Harmony Beat

Violinist from Indiana traveling to all 50 states in 2016, asking: "What is American culture?"

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Location: Indianapolis, IN, United States

violinist, violist, teacher, composer, conductor, writer, cultural diplomat, traveler

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Articles in the media

I am having a wonderful time in Islamabad. Please check out the excellent article about last Saturday's concert in Dawn News. And here's another article about the concert in The News.

I am grateful to my hosts and friends here for making my stay so enjoyable, and to Natasha Paracha, Miss Pakistan 2008, for traveling from New York to show her support for this project.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

A rapper and a rock concert in Isloo

Pakistan's most prominent rapper doesn't fit the stereotype. A tall, skinny fellow, he's got the requisite collection of badass T-shirts and jeans, but he's exceptionally polite and soft-spoken until he grabs the mike and cuts loose with a blistering streak of intensity flowing from a dark place in the soul.

I met Adil Omar during a rehearsal at Nysa Lounge, which was recently pronounced "the center of gravity for Islamabad's hip young set" by no less than the bureau chief of one of the largest international news organizations. Adil brought his iPod cued up to the song he thought would work with violin, and to my delight, it was immediately clear what I needed to play.

Later, I rehearsed with my old friend Taimur Khan, creator of the world's largest website devoted to the sarangi, his beloved and extraordinarily beautiful instrument, in which the bow releases the haunting resonance of numerous sympathetic strings. The sarangi is a sound to express the innermost longings of the spirit, and I enjoyed the fact that my two collaborations on the benefit concert for Afghanistan National Institute of Music would feature South Asian classical music on sarangi and tabla...and rap.

Kuch Khaas is a new venue that has done much to contribute to the dynamism of the Islamabad social and musical scene by offering classes, concerts, a cafe, and a venue to hang out and express yourself. They attracted a good crowd of about 50 to fill one of their rooms for the benefit concert. After my first piece, a caprice by the fiddler Mark O'Connor, I introduced Mursal Sarmast, the niece of Dr. Ahmad Sarmast, founder of ANIM. She gave an eloquent speech about the need to support the sponsorship program there.

The collaborations with Adil Omar and Taimur Khan provided a unique and varied way to show the audience and my community back in Afghanistan that Pakistanis stand shoulder to shoulder with Afghanistan in its quest to bring back the musical culture.

After the concert, I was prepared to settle in for the night when my host got a phone call. A rock concert was going on at the Open Air Theater. Did I want to play with the band Irtaash in front of a couple thousand screaming rock fans?

I threw on a Cultures in Harmony T-shirt, grabbed my fiddle (it was no longer a "violin" for tonight), and hopped in the car. We had to park quite a distance from the venue, and the roar of the screams, whoops, and hollers from the stadium did nothing to calm my nerves. As we threaded our way past smokers, families, and couples to the entrance, I glanced at the black-shirted security team.

Then, I glanced again. Their shirts did not say "SECURITY," like they would at a rock concert in the US. They said "ANTI TERRORIST SQUAD," and these men, way taller than me and with faces and bodies that meant business, toted assault rifles.

The lead singer of Irtaash talked us past security and to the backstage area, which was crawling with stage crew, musicians, and groupies. I met the band for a quick rehearsal. One song: C-sharp 9 chord and F-sharp 7 chord. Cool, got it. The other song: E major, A Major. Nice, I'm with ya. Ready? Ready. Let's go.

We stood backstage as the previous act finished up. Clearly they were very popular: the crowd was on its feet, swaying back and forth, clapping. A little boy had squeezed through the barbed wire to clap onstage until security gently tossed him back to a waiting parent. The crowd chanted and stomped as the previous act finished, and before you knew it, it was time for our soundcheck.

Not only was this the first rock-and-roll concert I've played in, it was the first I've attended. My experience of the aesthetic is limited to glimpses of movies and TV shows. So I figured out that simple tuning wouldn't do, and did a G Minor riff for my soundcheck, hoping I wouldn't sound too much like a prim and proper classical musician. It seemed to do the trick: the crowd roared their approval.

I stood back while Irtaash did their first song ("make some noise, Islamabad!"), and then the lead singer gave me a lengthy introduction in Urdu, speaking about how 9/11 inspired me to use music to create peace, and then asking the crowd to "give it up for William Harvey from Afghanistan!"

Do I bow? Probably not. Just a head nod. There. Do I look cool? Probably not. Whatever.

The songs went very well, especially considering that we had about 10 minutes of rehearsal and we played the songs half a step lower than we had rehearsed them. During my first solo, I sensed that my bucolic ramblings based on the two chords were not really thrilling the crowd, so I kicked it up a notch with rapid-fire octave tremolos, ascending in a complex rhythmic pattern towards the stratosphere. The crowd screamed and roared, and for the first time, I understood what rock music has to offer the performer that classical music never can. I rapidly slid down to an open string and closed out with a fast arpeggios on all four strings before relaxing into the entrance of the singer.

