'Refugees and Exile': Music of Afghanistan and the Middle East

John Baily and Michael Frishkopf show a different side of the Middle East through music.

The sun has been beating against your skin for eternity as you curl your bare toes into the burning yellow sand. You inhale through parched lips to breathe in the heavy heat.  As you shade your eyes with tanned fingers you see that the fiery globe is finally nearing the horizon.  Across the snaking, dry desert dunes the coming night outlines a caravan of camels, silhouetted against the setting sun.

There is only one soundtrack for such an image and it is the sound of tabla and rubab.  It is the sound of Afghanistan.

Last week as part of the 2010-11 series ‘Music of Conflict and Reconciliation,’ the SU Department of Art and Music Histories presented its symposium titled ‘Refugees and Exile.’  The discussions, organized by Ethnomusicology professor Carol Babiracki, invited fellow ethnomusicologists John Baily and Michael Frishkopf to share their extensive knowledge of music from the Middle East.

Baily, who is Emeritus Professor of Ethnomusicology at the University of London, is the director of the award-winning documentary, Amir: An Afghan refugee musician's life in Peshawar, Pakistan.  From 1973 to 1977 he carried out fieldwork in Herat and Kabul, during which time he fell in love with the ‘rubab,’ an Afghan instrument much like an exotic banjo that has three plucked strings and many more sympathetic strings to create a humming sound around the main melody.

Frishkopf, Associate Professor of Music at the University of Alberta, Canada, joined Baily in the conversation about the Liberian refugee camps.  A performer of the Middle Eastern reed flute called the ‘nay’ Frishkopf founded the University of Alberta Middle Eastern and North African Music Ensemble in 2004.

The combined insights from both scholars provided an enlightening glimpse into a Middle East that is humble about its superb musical talent.  It is a community that must ask permission to perform music with such lyrical poetry it can only represent consummate peace.

Heavily influenced by the musical traditions of India, Afghanistan has a rich history of instrumental music that is kept alive by heredity and community.  Baily’s fieldwork and documentaries in Peshawar exposed the great lack of music education in the Middle East with a noticeable absence of elementary music classes and conservatories.  There has become a gap between inward and outward performances of music- people who would use music to maintain cultural traditions within a community, and those who would use it to popularize that tradition on a global scale.

For many families in the Middle East, the threat of violence has become too great to remain in their own cities.  Although there are those who insist on staying as exiles in impoverished communities in Pakistan and Afghanistan, over six million refugees have fled to other countries including the United States and particularly to Fremont, CA where Baily conducted a large portion of his fieldwork.  In Fremont, Middle Eastern communities can live peacefully while preserving their musical heritages.

The symposium concluded on Friday evening with a performance of traditional Afghan folk music in the Shaffer Art Building.  Baily himself played the rubab and was joined by the immensely talented tabla player, Dibyarka Chatterjee.  Chatterjee has performed in venues like Lincoln Center and for the UN General Assembly, and joined Baily for the first time to prove just how much Afghan and Indian music has in common.

The performance afforded a vision of the Middle East that we haven’t seen before.  It’s not the duck-and-cover culture we see on TV but rather a demure familial identity that has preserved its musical traditions hundreds of miles away from home.

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