A Conversation About: Afghanistan, Intention and Life With Musician Qais Essar

The first time I heard about Qais Essar was when my cousin in San Francisco gave me a rare, once-in-a-blue-moon phone call. We talked about how we legitimately believe all moms are magical and about the frivolities in our lives when she remembered this talented, Afghan Rabab musician that played at her school that weekend. I was disinterested—but she was persistent that I’d like him. Out of curiosity, I Googled this Rabab musician my cousin was so seemingly drawn towards and found myself replaying his albums on Soundcloud for the next two hours. I could feel my nerves dancing and my heart stretching just a little bit bigger. I consider that the profound moment I was first captivated and enticed by music from my own culture, Afghan culture. Almost a year later from my own personal, soul-awaking tender moment, I saw that Qais Essar was going to be playing a show just a thirty-minute drive from me.

Qais’ show was held in an eerie, dark church. I stood in the parking lot with my friend for a good ten minutes wondering if we had come to the wrong place—but then we heard it. We heard the soul of Afghanistan gravitating us towards two large wooden doors. We were welcomed by a priest who was wearing sandals, he whispered something as he handed each of us a program and then opened the portal to a cosmic dimension that felt so beautiful and familiar to me even though it was all intensely new. There on the stage sat Qais, strumming on his Rabab crafted by the finest wood and accompanied by two other musicians.

The Rabab is a national instrument of Afghanistan, once the strings are plucked you become submerged into a deep, dark cave that has saturated golden hues spilling through every hole and crack. Qais captivates his audience with his melodies that graze your skin like the wind—a prevailing lullaby.  He enchants you with a soft susurration but rooted deep into the chord lies a threat that his lullaby will metamorphose into a hurricane at any waking second. I was brimming with a tingly sensation until the end of his set, maybe that’s how it feels to step out of an exquisite wind storm. It felt so good to be overflowing with pride for music from my venerable culture, my curiosity and yearning for more Afghan music began with Qais’. I approached him after the set and asked if I could sit down with him sometime and learn more about him. So a few days later, we bonded over cold brew and the deplorable way that white people try to Westernize both of our names at one of the best coffee joints in downtown Phoenix.

negine jasmine 

Where did your fascination for music stem from?

One of my earliest memories I think, I was around six and I had just gotten a violin and one night I flipped it up on its side and I kind of wanted to be Randy Travis and I started making up songs about farm animals and shit. Growing up I felt really—different. You know, granted we were different, because English was my second language so I had to go to ESL for a few years. And even though Virginia is more ethnically diverse still, when you’re a minority, you kind of want to belong to a group of people or a bigger minority so you feel like you have a community. I never really felt that way. I always felt lonely and at a point I discovered that with music you can connect with people. That’s where it started, this is my way of being a part of something bigger, a bigger community. I remember going to see music and I would just be floored, and I always wanted to make people feel like that. Music is beyond you, beyond us. You’re trying to communicate all these things, that’s where it began. It began as a way for me to express myself fully. To communicate something bigger than myself.

When were you exposed to the Rabab and how did you know you wanted to evolve with that instrument?

I was fortunate enough to where, even though we grew up in the United States, our household didn’t incorporate an American tradition. At home—we weren’t raised as Americans, we were raised as Afghans. We were raised with our music; we were raised with the culture and the language. Just because we live here doesn’t mean that we have to give up our identity and assimilate—I think assimilation is whack as shit. It’s diversity that helps us grow. It’s coming into contact with other cultures and learning from them. Doesn’t mean I have to become American just because we share the same neighborhood.

My dad always played Afghan music when we were younger; my dad was the one who gave me the tambour and my first Rabab. The last time he went to Kabul he brought me one, I remember he wrapped it around in a prayer rug and carried it on his back from Kabul all the way to Phoenix. I was exposed to the Rabab at a super young age, with just all of the music that was playing in the house. Early on, my parents kind of identified that I have a certain skill set so that I should probably go into music. I learned the guitar, the piano, I learned everything but it didn’t leave my satisfied. But with the Rabab—the first stroke, the first “Sa”,  the way it reverberated—it just kind of made me feel whole. It just felt right. That’s super rare, you know—to be moved. Growing up we were super nationalistic. One of my uncles said something that I’ve only heard once in my life: “Muslim, Jewish, Christian, whatever you want to be that’s fine. But never forget that you’re Afghan”.

