Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Brothers of Note; Reunited after 14 Years as Their Music Returns to Afghanistan

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Brothers of Note; Reunited after 14 Years as Their Music Returns to Afghanistan

Article excerpt


WHEN the tabla players and brothers Ustad Mohammed Asif and Ustad Mohammed Arif, famous throughout Afghanistan, fled their country over the mountains in 1988, they took only their wives and children.

Their instruments, the tabla drums, the unique Afghan rebab, a stringed instrument carved out of mulberry wood grown in the high snows and inlaid with mother-ofpearl, were left behind. They fled the Soviet puppet regime to avoid prison and death the fate suffered by those who refused Soviet-style pressure to perform political music - but in Pakistan, Afghan musicians were also forbidden to play their own music. For four years, the brothers, descendants of court musicians with a 250-year-old family tradition of Afghan classical music, were silent.

Arif flexes his fingers to show how he survived. "I had no tabla, so I used to practise on stones. Then, in our house we had a concrete bench and I practised on that, but I cut my fingers so I stuffed an old suitcase and used that." Back in Kabul, after the arrival of the Taliban, a tabla player they knew buried his instruments to save them from destruction and starved to death. The family survived in Peshawar because the sons made and sold potato chips. Finally, with money he made from playing with Pakistani artists, Arif had enough money to buy new instruments and the music began again.

Afghanistan, like her musicians, has been silent for years, a country without spirit or song, but this Thursday night, at the Royal Albert Hall, Asif and Arif will be reunited in music and life for the first time in 14 years. Their cousin, Ustad Mohammed Mahvash, will fly in from America to play along with Asif 's son Yusuf, who teaches tabla at Goldsmiths College. The Ensemble-Kaboul will fly in from Geneva, and the renowned female singer Mawash from San Francisco. Not since they played as children in the old musicians' quarter in Kabul will so many legendary performers have been gathered together.

There are Afghan musicians in Iran, America, Europe and Asia waiting and longing to return, remembering a time when they were born, lived, learned, played and sang side by side in the same area of old Kabul, the musicians' quarter, Kharabat. According to John Bayly, a specialist in Afghan music from Goldsmiths who will also be playing in Thursday's concert, the meaning of Kharabat is "a place you go to be destroyed", but not in the pounded-by-mortars, pulverisedby-bombs sense of destruction, more a spiritual opening up, a surrender and rebirth.

"Kharabat," explains Asif at his home in Southall, "was a sacred place, a place for Sufi prayers and rituals. Then, 250 years ago, a king with a great love of music gathered all his musicians around him in one place.

When we were growing up, our house was known as the centre for music. …

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