The Female Voice of Afghanistan

January 2022

This month, my focus is on music from Afghanistan, a country whose citizens face a precarious and uncertain future. In my search for information about the fate of musicians there, I came across the following clip on You Tube: Freshta Farokhi, a singer from Bamyan province, in central Afghanistan sings in her native Harazi dialect accompanied here by musicians playing traditional instruments.

Three Bamyan folk songs performed by Freshta Farokhi with Nasir Sorosh on dambora, Asif Naveed on harmonium and Salman Hamdad on qaychak.

Freshta Farokhi is one of nine singers who took part in a virtual music festival: ‘The Female Voice of Afghanistan‘ which was broadcast on You Tube in October 2021. In this series of short films, each singer tells her own story and then, joined by musicians online from Europe, they perform together virtually, using green screen technology. I found it heartening to see the immediate connection made between these musicians from different parts of the world and to hear their musical collaboration across cultural genres. Each one of these singers had a desire to be free to perform music and these films gave them a platform to do so.

Freshta Farokhi is featured in the second of the films, talking about her life in Afghanistan, practising music secretly. We then see her online musical collaboration with Mahan Mirarab, an Iranian musician now living in Vienna, who speaks movingly about racial discrimination.

I’m convinced that we need more dialogue. People are disconnected from each other. It applies to music as well. Making music together means communication. The most important thing is listening. Then everything has meaning.

Mahan Mirarab, 2021

From the film ‘The Female Voice of Afghanistan’ part 2, accessed via You Tube, 16/01/22.

This series, devised and directed by ethnomusicologist Yalda Yazdani and Andreas Rochholl (after a similar project exploring Iranian female voices), gives an insight into the lives of these resilient women, who decided to make a career as singers. Their determination to pursue their dreams, in spite of the difficulties they faced, is clear, as is their love of their country and their culture. They may have left their country but their culture is with them wherever they go, to be cherished and shared.

Life in Afghanistan is risky. Especially for girls … A woman has to be strong and needs to fight. I fight with my voice.

Wajiha Rastagar

From the film ‘The Female Voice of Afghanistan’ part 3, accessed via You Tube, 16/01/22.

As we know, life changed course for the people of Afghanistan since filming in July – September 2021. Witness the dramatic turn of events towards the end of the first film, which can be accessed after the trailer. This series of short films makes compelling viewing and not least for the scenes of musicians playing and singing outside in the midst of stunning mountain landscapes. I was moved not just by these Afghan women’s distinctive singing voices but by what they had voiced about their country, their lives and their music. I was left wondering about these remarkable singers and what the future holds for them.

Creativity and a Concerto by Tan Dun

In the early 2000s, I was invited to join a working party to discuss the value of creativity in education. A teaching style that encouraged children’s creativity had flourished in the late sixties and seventies but it had gone out of fashion and was now being re-evaluated.

I grew up in a creative household, my siblings and I were always drawing, painting or making something. To this day, I am always happy when I’m being creative so I was pleased to be invited to contribute.

A surprising thing happened. At the end of the first meeting of this enthusiastic group, the chairperson gave us a hand-out, with some pages to read and to fill in. The last page was blank apart from an instruction at the top.

“Use this blank page for your creative ideas and bring it to the next meeting.”

For the first time in ages I was flummoxed. My mind, like that page, was blank.

I put the piece of paper aside.

The day before the meeting, I still hadn’t thought of anything. And I wondered what was wrong. I held the piece of paper in my hand, stared at it and wafted it in the air. Then it came to me in an instant … and with one idea, there followed another and another. I ended up taking several sheets of paper with me to that meeting.

In presenting my thoughts to the group, I explained that I had been intimidated by this blank piece of paper with its demand … until the idea had come to me. “This is my first idea …”, I held up the first piece of paper between thumb and forefinger and wafted it in the air, making a slight fluttering sound. Then I shook it till it made a rattling sound. Then, I shook it even harder till it made a surprisingly loud clattering sound.

“My next idea is this …”, I tapped the paper with my fingers gently at first, creating a beat and then used my whole hand to create a rhythmic crescendo.

Then I started to crumple the paper loudly and threw it down on the table.

I picked up the next leaf and started to tear it slowly into strips savouring the ripping sounds. The next piece I tore quickly with staccato accents.

The next I rolled into a tube and sang a note through it. “Oooh”.

The last one became a paper aeroplane flying across the room and I wondered if I’d taken my creativity a bit too far. I’d taken a risk: I was petrified of speaking in meetings so by this time my heart was pounding. Luckily, the others were on the same wavelength and suddenly everyone in the room was coming up with ideas.

Some time after this meeting, I came across a piece of music by Tan DunPaper Concerto for Paper Percussion and Orchestra. I was astonished to see the soloists use huge sheets of paper which were hanging from the ceiling, shaking them and rattling them and then picking up drum sticks to tap rhythmic themes, which were picked up by the orchestra. Here’s what to do with a piece of paper if you’re a composer like Tan Dun! Now that’s not just creative: that’s inventive, exciting and profound.

Profound because for Tan Dun, paper represents a connection with his Chinese heritage: China, the country where paper was made almost two thousand years ago, using plant fibres (mashed tree bark, hemp), rags and water. By using paper as a set of percussion instruments, alongside a full (conventional) orchestra, Tan Dun created a concerto which aims to celebrate the connection between humans and nature, that is symbolised by the making of paper. The significance of paper for Tan Dun goes even deeper. 

Used universally as a means of communicating through writing, drawing and painting, paper was used in a different way by shamans in the village where Tan Dun spent his childhood: crumbling, tearing and rustling paper as part of their rituals. Tan Dun preserves the memory of this ancient tradition, and brings it to life again in his unique concerto.

Paper not only communicates, but can transmit creativity in an acoustic way by blowing, rubbing, cracking, shaking, crumbling, tearing, popping, puckering, fingering, hitting, waving, slapping, plucking, whistling, swinging and singing through the paper.

Tan Dun (2007)

To hear a sample of this concerto, watch the clip below.

To read about the context and creation of the piece, click on this link: Paper Concerto for Paper Percussion and Orchestra. The above quote is from Tan Dun’s website accessed 10/01/22.

On the Twelfth Day of Christmas

It’s the twelfth day of Christmas, it’s time for a wassail! Wassailing is an old English tradition dating back to the middle ages. In rural areas, it involved going out on twelfth night and blessing the fruit trees by drinking and singing to their good health, in the hope of a good harvest. Another variant of the tradition involved going from house to house singing wassails, to bring good wishes to neighbours (from Old English ‘was hál’ meaning ‘be hale’). These customs have been kept up or revived, in various parts of England. So, to wish you good health in the coming year, I bring you Here We Come a Wassailing sung here by Kate Rusby, from her album ‘Sweet Bells’.

To find out more about wassailing and whereabouts in England it’s all happening, have a look at this article by Jon Wilks (which contains details and locations of wassails) on tradfolk. To read about the history of wassailing (and the wassail bowl) look at this on the National Trust website.

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