Musicians Speak for Themselves

In July, before I left for London, and eventually Kabul, I convened a group of musicians – friends, students and colleagues from Boston’s New England Conservatory – to perform in a fund-raising concert. I asked each performer to choose a piece of music that reflected his or her thoughts, feelings and hopes for the culture, history and people of Afghanistan. I’d sent around a couple of emails with pictures, articles, quotes, links to videos, and images by documentary photographers, but other than that I gave no specific artistic direction.

So on the night of the concert, I didn’t know much about what music that would be played, and I experienced the concert much as anyone in the audience did. One performer after another came to the stage, and introduced a piece of music that reflected a personal engagement with Afghanistan, with our (for many of us, adopted) American home, and with our global family of musicians.

The performances were by turns thoughtful, profound, ironic, reverential, and irreverent. Afterward, I had the rare and distinct feeling that we’d done something good. ‘Good’ can sound anodyne, but I mean it in the fullest sense of the word. Good for each of us, for everyone in the room, and in some small and substantial way, for the world.

My heartfelt thanks to all the performers; to Rachel Roberts, Andrew Hurlbut, Rob Flax and Gil Aharon for logistical support, and to all who attended the concert.

As musicians, we generally labour under the assumption that our music should speak for itself, and for us. So it was a particular pleasure to hear one musician after another tell the stories behind their songs with so articulately and passionately. In place of a YouTube link or an MP3 file, then, I’ll share something of this evening with you through the words of those the performers. Read on.

Tanya Kalmanovitch, Kabul, August 5 2011


Pianist Bert Seager, introducing Kenny Wheeler’s “Everybody’s Song But My Own”, performed with vocalist Katie Seiler:

I am sure that I speak for everyone where when I say that our deepest wish is for the cessation of violence and for peace. Along those lines, our second song, Kenny Wheeler’s “Everybody’s Song But My Own” is offered as a prayer that the children of Afghanistan can live in a land where they can freely discover their music and imagine their own songs and can live, sing and play them together in peace.


Israeli flutist Amir Milstein, introducing Rumba Blanca by Stu HaCohen, performed with Ted Reichman, accordion:

I would like to play for you a song called Rumba Blanca, by the Israeli/Bulgarian composer Stu HaChoen. Stu was ten years old when the Second World War started. He lived in Bulgaria, and his family was the only Jewish family in the village. When the Bulgarian Army came after them he ran away. He found shelter with the local gypsies … he took his accordion with him and that kept him happy—as happy as he could be at that time—through the war. When the war ended, he was 15 years old. He came to Israel and became a great mentor for many generations of musicians.

Music is what gave a lot of hope to Stu during the war, and music is what gave great joy to his everyday life. I hope that all the people of ANIM can give that kind of joy and hope to the children in Afghanistan.

Singer and songwriter Leah Hennessy, introducing a song she wrote for the occasion:

Tanya had sent a bunch of images and articles about Afghanistan and there was one picture in particular that spoke to me. I wrote this song with that in mind, and also a Wallace Stevens poem called “The Dove in the Belly”, the dove in the belly being a metaphor for inner peace. [The poem says that] when you experience something as beautiful, part of what makes it beautiful is the response you have within you.

Guitarist Hayes Griffin, introducing Tom Paxton’s “What Did You Learn in School Today?”:

This song is kind of a sarcastic poke of fun at how we take in information and learn information in this country, definitely something that pertains to the conflict in Afghanistan. I think that your average American citizen doesn’t know half of what’s going on over there and it’s great to have people who have been there who can come back and tell us what’s been going on, and not paint quite the bleak picture that the United States media likes to do…

Hayes Griffin, introducing Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land”:

The next tune is one that all of you probably know, written by the late great Woody Guthrie. This song was a response to the song “God Bless America”. As many of you know, Woody was a pretty adamant Communist supporter, back at a time in our country’s history when that wasn’t the cool thing to do. So this was his response to the glossed-over, sugar-coated view of the American way of life. I think it’s appropriate to play this song tonight, because it asks all the questions that we need to be asking. What are we doing in this world, and how are we sharing it with each other?

Ted Reichman, introducing his arrangement of Randy Newman’s “Political Science” as performed by the Lindenbomber Fleet:

What you’re about to hear is a song that’s frequently misunderstood … It’s appropriate to go on after Woody Guthrie and This Land is Your Land: after one of the most sincere American songwriters, you will now be hearing one of the least sincere American songwriters. The word most usually associated with this song and songwriter is irony, and I also think that irony is a good word to associate with our involvement in Afghanistan, unfortunately. One thing to keep in mind as you listen to this song is that it was written about 35 years ago in a very different political context. And the really ironic thing is that so much of it really has come true, today.

Greek vocalist Panayiota Chalouloukou, introducing “A Timeless Place (The Peacocks)”. Music by Jimmy Rowles, lyrics by Norma Winstone, performed with pianist Lefteris Kordis:

This is the picture we were inspired [by]; the faces of these kids. This song includes a lot of imagery from the world of fantasy and imagination, which I think should be the world of every kid on this planet.

Dutch saxophonist Jorrit Dijkstra, introducing his composition, performed here for solo saxophone:

I’ve known Tanya for a few years now, and the most important thing I’ve always noticed about her is that she’s an extreme multi-tasker … You know, I’m not really a political, war and peace kind of guy when it comes to music, so I thought, “let’s focus on the multitasking part”. I write a piece a couple of weeks ago for a tour in Chicago, a kind of a neurotic multitasking kind of piece, called “Title Here”.

Travis Alford, introducing “Stone and Glass: Reverence” from Chapel Music (2011), performed with Tanya Kalmanovitch and Borey Shin:

Last summer, I started sketching some musical ideas about scared spaces. Actual physical spaces, structures like churches, small amphitheatres out in the woods … But the more I thought about it, the more my thoughts expanded to the idea that any space can be sacred … we all have our own spaces that are dear to us, even if it’s in our own mind, something that we make ourselves.

One of the things I love about music is that more than any other art form, it allows you to create a sacred space for yourself, alone and with others. Hearing Tanya talk about the kids in Afghanistan and hearing what they’re able to do with music, and what music is able to do for them, I know they are creating their own scared spaces for themselves and their friends.