a distinctively Central-Asian accent. It also, by its very versatility, ties the raga to other facets of Afghan music. "The musical character of the rubab is that you can play classical, folk, sufi, and fusion," Sakhi explains. Accordingly, "It is especially important for Afghan music and culture."
That Afghan culture is now producing green shoots in the shape of Sakhi and musicians like him must be a source of satisfaction to Nishanova, who describes herself as ethnically Central-Asian though she was born in Sri Lanka, raised in the Middle East, educated in England "and I live on the plane". The Aga Khan Music Initiative is part of the Aga Khan Development Network (ADKN), which invests in development projects around the world. The network operates under the aegis of the Aga Khan IV, imam of the Shia Imami Ismailis, and usually provides support at several levels simultaneously. "We never favour social development projects only or economic development projects only," says Nishanova. "When we make a commitment to the region, we come as a package, with equal importance given to social, economic and cultural projects."
In the late-1990s the AKDN moved into some of the Central Asian countries - Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan - thatwere emerging from Soviet or Taliban rule. At the time, says Nishinova, they were "struggling with new-found independence". Indeed that independence "was pretty much the only thing they had". The AKDN's priorities, as far as economic and social development went were obvious. "They had to work on the financial code and the civil code and the constitutions and so on and so forth," says Nishinova. "Obviously areas such as education, healthcare and microfinance needed immediate attention and we were very well-equipped to provide them."
But the AKDN's standard repertoire of cultural interventions - the Aga Khan Award for Architecture, for instance, or the Historic Cities Support programme - lacked obvious relevance. "The usual monuments that we tend to restore and then prepare for reuse were either destroyed or rebuilt in a way that had very little historical connection to their original sites, so there was nothing we could do," says Nishinova.
It so happens that at around this time, in the early years of the millennium, the AKDN became involved with the Chinese-American pianist Yo-Yo Ma. "He was looking towards new inspiration and towards his own roots and he was looking towards the Great Silk Road," says Nishinova. "If he could easily get his hands on composers and musicians from China or India or Iran, the very heart of the historic silk route, Central Asia, was much more difficult to access."
One reason for this was that the traditional systems of musical apprenticeship had withered during the preceding decades, through neglect and deprivation if not direct state interference. "One of the building bricks of the foundation of the Central-Asian national identity, the traditional music heritage, was the one that suffered most throughout the years of enforced Sovietisation or Taliban rule," says Nishanova. The prestige of traditional artists and musicians had fallen as government bureaux promoted Soviet culture. The cultural losses brought about by this were significant. "In the regions that we present," says Nishinova, "music was never an entertainment. It was always part of the transmission of history and local beliefs and the self-identification and self-validation." But in this vacuum, the AKDN found a niche.
"Our first mission in the region was extremely simple, really," says Nishinova. "We had to find the masters who still had the knowledge and ability to teach, and give them very simple administrative and financial tools to pass on their knowledge of that craft." From one school in Afghanistan at the start of the decade, the music initiative expanded to cater to around 9,000 students across the region. "It now has all the bearings of a complete talent support system," says Nishinova. TheAKDN now operates as a talent-spotter, educator, agent and record label, releasing a string of well-received CDs and DVDs to promote their artists. "It's the cultivation of new audiences. It's development of new tools to present this kind of music," Nishinova says.
For example, concert spaces need to be adapted to suit the demands of performance styles that they were never intended to house. "The traditional shamanic music from Kyrgyzstan or Afghan rubab was never presented on the stage of Carnegie Hall until we did so," says Nishinova. "If we could not transform the stage into a yurt or an oasis or a courtyard, we used very large electronic projections or screens to transform that stage into a much more appropriate area."
That sort of flexible, hybrid approach, whereby the resources of modernity are enlisted to support traditional forms, is part of the music initiative's approach. "There is a belief that we subscribe to that the tradition is only relevant and alive as long as each generation reinvents it," says Nishinova. "We're encouraging dialogues and creative exchanges and collaborations between artists throughout Central Asia and the Middle East and North Africa and the Near East, and it's quite amazing what wonderful creations come out of that."
The Art of the Afghan Rubab show that is coming to Abu Dhabi is a case in point. Sakhi is Afghan, playing the distinctively Afghan forms of north Indian music. He is accompanied by Salar Nader, a German-born Afghan who plays tabla, a traditionally Indian drum. And Abbas Kosimov, an Uzbek, plays the Uzbek frame drum known as the doyra. The process might be likened to horticultural grafting, where a cutting from one tree is grown on the branch of another, producing novel fruit. The artists that the AKDN works with are scattered all over the world. It isn't just that the most impressive rubab-player was to be found in California. When the music initiative was setting up its first music schools in Kabul, it found that the best place to buy Afghan musical instruments was in London.
So many aspect of the process of regeneration involve these strange reversals. Half of the musicians with whom Nishinova has worked "were educated in the western tradition of reading musical scores," she says. "While the other half only knows the traditional master-apprentice training. And somehow, you put them in the same room together and that historical language that they used to share somehow comes back and allows them to develop something new, based on the tradition and with respect towards the tradition and at the same time completely innovative and relevant to the generation of these artists."
Perhaps that inter-cultural aspect of the programme is its greatest strength. As Sakhi notes: "This foundation has really helped, not only me, but everyone around the world to come together and understand and learn each other's strong and rich background."