Victoria writer Esi Edugyan has made quite a splash—including multiple book-prize nominations—for her novel Half-Blood Blues, about black jazz musicians living under Nazi terror at the start of the Second World War. Though based on historical fact, her book is fiction. Afghan performer Homayun Sakhi, though, has lived through some remarkably similar episodes, and not too long ago. Under the fundamentalist zealots of the Taliban, the reigning master of the guitarlike rubâb’s public appearances were banned, and his life was definitely at risk. Eventually, like the jazz musicians in Edugyan’s book, he had to make a dangerous nighttime border crossing, his instrument concealed in the trunk of a car, to reach safety—first in the Pakistani city of Peshawar, and more recently in California.
Remarkably, he’s not bitter about his troubles.
Speaking through an interpreter from his Bay Area home, Sakhi contends that his exile has been “the most positive choice I’ve made”, in that it’s helped him grow as an artist, through connections he never would have made had he remained at home in Kabul. And for proof of that, we need only look at the concerts he’s giving this month, which find him in the company of both his own trio, with percussionists Salar Nader and Abbos Kosimov, and the esteemed avant-garde string quartet Kronos. Unusually, both bands will play separate sets, and then all seven musicians will come together to play Sakhi’s Rangin Kaman, a half-hour-long composition that combines European chamber music, Afghan modes, and a good dash of spirited improvisation.
According to Kronos violinist David Harrington, the collaboration came about through a happy accident, but is blossoming into something more.
“It came about because I’d heard his release on the Smithsonian label [Music of Central Asia, Vol. 3],” he reveals, in a separate, early-morning interview from Adelaide, Australia. “And in the notes on that album it mentioned that Homayun lived in Fremont, California, which is just across the Bay from San Francisco, where we live. So all of a sudden I realized, ‘Wow, we’ve got a Ravi Shankar–like figure living within 30 miles of us.’ So we had a meeting and we decided that there should be a piece that we could do together.”
It’s been a learning experience for all participants. Afghan music is usually taught as an oral tradition, but Sakhi had to find a way to get his musical ideas onto paper for the sight-readers in Kronos. (He ended up composing on the rubâb and on an electronic keyboard, then having one of Kronos’s accomplices, pianist Stephen Prutsman, write out the notes.) And once the piece had taken shape, the string players needed to learn how to speak Pashto, as it were, by mastering the subtle inflections that give Afghan music its considerable emotional heft.
“They practised for about eight to 10 days, and I basically had to introduce or bring that flavour into their hands to make sure that the strong flavour is in there while they’re playing,” Sakhi recalls.
“I think the sense of the music and the rhythmic feel is something that is very challenging,” Harrington contends. “Finding the colours that seem right is something that we spent a lot of time on—and continue to, actually. It’s kind of interesting: when you record something, it’s a snapshot of a certain moment, but that doesn’t mean the piece doesn’t keep growing and developing beyond that.”
As one might expect, given Afghanistan’s recent history, Rangin Kaman opens with a rather dark-sounding theme. By the time the piece comes to an end, however, the mood is celebratory. Sakhi doesn’t think his composition is an explicit metaphor for his country’s possible future, although he does reveal that its title means “Rainbow”—and as we all know, rainbows usually appear after a storm.
“For us Afghans, rain is something good,” he explains. “After all the bad, once it rains it washes out the entire city, and it makes things fresh. And every time you view the rainbow, you have this great sense of happiness, and you feel a lot of joy.”
Harrington certainly seems inspired by the collaboration. He and his Kronos colleagues have assembled a strong program for their part of the concert, including an arrangement of Syrian wedding singer Omar Souleyman’s “I’ll Prevent the Hunter From Hunting You” and Montreal rising-star composer Nicole Lizée’s Death to Kosmiche. But it’s hearing Sakhi again that the violinist is really looking forward to.
“The level of virtuosity, and the speed with which Homayun plays sometimes, is just shocking,” he says. “And he does it with a smile on his face! The amount of work it’s taken for this virtuosity to become seemingly effortless is amazing—and, I mean, we’re aware of what it takes to do something like that. It’s incredible; really, really incredible.”
The Kronos Quartet and the Homayun Sakhi Trio play the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts on Saturday (November 5).