For decades, the Afghanistan we know from the news has been a land of war, unspeakable violence and the actions of an intractable band of fundamentalists determined to set its culture back centuries. It’s hard to imagine it as a place where daily life also included music, a wide variety of music ranging from folk and pop songs to the rich, flowing poetry of the ghazals.
This unseen and unheard-of country is the Afghanistan of the Fanoos family and Heart of Afghanistan, an immersive project debuting at The Atlantic BKLN, Saturday, May 14, at 7:30 and 10:00 p.m. The showcase is a presentation by American Voices, an NGO dedicated to cultural exchange in countries emerging from conflict and isolation. https://americanvoices.org/
“I’ve always wanted to be a cultural ambassador,” says pianist Elham Fanoos, 24. “I’ve always wanted to show a positive face of Afghanistan, and now I do. I’m a classically trained pianist and love playing Chopin and the classical repertoire – but I also love playing Afghan music I grew up listening to Afghan music and my father sang popular Afghan and Indian songs, especially ghazals.
Elham’s playing was a highlight of performances by the National Institute of Music Orchestra of Afghanistan on their tour to Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center in 2013. A year later, after a suicide bombing at a concert at the school, which later closed and moved to Portugal, Elham decided to pursue a full scholarship at Hunter College in New York. He then completed his master’s degree at the Manhattan School of Music.
In Heart of Afghanistan, Elham joins his father, Ahmad Fanoos, a well-respected singer and harmonist, and celebrity, earning status as a talent judge on the popular television show Afghan Star, the local version of American Idol; his brother Mehran Fanoos, a freshman at Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music, on violin, and Hamid Habibzada on tabla.
Jean Fergusonfounder and executive director of American Voices and pianist, notes that the organization “has worked overseas in over 150 countries over the past 30 years, and we haven’t had the opportunity to produce concerts in United States so far. With Heart of Afghanistan, we’ve turned our attention, and the ultimate goal for us here is for audiences in the United States to understand the long arc of Afghan culture. It’s about a proud, ancient, diverse and complex culture. Heart of Afghanistan is our attempt to show some of the different threads of Afghan culture and gain a more nuanced understanding of the country through musical performances and visual presentations.”
The program will feature folk songs and pop hits by Ahmad Zahir, perhaps Afghanistan’s most iconic singer. There will also be ghazals, Ahmad Fanoos’ trademark, and qawwali, devotional South Asian music that has found a Western audience through the work of Pakistani singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. The multidisciplinary event will also include a series of projected images from Afghanistan by a New York-based photographer. Michael Luongo help situate the music in its physical and social landscape.
For the Fanoos family, this show is also a reunion party.
After the Taliban took over, music was banned. Ahmad Fanoos received several verbal death threats and a written message left on the case of his instrument. “All your family members are busy with these filthy activities,” the note read. “We warn you for the last time to leave.” For the old Fanoos, it was a familiar story. When the Taliban were first in charge, between 1996 and 2001, music was strictly prohibited. Even listening to music at home has become a punishable transgression. As a precaution, the musicians buried and hid their instruments.
This time Ahmad had to leave. Elham, who had been living in the United States since 2015, enlisted his godmother, Lesley Rosenthal, COO of the Juilliard School, who, in turn, reached out to Fox Corporation, shareholders of the station that carried Afghan Star. It worked.
In the chaos of the abrupt departure of American forces, Ahmad, his daughter, his son-in-law and his three grandchildren were included in the evacuation of Fox personnel.
After spending two months in Qatar, Fanoos and her family finally arrived in the United States last November, just in time for Thanksgiving.
Elham and Mehran will now have a chance to do something with their father that they didn’t do in Afghanistan: play together in public.
“I played with my dad at home and recorded a few songs with him, with my brother as sound engineer,” Elham explains. “But we’ve never played together in public. Heart of Afghanistan is something really exciting for us.”
It’s also a long way for Elham and Mehran to get home.
As a child, Elham played the tabla, but his father advised him to study “an international instrument”.
“He encouraged me and my brother to make music professionally,” Elham says. “But he didn’t want us to limit ourselves to Afghan music, and that’s why he encouraged us to choose standard Western classical instruments like the piano or the violin. He said I could always take tabla lessons. next door, and I could do both.”
But Elham never took those classes. He fell in love with the piano and YouTube videos of Vladimir Horowitz playing Chopin. It opened a door to another world – and he walked through it, back to his roots.
“Now Mehran and I are trained classical musicians playing Afghan music,” he says. “My father was right.”
In the heart of Afghanistan
Saturday, May 14, 2022
Two shows 7:30 p.m. & 10:00 p.m.
The Atlantic BKLN
333 Atlantic Avenue, Brooklyn, NY 11201
Introducing Heart of Afghanistan and Upcoming US Tour Presented by AMERICAN VOICES