AFGHANISTAN/USA: The Ghost You Love Most - Qais Essar
The rabab shines as Essar reminds his fellow compatriots about the richness and beauty of his family's culture
As the son of an Israeli, I have been wholly aware of my internal battle that I have been facing for many years as to whether I should proudly celebrate my heritage and culture or kowtow in defeat to antisemitic sentiment that comes as a response to the highlighting of political actions that have taken thousands of miles away in the British press. Over the course of this journey discovering music from across the world, I have become a keen proponent of celebrating one’s own culture and sharing it with the world, so long as it is done without a sense of superiority. Any internalised shame that I have felt growing up in the UK about my Israeli heritage has been put into perspective by Afghan-American musician Qais Essar who unapologetically pays homage to the beautiful culture of his ancestors, despite a massive xenophobic backlash that has faced that Afghan diaspora living in the United States following 9/11.
“The sparsity of each note really makes the rabab shine as an instrument and in doing so, so does Afghan culture.”
Over the course of this journey around the music of the world we have discovered ample new sounds and styles, yet very few instruments have left such an impression on me as Essar has been able to with his rabab. The lute-like instrument, which sounds almost like how one might imagine an Asian kora might, is played in such a way, that a listener who has never heard it before, will feel neither overwhelmed by unfamiliarity nor dissatisfied with a lack of authenticity. This is because Essar uses an overtly Eastern and traditional structure, almost playing at times in a raga-like style, whilst at the same time undercuts the precious sound of the rabab and the santoor with compositions featuring Western instruments that help sew the sound together between East and West.
The album commences with The Culmination of a Sorrowful Life, a song which begins the narrative structure of the concept album in a way that is deeply intriguing. The track picks up pace with an almost rocky percussive beat that gives the song a real oomph, whilst the glorious rabab never fails to take centre stage. The title-track The Ghost You Love Most provides a softer antidote to the opener and is quite a reflective number, made all the more stunning with its harp melody that feature amidst the backdrop of the song. A curiously named track to name the album after, to me it suggests the ‘Ghost’ that Essar refers to may indeed be the culture of his ancestors, gone but not forgotten.
My favourite track Journey To Qaf is a subdued velvety song which caresses the ear at one moment and follows its own unique prog-rock structure the next as it makes all sorts of twists and turns, some haunting, some simply stunning. Sohini Surfer / Emerald Waves, Pt 1 is a short stripped back showcase of the rabab, whilst the song’s second part is more expansive with a surf rock beat. Another wholly enjoyable track. Meanwhile, the final two tracks are almost as featherlike, the latter Untitled with an almost meditative quality to it. The sparsity of each note really makes the rabab shine as an instrument and in doing so, so does Afghan culture.
For me, the real success of the album is its part it has played in motivating me to listen to more rabab music but also discover more about Afghan culture. ‘Winning hearts and minds’ is an expression we might often associate with the war in Iraq, which it is fair to say the Americans failed at for the most part. Yet, the sentiment behind this strategy is something that Essar and other proponents of a culture that has been marred by the media can paradoxically impose themselves through their proud performance of their music. By demonstrating the emotional pull that music like Essar’s can have in forcing people to educate themselves and make themselves more open-minded towards a rich and beautiful culture that is more than just the sum of a series of negative headlines, we can move one step closer to a better and more compassionate world.