Virtuosos of raga to mingle Indian, Afghan traditions
Spring MusicUnitesUs residency will culminate in concert Saturday
When Homayun Sakhi, Ken Zuckerman and Salar Nader get together on the Slosberg Music Center stage Saturday, they’ll share a musical experience rooted in ancient traditions but also completely new to their audience and themselves.
The three virtuosos all are participating in this semester’s MusicUnitesUs residency, “Improvisations: Raga in Afghanistan and North India.” They’ll take listeners on a journey that crosses cultural borders as they hit classrooms and stages between March 6 and 10. Their visit will culminate in an improvised concert in Slosberg on Saturday, at 8 p.m., with a pre-concert lecture by Dartmouth College music professor Theodore Levin at 7 p.m.
The goal of MusicUnitesUs, according to Judy Eissenberg, professor of the practice of music and founder of MusicUnitesUs, is to further students’ understanding of diverse cultures through music. The event is cosponsored by the Music Initiative of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, which works to build understanding in the West about Muslim culture.
“It’s really important that while we learn about the politics of areas of conflict, we also learn about their culture and beauty,” Eissenberg says.
Homayun Sakhi's rubab performance style has been shaped not only by traditional Afghan and Indian music, but by his lively interest in contemporary music from around the world. Born in Kabul into one of Afghanistan’s leading musical families, he studied rubab, a fretted lute-like instrument from Afghanistan, with his father, Ustad Ghulam Sakhi. Sakhi maintains a worldwide concert schedule and is active in teaching rubab to young Afghans, both in Afghanistan and in the West.
The Practice of Cultural Advocacy
Following the residency, a related event, “The Practice of Cultural Advocacy: Making a Difference Through the Arts,” will be held on Tuesday, March 13, at 6:30 p.m. in the Spingold Theater Center. It will feature a panel discussion with cultural advocates Richard Kurin, undersecretary of the Smithsonian Institution for History, Art, and Culture; Ethel Raim, artistic director of the Center for Traditional Music and Dance in New York City; Zeyba Rahman, director of the Fes Festival of World Sacred Music; Jessye Kass '13, co-founder of the Attukwei Art Foundation. Darmouth College music professor and Aga Khan Trust For Culture senior project consultant Theodore Levin will moderate the discussion.
Ken Zuckerman, internationally acclaimed as one of the finest sarod virtuosos performing today, has also been called one of the world’s most eclectic masters of improvisation. A sarod is a lute with 21 strings. He completed 37 years of training under the rigorous discipline of India’s legendary sarod master Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, prior to the maestro’s death in June 2009.
Salar Nader, born in Germany in 1981, is a disciple of the great tabla master Zakir Hussain, and frequently accompanies Sakhi as well as other performers of Afghan and North Indian classical music. The table is a percussion instrument similar to bongos. A resident of San Francisco, Nader recently appeared as an on-stage musician in an American theatrical adaptation of Khaled Hosseini’s best-selling novel, “The Kite Runner.”
Though the musicians come from different cultural backgrounds, they perform on kindred instruments – the sarod and the rubab – Levin says.
The instruments themselves "come from a common source, but strangely never appear together in concert, for complex cultural reasons,” Levin says. “One is from Afghanistan, one is from India. It will be exciting to see these two first cousins come together and improvise.”
Typically, raga is performed by a solo vocalist or instrumentalist accompanied by a tabla and backed by the tanbura, a stringed drone instrument. But an Indian classical musical tradition known as jugalbandi, or entwined twins, features duets between two soloists that take the form of a playful competition, according to Levin. The concert will focus on this concept, bringing together Zuckerman’s sarod and Sahki’s rubab.
In the days leading up to the concert, the trio of musicians will visit a variety of Brandeis and Waltham public school classrooms. In addition to music courses, their visit will be incorporated into women’s and gender studies, anthropology, and even studio art, in which students will paint ragamalas, an ancient Indian art, in response to the musical performance.
The focus on Indian culture comes on the heels of President Fred Lawrence’s trip to the country to advance the Brandeis-India Initiative, which is exploring academic partnerships with institutions like The National Center for Biological Science in Bangalore and Jindal Global University outside of Delhi.
“When the musicians leave I miss them terribly,” Eissenberg says of all the program’s past guests. “Whenever I hear anything about those regions, I have a built-in openness to it. I have to believe that if it’s opened that place in me, music can do that for other people."