Afghan classical music is similar to Indian classical music in that it isn't a fully composed written tradition, but a partially improvised tradition adhering to very specific rules passed orally from master to student. When music was outlawed by the Taliban, the Afghan tradition was exiled or driven underground. Rubab master Homayun Sakhi first fled to Peshawar, Pakistan, and then to Fremont, CA (home of the United States' largest Afghan community), not only bringing this rich tradition to a wider audience but expanding it with innovative playing techniques. Each of the two ragas presented begins with an introductory exposition called a shakl (analogous to the Indian alap), where Sakhi performs unaccompanied with no rhythmic guideposts. He quickly adds a pulse to his playing, as in the jor and jhala sections of Indian classical. In each case, Sakhi performs solo for more than ten minutes until he is joined by Toryalai Hashimi on tabla. Sakhi's playing is amazing: he not only uses the three main strings of the rubab, but also picks on the drone strings (a technique known as parandkari) and strums the sympathetic strings (something not done before by Afghan rubab players), all while continuing to play melodies on the main strings. Hashimi matches him in a lively conversation of beautiful melodies and dazzling rhythms. The informative booklet gives a brief overview of Central Asia, a bio on Sakhi, and detailed notes on the performed tracks. The accompanying DVD explains the Aga Khan Music Initiative (the project behind this series of recordings) and has a short documentary on Homayun Sakhi. In this film, he also demonstrates another new technique he devised: playing the rubab like a santur (dulcimer) by striking the sympathetic strings. It's a shame there isn't an example of this on the CD, because it's a wonderful sound. Both the booklet and DVD also have instrument glossaries. This collaborative release between Smithsonian/Folkways and the Aga Khan Trust for Culture earns high marks for its informative presentation and educational aspects, but just as importantly, Homayun Sakhi has turned in a remarkable performance, breathing new life into this ancient form.
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AllMusic Review by Sean Westergaard