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May 17, 2019

The peace player


May 17, 2019

“My concert tour in Pakistan will always be a most memorable and special time in my heart. The respect and honour given to me was truly humbling. To have been gifted the ‘Shamla’ by Maestro Khayal Mohammed and Zarsanga, and my dear friend Sahib Gul, it was the highest honour for an artist like myself to receive and I will do my best to fulfil my responsibility towards my fans and continue to produce even better music.”

The Afghan rubab maestro Homayoun Sakhi lucidly expressed his feelings on social media after his recent visit to Pakistan, where he mesmerised fans with the melodious sounds of his rubab. Born in war-torn Afghanistan and having grown up amidst destruction, Homayoun could rise above vile prejudices to help his helpless compatriots in these times of national ordeals. Living among refugees in Pakistan, Homayoun has much grief and pain to share but he does not allow us to slip into melancholy. He has instead sublimated the horror of war and conflict into musical peace and creativity. His artistic arsenal has more power than the cannons of war.

Afghanistan has become a fossil of intrigue and many creative people like Homayoun were uprooted from the country because of that. With liminal existence across the Pak-Afghan border there were many who were exterminated but those who survived had indelible scars of wounds for their flesh and blood was consumed to fight. Homayoun’s rubab emits positive energy to erase the heart-wrenching war memories which continue to haunt many generation across the Pak–Afghan border.

It would not be fair to appreciate Homayoun Sakhi only for his mastery as a rubab player but also for his strength and perseverance to attain artistic excellence in the midst of wretchedness. He has been a true ambassador of Afghanistan, its peace-loving people and the resilience that allows the life to go on despite unabated destruction.

Homayoun Sakhi is the most innovative Afghan rubab player of his generation, a brilliant virtuoso endowed with a charismatic musical presence and personality. He is a composer, vocalist, and musician born into a family steeped in musical tradition.

Homayoun was born in Kabul in 1976 into one of Afghanistan’s leading musical families. From the age of ten, he studied the rubab – a double-chambered lute, and the national musical instrument of Afghanistan – with his father, Ustad Ghulam Sakhi. They worked in the traditional form of apprenticeship known as ustad-shagird (Persian for ‘master-apprentice’).

In 1992, Homayoun along with his family moved to Peshawar, Pakistan, where he worked for many of his compatriot Afghans to take them out of the chaos that enveloped their country following the 1979 Soviet invasion. In Peshawar, Homayoun’s talents were recognized and he quickly became a popular entertainer, and was known for playing a mixture of ragas and songs. He performed on the radio and on many television shows, alongside many of Pakistan’s popular singers and musicians.

Then in 2001 Homayoun moved to the US and settled in Fremont California, a city south east of San Francisco that claims to have the largest concentration of Afghans in the US. In Fremont, he brought with him the sophisticated and original rubab style that he had developed during his years in Pakistan. He quickly established himself as a leader of the local musical community, and received national and international acclaim for his work as a performer, teacher and composer. He opened a school to teach Afghan music to children, recorded compact discs of popular Afghan songs, and became a sought-after performer.

While continuing his community activities, he devotes as much as eight hours a day to practising the rubab. As a composer, he has created works for the Kronos Quartet, Hannibal Lokumbe, and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. He has collaborated with many celebrated musicians from around the globe such as Yoyo Ma and, most recently Ustad Farida Mahwash. In November of 2014 he performed in front of former Indian president Pranab Mukherjee and former Afghan president Hamid Karzai at Rashtrapati Bhavan in New Delhi, India, and most recently he performed at the Harvest Music Festival in Yinchuan, China.

A classical instrument that was no longer deemed ‘popular’ was brought back to life due to Homayoun’s perseverance. He pushed the traditional limits of the rubab and completely changed the way the rubab is played. Homayoun’s playing differed from that of classic rubab players. In this new style, he incorporated influences from the violin, guitar and sitar. He studied music from many different places, such as symphonic music, contemporary Indian and Western music etc – and developed a way to use those modern musical techniques on a classical Afghan instrument.

He worked hard, playing for long hours every day to create an entirely different style, a complex ‘picking’ style that uses rhythmic syncopation and playing off the beat. He completely changed the way the rubab was perceived and played. Till now the rubab was an instrument that used to accompany a singer. Homayoun’s unique style of play brought the rubab to the musical forefront and gave the instrument a platform all its own.

Homayoun’s personal story illustrates the extraordinarily challenging conditions he endured in pursuing his art. During Afghanistan’s many years of armed conflict, when music was controlled, censored, and finally banned altogether, the classical rubab style to which he had devoted his career not only survived but also reached new creative heights.

His performance style has been shaped not only by the musical traditions to which Afghan music is geographically and historically linked, but by his lively interest in contemporary music from around the world. His artistry demonstrates how an imaginative musician working within a traditional musical idiom can enrich and expand its expressive power while respecting the taste and sensibility passed down from master musicians of the past. His exceptional talent and unswerving dedication to his art have brought him success on stage, and he maintains an active performance schedule that takes him to cities around the world.

Homayoun’s talent has had led him to travel around the globe, and his music has won the hearts of many, from members of many royal families, to the Dalai Lama, and various heads of state, as well as many music festivals around the world. Homayoun’s music has attained universality in its appeal to a wide range of audiences across the world.

Hope and optimism is what makes the music of this little maestro unique, because this is what is needed during the ordeals that his compatriots face in Afghanistan. In the politics of war, the best proclamation of peace comes through the strings of his rubab.

The writer is a social development and policy adviser, and a freelance columnist based in Islamabad.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @AmirHussain76

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