Monday, May 24, 2010

Orpheus' Almanac: 24 May - PART 1 - Afghanistan and Iraq

Today I am exploring a new feature for VOAWorldMusic--a musical "almanac" (for want of a better word) based on a variety of information regarding music in the world, ranging from media features encountered in the course of the day to statistics, such as events, births, and deaths on this particular day in history.

And for the moment I'm titling it "Orpheus' Almanac", in reference to the legendary poet-musician among the Greeks, a figure appearing in many dramatic representations, from early Greek poetry to the 1959 Brazilian film, Black Orpheus, directed by Marcel Camus. Orpheus' name itself is evocative of music, and so used here in honor of the irrepressible human impulse to musicality. . . .

[I am now writing after the above introduction, and at the end of the first day's survey. Given the volume of writing generated by this effort, I'll break this experiment up into three pieces, and then set it aside for the time being as being too large in scope to be a regular feature of this blog. The text below is a continuation of the original piece.]

I decide top begin my survey of material for this "alamanac" entry, I consult Google News today, and select the third story on "music" (at the time I accessed it) as most appropriate for "world music". The piece is titled "Feel-good stories about music in Iraq, Afghanistan", by the Baltimore Sun's classical music critic, Tim Smith (his bio is on this blog page).

He writes first about The Afghanistan National Institute of Music in Kabul "where young people are eagerly learning instruments, Western ones and those from the region. Just a decade ago, in the neo-medieval days of the Taliban, instrumental music was banned entirely, and only songs of worship or praise to the Taliban were officially permitted."

Coincidentally, I had last week received an e-mail from Samir Chatterjee, a leading New York- based tabla master (see, with a link to a Wall Street Journal story by Lara Pellegrinelli on 21 March, entitled "An Upbeat Afghan Story", also about the Institute, and noting Samir's involvement:

"Renowned tabla player Samir Chatterjee, a native of Calcutta, India, who lives in New Jersey, has been leading efforts to establish the Department of Afghan Traditional Music; Hindustani musicians from northern India introduced classical music to the Afghan court in the 1860s, making the two traditions closely related.

"On his trips to Kabul, Mr. Chatterjee stays in a guest house under the watchful eyes of armed security. He travels to and from his drumming classes by car; each day brings a different driver and a different serpentine route. Mr. Chatterjee made one special road trip last year to recruit faculty, which involved tracking down musicians in the mountain caves of Jalalabad—while he was held at gunpoint, he mentions casually. 'I'm absolutely not a romantic,' he says. 'I try to be careful. At the same time, what is this life worth if I spend it in my living room?'"

I know from personal experience how much Indian musicians enjoyed playing at the court of the King of Afghanistan in the period prior to the Soviet invasion in 1979. Both the late Ustad Vilayat Khan, the eminent sitar master, and his younger brother, Ustad Imrat Khan (as well as numerous other musicians I knew less well) spoke with the greatest nostalgia of performing for King Zahir Shah. And even today in Washington, the members of the Afghan diaspora (some of whom, along with immigrants from neighboring Pakistan, hold a virtual monopoly on the Washington Flyer taxi service from Dulles Airport) regularly host concerts by visiting Indian classical artists of repute.

I'll be sharing these stories with my colleagues in VOA's Dari and Pashto Services, in the hope that they'll be able to do further coverage. . . .

Back to Tim Smith's article in the Sun: "Meanwhile, in Iraq, [Llewellyn Kingman Sanchez Werner], a 13-year-old pianist from California, son of an official from a US investment firm working in Baghdad, debuted over the weekend with the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra, playing [George] Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue." As the young Julliard School graduate told the AP, "Several mistakes from my country have been made in terms of invasion and occupation. But me being here today is one way to show the U.S. has a lot of wonderful things to offer." You can see raw AP footage of the concert here on YouTube.

Smith's conclusion: "Music doesn't win wars or quell conflicts, but it sure can help remind us of the bonds we share as human beings, and it just might make a difference in how we treat each other. That, at least, is something worth hoping for in Afghanistan, Iraq and everywhere." (See the questions asked in my 1 May manifesto. . . .)

. . . . . To be continued

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