All in all, it was a thrilling experience and an honor to perform with these guys, who create beautiful, soulful music and also happen to be really nice people.

We were to be followed by the biggest Pakistani rocker in the world, Atif Aslam, so my host recommended that we head out. "Can we stay long enough for me to acquire a groupie?" I pleaded, looking longingly at the large crowd of glamorous girls hanging out backstage. "Come back next year," he smiled, and we headed off for a delicious, cold milkshake at The Hot Spot.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Exams and Pakistan

I regret that I have been too busy to update here. As our students have prepared for their first semester final exams, ANIM's role within the Kabul community has grown. Our students performed at the Goethe Institute, an American brass band visited our school for a performance, and myself and two other teachers were interviewed on Killid Radio.

Exam preparation took over my life for a while. This was the first exam I had designed since my arrival, and I was very anxious for all my students to do well. I offered them all as many lessons as they wanted after school, and to my delight, the girl who needed the most help, a painfully thin and shy child from an impoverished background, asked for an extra lesson every day. I am proud to report that after a huge amount of work, she received 84 of 100 points on her exam, which was to perform "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" with all variations.

Now, I write from Islamabad, Pakistan, where I just arrived yesterday to begin the Cultures in Harmony project there. I'm looking forward to a benefit concert on Saturday, since the proceeds from this concert will benefit ANIM's sponsorship program, enabling girls like the one who showed such dedication in preparing for her exams to continue studying at our institute in Kabul. This concert is an excellent way to combine my passion for ANIM, to which I have been very dedicated since my arrival in Afghanistan in March, and my work with Cultures in Harmony, the non-profit I founded in 2005.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Parents' Visit

I clasp and unclasp my hands, waiting by the barbed wire fence in the dust at the airport, surrounded by families. The sun beats down already at 7 a.m. "Are you sure we can't get any closer?" I ask my driver. I can't see anything that even looks like an airport.

He reluctantly says yes, he's sure. I berate myself for telling my parents I could meet them at baggage claim, where they always meet me at the airport in Indianapolis. I buy a cold drink; my driver declines.

Eventually, my parents show up. I can't believe it's actually them, walking toward me after three days of travel, finally here in Afghanistan. They look exhausted. My mom is hard to recognize at first. I've never seen her with a headscarf.

We hug, and I eagerly pick up my mom's old suitcase from the trolley, so we can head towards the air conditioned van. I have a busy day planned for them, hoping that this will keep jet lag at bay.

We check them into the guesthouse, and after a delicious breakfast, we head straight to ANIM. We barely have time to settle in before the gong strikes for my 10:30 class: Ensemble. This group of teenaged guys came to me a couple months ago, saying they wanted to play the Blues. They showed me their version, and I thought they could benefit from some coaching from my dad, who writes about jazz for the Indianapolis Star. He lectures from notes, and although my guys don't know much English, they eagerly listen. They particularly connect with Bag's Groove, a blues riff he introduces them to, and the trumpet student loves learning more about Louis Armstrong. Their blues sounds much more interesting underpinned with the harmonic variety my dad urges them to explore.

After lunch in the faculty lounge, my mom helps me with my studio class of young girls from Kabul's streets. These girls are all wonderful and I get along with all of them, but although a couple of them are very talented and work hard, I have been unable to get the others to progress as quickly as I'd like. My mom, who has been teaching piano since roughly a decade after Cristofori invented it at the beginning of the eighteenth century, quickly identifies the problems. I expect too much too soon, and do not include enough games to solidify a sense of rhythm for girls whose grasp of rhythm was more tenuous.

Soon, she is playing hand clapping games and marching with them. They all grin and love every minute of it. Before the end of class, all of them request a maternal hug at least once.

From school, we go straight to Babur Gardens, my favorite spot in Kabul. They love the beautiful layout, planned by Emperor Babur himself half a millennium ago, but I keep accidentally bounding ahead until I catch myself, sadly reminding myself that my mom does not move as fast as she used to.

The next day is our concert at the British Embassy. The Land Cruiser picks up my parents, myself, and my colleague Norma early, with plenty of time to adjust to the sound at the garden within the Embassy where we will perform. We begin more or less on time. Britain's Deputy Ambassador enthuses about how happy he is that we will begin with the great British work for violin and piano, The Lark Ascending, because the Deputy Ambassador's grandmother was a violinist and played the piece for Ralph Vaughan Williams, the composer!

My mother plays the soft opening chords. I reflect how lucky I am that she agreed to play with me and is playing the accompaniment so well despite her jet lag and our limited rehearsal time. I take a breath and begin Vaughan Williams' soft, rootless, soaring cadenza, a hushed and magical beginning that uses the pentatonic scale to approximate bird song. The work is suffused with an unreal, impossibly pure beauty that we do our best to capture. I am grateful that at the end, as the violin disappears into the stratosphere, the sound of our instruments fades into the sound of real birds singing in the trees around the garden.

