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

(Continued from page 1)

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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

Sakhi began learning the rubab when he was 10, studying with his father in a master-apprentice relationship.

The rubab originated in central Asia, and belongs to a family of double-chambered lutes. It was used to play a devotional style of Afghan music.

The instrument has evolved over 2,000 years, and today has three strings for melody made from nylon and a dozen or so steel strings. It has a heavy wooden body, with goat skin stretched across the body's open face. Melody strings pass through a bridge made from a ram's horn.

The classical technique derives from Indian and Persian influences, and is sometimes compared to claw-hammer banjo picking, resulting in parallel melodies.

Sakhi's story demonstrates the degree of commitment required to pursue music during times of war. Early on, during his teen years, political leaders controlled and censored music. Later, music was banned altogether.

In 1992, Sakhi and his family moved to Peshawar, Pakistan, a common landing spot for Afghan refugees following the Soviet invasion of their country in 1979.

In Peshawar, Sakhi developed a following, and made regular appearances on radio and TV. He opened his own music school, and began learning new skills and techniques from other musicians who lived and worked there.

Sakhi intended to return to Afghanistan and resume his career, but instead came west to the United States, settling in the mid-Atlantic in 2001 and later in California. He and his group are now based in Fremont, near San Francisco, home to one of America's largest communities of Afghanistan refugees.

Sharing culture through music connects Sakhi with his homeland in meaningful ways, he said.

"Music is universal," he said. "People from different cultures and different backgrounds can connect with music. That is why I love what I do. I believe that I am building bridges across cultures."

Sakhi's efforts are not simply about building bridges between Afghanistan and Western cultures. Where he lives in California, there are musicians from across the world in close proximity.

He routinely performs and records with a global network of musicians, who infuse his musical traditions with theirs. The experimentation and collaboration leads to new ideas and exchanges and the continued evolution of music, he said.


Southern Maine is home to about 300 Afghan refugees, Jalali said, most of them in Portland. They arrived beginning in the early 1980s following the Soviet invasion. As did Sakhi, many of the early immigrants moved to California.

There are now many second-generation immigrants in Maine, and they comprise a thriving community that has its own mosque, traditions and social networks.

A member of that community, Nasir Shir, said the Voices of Afghanistan residency is a big deal. The community has organized dinners and arranged for prayers to welcome the musicians to Portland.

"This is their first time to Maine, and we want to make sure they feel welcome here," he said.

Shir hopes this concert will help dispel the negative image of Afghanistan as it is often portrayed on the news. The perception of the country has improved in recent years, thanks to exposure in the Olympics and other international events.

The concert represents another opportunity.

"Hopefully, people will hear this music and will relate that Afghanistan is more than what the news portrays. This will help clear up some of those images," Shir said. "For those Americans that hear the music, they will see that the country has more culture than what they see on the news."

"There is a great sense of excitement about this concert," Jalali said. "And it's not just among the Afghans. You don't have to be from Afghanistan to appreciate this music. It's not often we get an ensemble of Afghan musicians playing in Portland, so it's a unique opportunity."

Petrin hopes the concert and community outreach programs provide a platform for learning and cultural exchange.

"It's obviously true that people connect through music," she said. "Even if you do not understand the lyrics, there is so much energy and passion and that sense of human spirit that comes through the music."

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or:

Twitter: pphbkeyes


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