The region known in ancient times as Khorasan bequeathed a rich and diverse cultural heritage to human civilisation. Like all long-lived cultures, Khorasan’s geography expanded and constricted like a huge lung breathing art, beauty and elevated thought, spread across much of what today we call Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Afghanistan. So huge was its presence and vast its territory that Babur, the first Mughal, proclaimed, "The people of Hindustan call every country beyond their own Khorasan".
Among the roll call of illustrious Khorasanis is an "A List" of poets, mystics, theologians and scientists: Rumi, Rudaki, Ibn Sina (Avicenna), Omar Khayyam, al Biruni, Abu Hanifa and al Ghazali being just the more renowned. The contributions of these great souls to the understanding of astronomy, physics, literature, medicine, Islamic philosophy and mathematics, in many cases, formed the "standard texts" until relatively recent times.
Sometime around the 7th century CE, Persian texts including the writings of Sufis began to mention a musical instrument they called rubab. Its inventor and exact place of birth is not recorded, but given its undeniably Khorasani origin, I like to imagine the rubab was played for the first time in northern Afghanistan around Balkh. Others claim it was invented in Ghazni. Whatever the truth, the rubab is now the beloved national instrument of Afghanistan.
Although the name derives from Arabic and in that language means, "played with a bow", the rubab is in fact, plucked by its player. And like its cousins the oud and lute, the sound of the rubab is for my money, one of the most thrilling in all of music. This week, let’s spend some time with several wonderful masters of this ancient jewel of an instrument.
Amir Jan Herawi
Amir Jan Herawi was born in southwestern Afghanistan to a barber father and a mother, Zainab, who was a much loved singer in the area. Amir Jan grew up singing and playing the harmonium but in 1979 took refuge in Peshawar after war descended on his homeland. His long sojourn as a refugee in Pakistan influenced his playing style and became quite Pashtun in character unlike the more Iranian-influenced sound popular around the western Afghan city of Herat. This clip demonstrates that Pashtun folksy feel and Amir Jan’s amazing technique.
Raftim Azin Baagh
A lively traditional piece performed by the Afghan-German group Safar. Ustad Ghulam Hussain is on rubab. The collaboration between German and Afghan musicians (though in this piece the ensemble in entirely Afghan) through the Safar project is an attempt to promote a positive image of Afghanistan as well as expand the artistic horizons of musicians from both countries. This exciting clip starts off at a good pace and builds until the end – when driven forward by tabla and dhol, the rubab is nearly in full gallop.
Motherless Child (pt1)
Motherless Child (pt2)
This clip is an absolute gem. Again, with Ustad Ghulam Hussain playing a mournful, emotion drenched introduction to the traditional Negro Spiritual, Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child, American jazz/blues singer Co Co York gives a powerful performance to an audience in Herat. Sadly, the editing of the clip is criminal, cutting the performance into two. The second part sees the song soar into Afghan-American jazz with Ustad Ghulam leading (with great pleasure) his ensemble through an improvised jam session with American drums and keyboards while Co Co scats her heart out. The power of music to unite and excite!
Kronos Quartet with Alim Qasimov and Homayoun Sakhi Trio
Chicago, Baku and Kabul come together for a cross cultural meditation on the universality that lies at the heart of all music, regardless of tradition or perspective. The Kronos Quartet, America’s outstanding non-denominational clergy of adventurous trans-genre, trans-national music represent Chicago. Baku is represented by Alim Qasimov, one of Azerbaijan’s most popular musical artists. Homayoun Sakhi, from Kabul, has been called "the outstanding" rubab player of his generation. Like Amir Jan Herawi, Sakhi spent many years in Peshawar as a refugee where he both introduced Kabuli stylistic elements to the local rubab players and innovated new ways of playing the instrument.
“Before, players just picked down with the plectrum, but I picked both up and down. I thought these things up. I listened to violin music from different places, and to guitar and sitar music, and symphonic music. I listened to a lot of different things that I found on cassettes, and I wondered, why couldn’t I play with these kinds of techniques on the rubab? And I started to try them. I understood that the rubab isn’t just an instrument for backing up a singer. I worked hard and played for long hours every day to create more of a style – a complex picking style that uses rhythmic syncopation and playing off the beat.”
Ustad Daud Sadozai
Daud Sadozai, is another prominent rubab player (originally) from Kabul, though now settled in Germany. A collaborator and friend of sarod master Ustad Amjad Ali Khan, Sadozai is also an erstwhile member of the wonderful Iranian-Afghan-Indian group, The Afghan Ensemble. A strong proponent of the classical tradition (he is a shagird of Afghanistan’s most famous rubab player, Ustad Omar Mohammad Omar), here he performs Raga Kalyan.