This is the only thing that feels right, after playing everything else, this is it.

Artistically I’m satisfied and now this becomes a medium for me to promote my own socio economical agenda, with the Rabab and the platform that I have, I have an audience. It’s never an Afghan audience, which is fine. Afghans don’t see me perform—I do it for them even if they don’t care, it’s mostly other people. Most of these people have a pretty negative perspective on Afghanistan and it’s not because it’s their fault, this is what the media has fed them. When you say Afghanistan, people associate this country with: Taliban, stoning, terrorism and Bin Laden. This certain image has been designed and I want to introduce a different Afghanistan. This is a place of enormous wealth—in many different ways. It’s a place with a very old culture and heritage and a place of music and art and beauty. This is something that a lot of people don’t see and this is what I want to show people—there are so many kids that grow up who feel kind of ashamed of their identity. I would like to create an environment to where if someone says Afghanistan, they think good things, not bad, so someone doesn’t have to be embarrassed of their background.

 I want to introduce a different Afghanistan. This is a place of enormous wealth—in many different ways. It’s a place with a very old culture and heritage and a place of music and art and beauty.

Have you learned anything that has caused you to recontextualize your understanding of your world?

I think the last biggest revelation type thing that I had is the power of intention. That’s what I always tell people. It doesn’t matter what you do—what matters is the intention you have behind it. With these musician types, what is their intent? To make money or to gain popularity or is it to create something that can make a difference?

I think, as a musician you have to be so empty—by empty, I mean, not harbor any ill will or bad intentions or motives. It’s like a Rabab, right? How it’s structurally built—it’s got this big empty resonating chamber and if that was full, there would be no sound, the Rabab would be dead. The guitar is the same; if you stick a blanket in the hole, it’s not going to make a sound. Just like these instruments have to be hollow to receive all of this music, so does the musician. You’re transmitting something far greater than yourself, that’s why there should be no ego in music because its not about you—it’s not about you at all—and I look up because I don’t know what I’m looking at because I don’t even really understand myself. I just know that it’s far greater than anything that I could imagine. What you’re trying to do is…condense this, somehow and put it out, something. I think if it’s done with the right intention it has a profound impact.

 Just like these instruments have to be hollow to receive all of this music, so does the musician.

 I feel like people with different cultures who grow up in America feel conflicted or forced to only portray one side of their identity, how do you incorporate both of your cultural identities into your lifestyle and art?

Well, for people that have been raised here—to give them Eastern music in a very raw form—it’s kind of hard for them to swallow. It’s much like when you’re feeding a baby medicine, you put it in food. That’s what I’m doing, I’m putting it in food—I’m putting it in a corn dog. I think that if you package it in a way that’s accessible, that kind of acts as a gateway. If someone likes what I’m doing, I hope that they will go off and explore further. Having been raised here and having been educated in both Western and Eastern music, I try to create it in a way so that it brings the Rabab in 2015. I try to make it so that someone who doesn’t listen to this music, will—or could. Easily digestible. It’s a very hard thing to expect us to stay tribal people, in 2015, so I never call for assimilation but I would like for us to progress as a culture and as people

I mean, I’m wearing jeans and a shirt from H&M, so I guess aesthetically I’m not Afghan ‘cause I don’t wear traditional clothing from Afghanistan every day. Yet, there’s so much Afghanistan in what I write, stories about Afghanistan that I heard when I was younger. It’s like the ghost of my dad’s Kabul in the music, it’s because I want people to know that Afghanistan. I fuse it with Western elements so that it has a wider audience and becomes more digestible to those who aren’t exposed to Eastern music.

What’s the single best advice you’ve gotten from someone on how to be your full self?

You know, the best advice is often the most simple: Do you. You don’t imagine the weight behind that though, do you. That means, I’m not going to worry about what people think, I’m not going worry about this current situation—I’m going do what I feel is right. That means sometimes, going against cultural norms or butting heads with certain people. Do what you want to do, don’t let other people define you. I don’t remember who told me this but it was during my mid 20’s—and your mid 20’s are a very turbulent time of your life. There’s fear, it’s really scary not knowing, not knowing. That’s it. Not knowing where the next check is coming from or how much it’s going to be or if it’s going to be enough—but to do you is to have faith in yourself. I think that’s what it comes down to, it’s the faith that keeps you going and allows you to do things that you think is right.

negine jasmine

 What advice would you give to someone who’s unsure about whether or not to pursue in their passion?

