From a region known for its virtuoso musicians, Homayun Sakhi stands out as the world's leading player of the Afghan rubâb. To listen to Sakhi play the rubâb results in near-hypnosis, and watching clips of his playing shows how charismatic and brilliant a performer he really is. Sakhi is making a rare appearance this week, allowing New Yorkers to experience just how brilliant a performer Sakhi is. The deftness with which he handles the rubâb makes it near impossible to detect where the player ends and the instrument begins. The rubâb itself has a rich and earthy sound, with each note standing alone. Homayun Sakhi hails from Kabul, a city whose music had come under the influence of the Persian, Indian, and Central Asian traditions. At ten years old, he began studying the rubâb under his father's tutelage. His father himself was a disciple of Ustâd Mohammed Omar, the most renowned rubâb player of the 20th century, whose musical lineage can be traced back over a century to the revered North Indian court musicians imported to Kabul by Amir Sher Ali Khan.
A sort of short-necked lute, the rubâb is the national instrument of Afghanistan, and is an integral part of the region's classical music tradition. Those familiar with raga music might be familiar with the rubâb, or, more likely, with the sarod, a direct descendent from the rubâb and one of the most beloved instruments in traditional Indian music. Afghanistan was an historic center of Sufism, and music is inseparable from daily life and worship in much of Afghanistan today.
That music is so important in Afghan society is no small feat, given the heavy restrictions placed on music that has been the norm in Afghanistan since the late 1970s. With the mujahideen's banning of female singers and restrictions on broadcasting of music, and the mid-1990s Taliban-imposed outright ban, even playing music so grounded in religious tradition came under fire. This hostile attitude, coupled with the physical destruction of many centers of artistic practice and the massive waves of emigration, threatened the existence of the centuries-old classical Afghan musical tradition. Music like Sakhi's, which takes years of apprenticeship and decades of practice to truly master, obviously was (and continues to be) most threatened by this sort of physical and political challenge.
In 1992, Sakhi moved with his family to Peshawar, to escape the sociopolitical chaos and violence of post-Soviet Invasion Afghanistan. Peshawar was a center of Afghan music at the time, and Sakhi continued to hone his skills, performing and practicing constantly, before coming to the United States. Since 2002, Sakhi has lived in Fremont, California, which has one of the largest Afgham emigré communities in the world. He opened a school in Fremont to teach Afghan music to children, thus preserving a tradition in order to ensure that instruments like the rubâb, impossible to learn without concentrated guidance, continue to be played and loved.
What is particularly interesting about Sakhi is his comfort in maintaining and celebrating the classical repertory of the rubâb while bringing it into play in contemporary, "modern" arrangements. Sakhi has collaborated with the Kronos Quartet, composing the stunning "Rangin Kaman." The piece is for violins, viola, cello, rubâb, tabla and other small drums most often seen in Indian raga music, clappers, and other percussive instruments. The piece is almost shockingly timeless. It does not "update" the rubâb, or the tabla, for our modern (and in my case, untrained) ears, but instead highlights how beautiful and how ageless the sounds and traditional modes of expression these "classical" instruments provide us with really are.
Often playing for such long spells at a time that, in his youth, his mother often implored him to "take a rest", Homayun Sakhi is a tireless champion of the rubâb, both for its place in cultural history and for its musical relevancy today. He is collaborating with Swiss-based Ken Zuckerman, a sarod virtuoso who trained under the brilliant Ali Akbar Khan, and the talented tabla player, Salar Nader in concert at the Asia Society 3 March. The event, entitled, "In the Footsteps of Babur: Musical Encounters from the Lands of the Mughals," will, like so much of Sakhi's output, highlight the space for innovation and for personal vision that classical instruments like the rubâb afford their players even to this day.