My colleague Norma improvises percussion parts to some half-forgotten Pashto melodies I selected from a book compiled by an Afghan musicologist and published in 1991. After that, I take the stage for a half hour: Bach's D Minor Partita. I begin the Chaconne only to stop immediately. "We pause for the call to prayer," I tell the microphone, standing respectfully for several minutes until the otherworldly, haunting adhaan of the muezzin comes to an end and I launch into the monumental Chaconne.

Two more colleagues, ANIM's rubab and tabla teachers, join me for four Afghan pieces they have taught me. I was thrilled by the opportunity to learn these pieces from them, and eventually I summoned up the courage to add some harmony. The concert ends, and as musicians do, we gather afterwards at a Lebanese restaurant, sipping fresh, cool fruit juices under the stars and eating what my mom avers is the best hummus she's ever had.

Friday, our day off, is the ANIM faculty picnic at Lake Qargah, just outside Kabul. I've spent a while organizing this. It is important to me to encourage our faculty to think of themselves as one unit, and I thought we should have some time to socialize outside school. I enjoy my first excursion outside Kabul since my arrival over three months ago, and am glad that the other faculty took the invitation to include their families seriously. One teacher shows up with his adorable four-year-old boy, who loves shaking my hand, and another brings his daughter.

As a pleasant surprise, the rubab and tabla teacher bring their instruments and entertain us during the long wait for our food. I would never ask them to take this busman's holiday, but we all love their music as we take in a view of the lake and the surrounding mountains.

School begins early the next morning, and immediately, we all head to Radio Television Afghanistan. Historically, this mammoth compound of recording and TV studios set among gardens formed the locus of Afghanistan's cultural scene, employing and engaging the country's most important musicians, such as Salim Sarmast, the father of the founder of ANIM, known as Afghanistan's first conductor. I admire the enormous artistic portrait of him just above the stage, baton seemingly at the ready to bring in the next orchestra to grace the stage of RTA after his orchestra fell silent long ago.

We wait for a long time as the stagehands set up the microphones. My mom stays with the young girls to make sure they behave, and I seek out the canteen to buy them each a cookie and juice. Eventually, Mr. Shefta records his pulse-pounding arrangement of "Dareen Watan," and I get to record my orchestral arrangements of the Afghanistan National Anthem and Ustad Guzalman's "Da Watan." Scarcely does the actual recording begin than it's time to leave. It is a great honor to record for national television at a site that did so much to celebrate and preserve Afghan music throughout communism, war, terrorism, and Taliban.

The last day of my parents' visit is here. Far too short. When I tell my little girl students that it's time to say goodbye, they don't believe me at first. "Ten more days!" one says in Dari, holding up ten tiny fingers in an attempt to get them to stay. More hugs, More pictures. Then, school is out.

We go first to the Fourth of July celebration at the US Embassy. We pass the security barriers, surrender our passports, collect our temporary IDs, and walk onto the Embassy lawn, greeted by the welcoming scene of red, white, and blue bunting, milling crowds of happy people, hot dogs and hamburgers, and babies holding balloons. We enjoy some American camaraderie before browsing at the Shah Mohamed Book Company, Kabul's famous bookstore that carries every imaginable book in every language on every subject even tangentially related to Afghanistan. I knew my parents would love this, and am thrilled that they buy a couple books.

At Chicken Street, my mom searches for a lapis lazuli necklace. For 7,000 years, Afghans have extracted the luscious blue stone from a mountain in Badakhshan that is the oldest continuously operated mine in the world. That mountain supplied the lapis on King Tut's death mask, so anything with lapis is the perfect souvenir of Afghanistan. My mom has a necklace in mind, and is delighted when she finds one that matches her mental image exactly. The owner knows he won't have to bargain too much.

A final dinner at the fancy Italian restaurant brings their visit to a close. Six days later, I still don't let go. I type on my blog, writing in present tense, knowing it sounds pretentious but hoping that the very now-ness of the present will bring the visit back into life. I'll see them in November, of course, but as I work 8,000 miles away from home in a culture I still struggle to understand, their five days in Kabul had a more powerful effect than their trips to New York, even if we sometimes went longer between visits when I lived there.

Two images in particular stay with me. One of my girl students is painfully shy, and always seems to fade into the wall. I'll never forget how brightly she smiled when my mom worked with her to finally get her to do a rhythm that had always eluded her. I'd never seen this girl smile that brightly before. I hope to see that smile on her more often as I apply what I learned from my mother.

The other image is a picture. Emperor Babur carefully designed his gardens along an axis, which he intended to be filled with water (to avoid extravagance in drought-prone Kabul, it is usually dry these days). We had just climbed to the top of the hill in which the gardens are inlaid. The axis stretches out far below, with Kabul bustling beyond the peace of the gardens and the Hindu Kush mountains rising in the distance. I suggest a picture, my dad on one side, my mom on the other.

"Let's hold hands," my dad says to my mom.