‘Heart of Afghanistan’ to debut in Brooklyn

Heart of Afghanistan
Heart of Afghanistan – folk and ghazal ensemble from Kabul. From left: Hamid Habibzada (tabla), Mehran Fanoos (violin), Elham Fanoos (keyboards), and Ahmad Fanoos (vocals and harmonium).
Kesten Migdal

For decades, the Afghanistan we know from the news has been a country of war, unspeakable violence and the goings-on of an intractable band of fundamentalists set on taking its culture back centuries.

It’s hard to imagine it as a place where everyday life also included music, a wide variety of music ranging from folk and pop songs to the rich, high-flowing poetry of ghazals.

This unseen, unheard country is the Afghanistan of the Fanoos family and “Heart of Afghanistan”, an immersive project debuting at The Atlantic BKLN, Sat., May 14, at 7:30 pm and 10:00 pm.

The showcase is a presentation of American Voices, an NGO dedicated to providing cultural exchanges in nations emerging from conflict and isolation. https://americanvoices.org/

“I’ve always wanted to become a cultural ambassador,” said pianist Elham Fanoos, 24. “I have always wanted to show a positive face of Afghanistan, and now it’s happening.

“I’m a classically-trained pianist, and I love playing Chopin and the classical repertoire, but I also love playing Afghan music,” he added. “I grew up listening to Afghan music and my father singing Afghan and Indian popular songs, especially ghazals.”

Elham’s playing was a highlight in the Afghanistan National Institute of Music Orchestra’s performances at its tour stops in Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center in 2013.

A year later, after a suicide bombing at a concert in the school, which has since closed, Elham decided pursue a full scholarship to Hunter College in New York City. He later completed his Master’s degree at the Manhattan School of Music.

In Heart of Afghanistan, Elham joins his father, Ahmad Fanoos, a much-respected vocalist and harmonium player, and a celebrity, a status earned as a talent judge on the popular TV show Afghan Star, the local version of American Idol; his brother Mehran Fanoos, a freshman at Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music, on violin, and Hamid Habibzada on tabla.

John Ferguson, the founder and executive director of American Voices and a pianist, said that the organization “has been working abroad in over 150 nations over the past 30 years, and we haven’t had the opportunity to produce concerts in the United States until now.

“With ‘Heart of Afghanistan’, we have turned our focus, and the ultimate objective for us here is for audiences in the United States to understand the long arc of Afghan culture,” Ferguson said. “This is a proud, ancient, diverse, and complex culture.

“’Heart of Afghanistan’ is our attempt to show some of the different threads of Afghan culture and get a more nuanced understanding of the country through musical performance and visual presentation,” he added.

The program will consist of folk songs and pop hits by Ahmad Zahir, perhaps the most iconic singer of Afghanistan.

There will also be some ghazals, Ahmad Fanoos’ trademark, and qawwali, a devotional South Asian music that found a Western audience through the work of Pakistani singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.

The multi-disciplinary event will also feature a series of projected images of Afghanistan by NYC-based photographer Michael Luongo to help place the music in its physical and social landscape.

For the Fanoos Family, this performance is also a reunion celebration. After the Taliban reclaimed power, music was banned. Ahmad Fanoos received several verbal death threats and a written message left on his instrument case.

“All your family members are busy with these dirty activities,” the note read. “We are warning you for the last time to leave.”

For the elder Fanoos, it was a familiar story. While the Taliban was first in control, between 1996 and 2001, music was strictly forbidden. Even listening to music at home became a punishable transgression.

As a precaution, musicians buried and hid their instruments.

This time, Ahmad had to leave. Elham, who had been living in the United States since 2015, enlisted his sponsor, Lesley Rosenthal, chief operating officer of the Juilliard School, who, in turn, reached out to Fox Corporation, shareholders of the station that aired Afghan Star. It worked.

In the chaos of the abrupt departure of American forces, Ahmad, his daughter, son-in-law, and three grandchildren were included in the evacuation of Fox personnel.

After spending two months in Qatar, Fanoos and his family finally arrived in the United States last November, just in time for Thanksgiving.

Elham and Mehran will have now a chance to do something with their father they didn’t do in Afghanistan: perform together in public.

“I played with my father at home, and I did record a couple of songs with him, with my brother as the sound engineer,” he said. “But we have never played together in public. ‘Heart of Afghanistan’ is something really exciting for us.”

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