Afghan musician Aziz Herawi was 7 the first time he heard the strings of the dutar being plucked. He talked one of the family servants, who hid it in a blanket, into buying the instrument for him from a shepherd. The boy would wait until his father was asleep, then sneak into the woods surrounding their home. Alone, in the dark, he practiced, teaching himself to play the long-necked 12-stringed
Herawi, is now 57 and a resident of Sacramento, California. His music is a blend of Persian and Hindustani instruments and styles and considered to be typical of Herat, Herawi’s hometown, near the northeastern border with Iran.
The pieces have the varied rhythms of the Hindustani raga forms, but are short and more intense than most Hindustani music. They often build to very fast tempos, with a wide range of dynamics, sometimes becoming very quiet for dynamic effect. His lute playing also draws from Persian music, Hindustani talas, and the folk forms and rhythms of the Afghan mountains. In addition to the dutar, he will also play the 24-stringed rubab. Herawi told the Los Angeles Times last year through an interpreter that his music comes from the “heart and soul”.
New York Times critic Peter Watrous wrote in the early 1990’s that Herawi’s music “was about abandon and ecstasy, with intense sections of improvising, always grounded in a galloping rhythm, giving way to delicate, airy moments.”
Born to a well-to-do family of mullahs, or religious clerics, the musician’s father was extremely conservative and allowed his children to listen to news on the radio but turned it off before music was broadcast. Like some conservative Christians, he believed that music caused “people to dance and loose control of themselves,” Herawi told the Los Angeles Times. The self-taught musician was still a young man when his father died, and he was able to pursue his passion openly.
“I invited well-known Ustads (master musicians) from India and other regions to learn from and to play with,” he said. “Because what drove me to music was my god-given love for it. When I am holding one of my instruments—especially the rubab— it is like I am holding on to the universe.”
While still in his 20’s, Herawi became a well-known performer in Afghanistan. He played before the king,
Zahir Shah, with pop artist Ahmad Zahir, and went on the road to Iran, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkey, and other Central Asian nations.
His career came to an abrupt halt in 1979 when the Soviets bombed Herat and troops arrived to round up local leaders. Herawi was away at the time, practicing with musician friends, but most of his family was killed. “I went to the mountains, sometimes on horseback, sometimes on foot,” he said. “Risk was everywhere, from the Soviets, as well as from the Soviet-sponsored local tribal forces. The risk was death and death was common.”
Traditionally, music accompanied nearly every private and public ceremony, with the exception of funerals. During those grim and desperate times of the late 1970s and early 1980s, Herawi lived in the mountains with the
mujahiddin. He did not play or even hear much music for more than five years.
“I was not happy, and that is why I did not play,” he said, “it did not feel right, since the country was at war, and my family members were killed. I was given the opportunity to lead 1,500 men. And, as a commander, my mind was in the war, not music, at the time.”
As things worsened in his homeland, Herawi fled to Pakistan in 1983 and settled into the Afghani expatriate community in Northern California two years later. Despite his many years in the United States, Herawi still does not speak English well enough to be interviewed without a translator.
Herawi has released two CD’s and is working on a third. Herawi believes his primary mission is to help young Afghanis connect with a heritage they barely remember. Herawi’s music “represents the deep roots of Afghanistan, transcending ethnic, linguistic, and tribal boundaries.”