A virtuoso brings Afghan music to life away from the Taliban

Homayoun Sakhi closes his eyes and strokes his rubab, a wooden string instrument inlaid with mother-of-pearl. “I feel like I have my Afghanistan in my hands,” says the musician who plays the music from abroad, considered a sin by the Taliban.

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Met by AFP in London, Homayoun Sakhi, one of the most renowned rubab players in the world, is suffering from the effects of jet lag after arriving from California. He came to perform at the Barbican Center for a support concert to raise funds for his native country.

Afghanistan is in the midst of a humanitarian crisis and its rich culture has also been threatened since the return to power last year of the Taliban, who had banned all secular music during their previous regime (1996-2001).

While the new Islamist government has yet to legislate on this, it still considers listening to non-religious music to be contrary to its vision of Islamic law.

Videos widely shared on social media showed the Taliban smashing and burning instruments. Musicians fled the country.

“Right now there is no music in Afghanistan,” says Mr. Sakhi. “It’s really hard because there are no concerts, no music, and (for musicians) it’s very hard to be without money and without a job. That’s why they try to go somewhere to play.”

“My house”

From 2001, under the Western-backed government, the media sector flourished in the country, and with it music production. So much so that “Afghan Star”, the local version of the “Pop Idol” talent contest, had become one of the most watched TV shows there.

But since the Western departure and the return to power of the Taliban last summer, Afghan music, traditional or pop, lives only through enthusiasts exiled abroad.

Among them, Homayoun Sakhi, who breathed new life into the rubab, a stringed musical instrument whose origin dates back thousands of years.

Born in Kabul, Homayoun Sakhi left Afghanistan with his family in 1992, fleeing the chaos that followed the Soviet withdrawal, to settle in Pakistan.

He then moved to Fremont, California, a city known for its large Afghan community, and established an academy teaching the practice of rubab.

“Every time I play, I’m at home, I feel like I’m in Afghanistan,” he says.

On Saturday, he took part in the concert called “Songs of Hope” at the Barbican, organized by Afghanistan International TV, a London-based channel created by the media company Volant, which also runs a Persian-language channel for the Iranians.

A documentary about this concert will be broadcast in March.

cultural heritage

During the first half, Mr. Sakhi performed classical Afghan pieces, followed by folk music.

He played alongside British virtuoso Shahbaz Hussain on tabla, a percussion instrument, and Iranian musician Adib Rostami on kamantcheh, a string instrument.

This concert, “it’s the only thing I could do as a musician”, explains Adib Rostami, organizer of the event and journalist for Volant.

For him, the current situation of musicians under the Taliban regime is “a throwback to the 1990s”. “Most musicians try to leave the country,” he laments.

In December, a group of students and teachers from a national music school in Kabul found refuge in Portugal.

Afghanistan’s first all-female orchestra, Zohra, established in 2016 and named after a Persian goddess of music, has meanwhile moved to Qatar.

If the Taliban can ban music in Afghanistan, “they can’t ban it from people all over the world,” says Adib Rostami. “We have to try as musicians, as music lovers, to find a way to preserve this cultural heritage for the future”.

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