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Reclaiming lost musical legacy

Homayun Sakhi might have never played in India before, but the strings of his rubab will find an echo in "desi" music when he plucks them this coming Saturday. Probably the finest rubab player of his generation from Afghanistan, Homayun has finally been able to find a little bit of "home'' with the help of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture's Music Initiative in Central Asia.

Bringing alive traditions that were drowned in the louder sounds of gunfire for years is a group of musicians like Homayun who are trying to reclaim their lost legacy. Helped by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, the old "ustads" have finally been reunited and found students who are willing to carry the rich past to a future.

"We were approached by Yo-Yo Ma, the famous cellist who wanted to explore the traditional music of Central Asia by adding a new dimension to it by using Western instruments. However, he wanted to use the music of Iran, India and countries where the music tradition was well preserved. We found that there were many countries in the area where Soviet rule had either banned music or modified instruments. The masters had not been able to teach for years and were getting older. Since music is an oral tradition passed down from teacher to student, we had to save it,'' says Fairouz Nishanova, director of the Aga Khan Music Initiative in Central Asia.

In an attempt to save the art of music which was rapidly being lost, the Music Initiative helped recreate the old ways of learning. Supporting the tradition-bearers, they have helped bring back the ustad-shagird tradition and find strong "new" links in a long thread of old. "It was not easy to convince people to let their children learn classical music. They would find it more acceptable to make their children pop-stars than classical musicians, so part of our work is to help recreate the respect for classical music in these areas. We also have a scholarship programme for children so that parents are encourage to make them musicians,'' she says.

With respect for traditions in war-torn countries coming through the "Western route" like it does in India, performers from devastated areas like Afghanistan have been taken on a European tour. "Our performers opened the English National Opera in London this year. We hired the best stage designers and recordists so that we can bring European audiences to this music,'' she remarks.

And while the audiences overseas get a chance to hear a new sound, for artistes it is about getting a little bit of their "own" back.

By Mandira Nayar

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