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Virtuoso keeps Afghan music alive despite Taleban ban

LONDON (AFP) – Homayoun Sakhi closes his eyes and runs his fingers along the long neck of his wooden instrument encrusted with mother-of-pearl.

“I feel like I have my Afghanistan in my hand,” said Sakhi, one of the world’s most renowned performers on the country’s national instrument, the rubab.

He is jet-lagged after flying in from California to perform at London’s Barbican concert hall to raise funds for emergency medicine and education in his homeland.

Along with the growing humanitarian crisis, Afghanistan’s rich musical culture is under threat as the Taleban have banned music since their return to power last year.

Widely shared videos have shown them smashing and burning instruments. Musicians have fled the country. “Right now we don’t have music in Afghanistan,” said Sakhi.

“It’s really difficult because there’s no concerts, there’s no music, and (for musicians) it’s very difficult to be without any money and without a job.

Afghan-born musician Homayoun Sakhi (L) plays the ‘rubab’ with Adib Rostami (R) playing the kamancheh during a sound check at the Barbican ahead of ‘Songs of Hope’ benefit concert for Afghanistan in London. PHOTO: AFP

“That’s why they’re trying to go somewhere to play.”

The Taleban clampdown is a repeat of the extremists’ previous time in power between 1996 and 2001, when they banned music as sinful, under a strict interpretation of Islamic law.

The rubab dates back thousands of years and has enjoyed a revival thanks to Sakhi, who is known as a musical innovator and has developed a more modern playing style.

BBC Music Magazine called him “one of the greatest performers” on the instrument.

Born in Kabul, he left Afghanistan with his family in 1992, in the chaotic aftermath of the Soviet withdrawal, moving to Pakistan.

He later settled in Fremont, California, which is known for its large Afghan community, and has launched an academy teaching the rubab.

“Each time I’m playing, I’m home, I feel like I’m in Afghanistan,” he said. Music including pop was allowed a free rein during the past two decades in Afghanistan, with local television even showing a Pop Idol talent contest equivalent.

But following the Taleban’s return to power, traditional Afghan music now relies on devotees overseas.

The recent Songs of Hope concert at the was organised by Afghanistan International TV.
The London-based channel was set up by Volant media company, which also runs a Persian-language channel for Iranians.

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