March 10, 2013

Voices of Afghanistan comes to Maine

Portland Ovations hosts a series celebrating the people and rich culture of this beautiful and often misunderstood country.

By Bob Keyes
Staff Writer

It began with a trip to the farmers market.

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Homayoun Sakhi, with students in his native Afghanistan, is a master of the rubab, an Afghan lute that dates back 2,000 years.

Courtesy of Dawn Elder Management

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Homayoun Sakhi, left, is a master of the rubab, an Afghan lute that dates back 2,000 years. He leads the band Voices of Afghanistan, which is fronted by vocalist Farida Mahwash, right.

Courtesy of Portland Ovations

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WHEN: 8 p.m. Saturday

WHERE: Hannaford Hall, University of Southern Maine, 88 Bedford St., Portland

HOW MUCH: $32; $10 for students

INFO: 842-0800;;


Pre-concert lecture, 7 p.m. Saturday

•  In-school musical sharing, 9 a.m. Thursday, Riverton Elementary School, Portland

•  Informal performance, 1 p.m. Thursday, Olin Arts Center, Bates College, Lewiston

•  In-school musical sharing, 10:30 a.m. Friday, Lyseth Elementary School, Portland

Prayers, 12:30 p.m. Friday, Washington Avenue Afghani Mosque, 978 Washington Ave., Portland

•  Community potluck, 7 p.m. Friday, East Community School, Portland

Aimee Petrin, executive director of the performing arts organization Portland Ovations, was entertaining a friend from the Vermont National Guard who had just returned from duty in Afghanistan.

Petrin wanted to show him the best of Maine, and took him to the Crystal Springs Farmers Market in Brunswick. By chance, she introduced him to a local vendor from Afghanistan, who bakes wonderful bread.

"I brought him there not even thinking about it, and they just started talking," Petrin said of her friend and the baker.

"They had this whole conversation about how beautiful the landscape is, how great the weather is and how kind the people are," she said. "I realized in that moment that I had no idea about Afghanistan. My limited knowledge of the country was defined through what I knew about the war. I did not understand the people or the culture in any real way."

That was two years ago. In the time since, Petrin has learned much about Afghanistan, and this week will share some of her knowledge through an outreach effort built around the residency of a touring group of musicians known as Voices of Afghanistan.

Portland Ovations hosts the musicians this week. They arrive Tuesday, and stay through March 17.

The ensemble performs a concert at 8 p.m. Saturday at Hannaford Hall at the University of Southern Maine in Portland. All week leading up to the concert, the musicians will gather with the local Afghan community and share stories and music in Portland schools and colleges across the region.

In addition, writer and community organizer Reza Jalali will host a pre-concert lecture, "Issues of Gender in Muslim Culture," at 7 p.m. Saturday. He will read from the book "New Mainers: Portraits of Our Immigrant Neighbors" and present an excerpt from his play, "The Poets and the Assassin," which examines the history and contemporary lives of women in Iran.

Voices of Afghanistan represents the richness and diversity of Afghan musical traditions, and features some of the country's finest instrumentalists. It's fronted by female singer Farida Mahwash and led by Homayoun Sakhi, who is considered a virtuoso on the rubab, an Afghan lute that dates back 2,000 years.

The ensemble performs traditional acoustic music using such instruments as the tabla, harmonium and tula in addition to the rubab.

Jalili, who is from Iran and works as coordinator of multicultural student affairs at USM, said the residency and concert provide an opportunity for the Muslim community and others to come together to share musical traditions and create cultural understanding.

"To judge a people or a nation, it's important to learn about their culture and art, and that includes music," Jalali said. "In the case of Afghanistan, I think it's fair to say that the mainstream media has dehumanized the Afghan people with all these terrible stories about the Taliban, of schools being burned and the stoning of women. This coverage has come to dehumanize this nation to the extent that we might think they do not have any art or culture."

Despite its political and social problems, Afghanistan does indeed have rich cultural traditions that date to the Persian Empire. Voices of Afghanistan offers a small sample, he said.


Sakhi, Voices of Afghanistan's band leader, was born in Kabul in 1976, and began playing music at age 8.

"I was born in a family of musicians," he said in a recent phone interview from him home in California. "My father and my grandfather, they were all musicians. This is a family tradition."

Sakhi's father was a disciple of a musical icon whose lineage dates to the mid-1800s, when an Amir of Kabul brought classically trained musicians from India to perform at his court. The Amir gave the musicians special treatment.

(Continued on page 2)

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