Do it. Just do it. Life is so short, why would you want to live someone else’s life? Why not live your life happy? I could be very comfortable if I had a 9-5 but I would be miserable, so if anyone wants to follow their passion, you should do it, because odds are that’s what you’re supposed to do with your life. That’s what you’re here for. I don’t want to be dying and then be like “Oh shit—I really should have pursued in my dreams”. It’s very hard, but you should try, don’t expect a lot but you should try and go into it with the right intentions.

For me growing up as an Afghan Muslim in a post 9/11 world, it was difficult for me to embrace my roots and my culture for some period of time. Especially since I’d be shamed for it by people or the media. Do you feel like you had to overcome institutionalized shame in order to proudly pursue in the Rabab?

Of course. I mean, post 9/11 America made it very hard to be who you are openly. The thing I realized very quickly with the Rabab is that, if your identity was ambiguous before, now it’s just right there in people’s faces. People didn’t know much about Afghanistan when all of a sudden we became almost naked. You’re in front of everybody as an Afghan. Personally, it got to a point where I had to get confident in that fact very fast. When I started performing with the Rabab professionally in front of large groups, I had to deal with any insecurities that I might have had beforehand. When you go to the festivals or concerts that’s what they introduce you as: “ Qais Essar…from Afghanistan” and everyone’s like: “Oh, it’s one of them”.

That’s the moment when you can seize control and flip it back on them. Be like, “Guess what, I am one of those guys,  but what you think is completely wrong and there is no reason for me to have to be ashamed—because I’m coming with all of this music and art that is a very real part of my culture.” I shouldn’t have to feel ashamed because of weird politics. When I was a sophomore in high school, everyone would look at me like I was supposed to make commentary. I was angry for a while. More bitter, more jaded towards everyone else. Because you’re systematically made to feel ashamed. I decided very early that I was not going to allow myself to be ashamed. I know how that feels and so with what I’m trying to do, I try to make it so that no one else will have to feel that way. No Abdullah should feel like they have to go by Abe. No one should have to lie or be ashamed about where they’re from. We should be proud. Be proud you’re from Afghanistan. We’re amazing people.

We have such a deep-rooted long history, ancient civilization. We are blessed in a way that we get to live a completely different type of American lifestyle as minorities, we get to see the other side of it. Racism and/or discrimination because of wherever you might be or whatever dogmatic thing you adhere to but I like to think that it makes us stronger.

What are your existing albums that people should look for/listen to?

The Green Language, which I released July 2014, it did super well. I’m super grateful.

What about I Am Afghan. Afghani is Currency?

That started off as a joke, there was a lull between gigs so the one thing that I got criticized for was: “Oh, he can’t play real Afghan music” and I was like, no I totally can so I’m just going to release an EP with just super traditional, classical music. I just did it for fun but people really liked it for some reason. So now I give it as Eid gifts. It’s like a ‘thank you’ to my supporters, it’s more folky and traditional but people should be exposed to more traditional Afghan music because it’s getting more rare these days.

Klasik is the EP I put out in March, that is more of the stuff that I want to explore in the album that I’m currently writing.

Are there any musical elements you’d like to experiment with?

If you listen to The Green Language, this is the first time the Rabab has been in such settings. So, with a lot of fusion stuff that started to happen after the 50s, even until now most of how it has been structured has been interdependent. What I wanted to do is make something that could not stand by itself but with a perfect fusion of Eastern and Western music, that’s what I did with the album. It’s kind of where I want to take the new one. I want to experiment more with all kinds of instruments, expand it more to where the demographic gets wider. The more you add the wider your demographic gets. I want to experiment as much as I can. I’m trying to redefine Afghan art. You can’t play it safe forever, that’s what The Green Language was, which is why I think it did so well.

negine jasmine

He left me with my first Afghan music on vinyl and a greater sense of how I want to incorporate my culture into my every breath. He transformed hard surfaces into Tablas (hand drums that are commonly used within the Indian subcontinent) and spoke in Dari at every chance he couldn’t find the right words in English. Some things just sound so much more right in our language. If you haven’t gotten the sense that Qais is one of the better humans out there from this conversation, then you’ll undoubtedly grasp it in his music.

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