Raga concert explores ties between Indian and Afghan music

Boston Globe, March 9, 2012

NEW YORK – Music is rarely the subject of news from Afghanistan. War, terrorism, corruption, and other such topics have dominated the headlines. And if the Taliban – who outlawed all music save religious chants during their rule from 1996 to 2001 – had had their way, there wouldn’t be any Afghan music to speak of at all.

That background provides some context for the concert that joins Homayun Sakhi, a master of the rubab, an Afghan lute with over a thousand years of history, with Ken Zuckerman, a virtuoso of the Indian string instrument sarod, and Salar Nader, an Afghan-American tabla player, at Brandeis University Saturday night.

Sakhi fled Kabul with his family in 1992, when he was 14, and developed his craft living as a refugee in Peshawar, Pakistan, before settling in California. His journey reflects the experience of Afghan musicians who scattered around the world to escape war and repression.

Nader, a brilliant young percussionist who studied from an early age with the tabla master Zakir Hussain, was born in Germany, grew up in the United States, and only made his first visit to Kabul – meeting scores of relatives for the first time – in 2010.

As for Zuckerman, his presence on the program speaks to another facet of Afghan music history: its ties with India. From the mid-19th century to the 1970s, Kabul hosted a vibrant Indian classical music scene, based on the raga system but employing Afghan instruments and weaving in elements from Pashto and other folk styles.

Zuckerman – an American who lives in Switzerland, but who studied for 37 years under peerless sarod master Ali Akbar Khan – represents the purist North Indian tradition, while Sakhi embodies the Afghan variant.

And the pairing of sarod and rubab, related instruments with a shared basic structure but key differences that affect tone and playing possibilities, reveals a universe of contrasts and similarities.

“They’re kindred instruments, from a single source, yet expressing themselves in different ways,’’ said Dartmouth College music professor Theodore Levin, who first introduced Sakhi and Zuckerman and organized this collaboration with support from the Aga Khan Music Initiative.

The two had never shared a stage until last week, when they performed at the Asia Society in Manhattan. They began with solos that allowed each man to present his instrument and style. The sarod is fretless, which permits glissando effects and subtle colorings; its metal fingerboard lends it a sharper tone. The rubab is darker, huskier, and fretted, and Sakhi drew from it some dazzling rhythm patterns.

Then the two joined forces for a jugalbandi, the Indian term for a duet where the players develop a raga together, from its contemplative introduction to the fast rhythmic section that culminates in high-intensity call and response. They showed the intuition and chemistry that are crucial for Indian music, where the choice of raga establishes a reference scale and mood, but all the rest is improvisation.

“The main thing is chemistry,’’ Zuckerman said in an interview the next day. “It’s a question of needing to get to know each other, to find those places to interact, to get a feeling of that person’s rhythm, how they’re working and where you can fit in.’’

Sakhi was more pithy. “The instruments are like friends,’’ he said. “You’re talking about meeting new friends.’’

Nader, who accompanied throughout, offered an approving insider’s take. “I could play with big spaces so they could compose long ideas,’’ he said. “It sounded like songs coming together. When that happened, I noticed they started enjoying each other even more. It became even more interesting.’’

It helps that none of these musicians is locked into any one set of formalisms. All have collaborated across genres with jazz, Western classical, and other players. Sakhi, meanwhile, is as invested in innovating with his instrument as he is in preserving raga and folk traditions. He has found ways to expand the rubab’s range as well as pioneered new plucking techniques that allow faster and more inventive playing.

“He’s making it a much more accepted instrument for a 21st-century audience,’’ said Nader, who has worked with Sakhi since 2004. “Music is progressing so fast, an instrument like this should be known and not just for classical raga. It can integrate into other traditions easily because of all these possibilities.’’

Whether it’s adapting instruments for new settings or exploring and updating the ties between Afghan and Indian music, the work of these players exhibits a dynamism in Afghan music that contrasts with the silencing of Taliban days.

Sakhi started traveling back to Kabul in 2006; his father, also a rubab virtuoso, resettled there and is teaching new students. Nader said he plans to visit Kabul once a year, not just to perform but also to teach.

“Music-wise, it’s looking pretty hopeful,’’ Nader said. Some musicians, like other expats, have returned permanently. Music schools are popping up, and the blossoming of TV music shows has created demand for session musicians.

For Levin, a concert like Saturday’s at Brandeis – which caps a weeklong residency by the three musicians at the university – offers plenty of fascinating musical substance, but it also sends a vital message about a country and its arts on the rebound.

“We’re getting a much deeper view of the essence of Afghan culture than in all the news about the war,’’ Levin said. “We need to hear that, but at the same time we need to know about these enduring values of Afghan culture that are being represented so brilliantly.’’