Azerbaijan International

Spring 2005 (13.1)

Musicians Go to Afghanistan

Healing the Wounds of War
by Jean Pierre Guinhut
Pages 38-39

Jean Pierre Guinhut, French Ambassador to Afghanistan, still maintains very close ties with Azerbaijan from the time when he was Ambassador in Baku (1999-2002). For example, it was Guinhut (pronounced geh-NOO) who was instrumental in helping to establish the airline route between Baku and Kabul for Azal Airlines.

Ambassador Guinhut is more than your typical diplomat; he's a genuine Orientalist at heart. His academic interests in this region of the world motivated him to master Arabic and Persian. Along with English and French, he also speaks some Spanish, Turkish, and Azeri.

Guinhut was known for his enormous support of culture - especially music, art and language - while serving in Azerbaijan. Among the many projects he supported were the bi-weekly dinners at the Embassy residence that he hosted where he invited young brilliant Azerbaijani musicians to perform.

These days the Ambassador is involved in bringing the Shirvan Trio, his favorite Azerbaijani Mugham (traditional modal music) group to Kabul to perform. We wondered why. As electricity in Kabul is sporadic, it took us 13 days to get a reply to our initial inquiry. But the ambassador was so passionate and convincing about the benefits of Oriental music in rebuilding this war-torn society that we wanted to share his perspective here. The following exchange took place between Azerbaijan International's Editor Betty Blair and Ambassador Guinhut.


Quote: Ambassador Jean Pierre Guinhut:
"In a country as devastated as Afghanistan, music is a gift in a dull and desperate struggle for survival....The death of musicians from war should be commemorated in history as one of the worst crimes against humanity."

Azerbaijan International:
Why have you made such a great effort to invite the Shirvan Trio mugham performers from Azerbaijan to Afghanistan?

Ambassador Guinhut: Let me confess that, first of all, I'm doing this for my own personal pleasure. Having the chance to listen to such delicate and sensitive music in Kabul is absolutely essential for the human spirit. And the opportunity provided by the direct air link between Baku and Kabul via Azal Airlines simply could not be missed.
Secondly, bringing the Shirvan Trio here enables me to consolidate my personal support for these remarkable artists who have never asked for any help and who have never complained about any difficulties - unlike so many members of their profession - anywhere in the world, at any given period of time.

And last, but not least, I brought them here to please the Afghan amateurs of Oriental classical music, among which, first of all, is His Majesty Zaher Shah himself and the royal family. I wanted to express my deepest empathy to Afghan musicians who have suffered during the unprecedented and gruesome repression of the Taliban dictatorship.

When music is shared between countries, it empowers other musicians to know that they are cherished and that they must continue performing music even under the most difficult circumstances.

Artists must make music just as birds eternally sing their spontaneous, ineffable love for the beauty of roses simply because they are God's creatures, and they must do on Earth what they have been created to do. In a country as devastated as Afghanistan, music is a gift in a dull and desperate struggle for survival.

I have brought the Shirvan Trio here to Aghanistan on five different occasions. In Kabul, they performed before a wide range of audiences - from princes and ministers to military personnel including General Hilmi Akin Zorlu, the Turkish commander of International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and his staff, and some of the Azerbaijani soldiers who are members of those troops.

I organized the first festival of music ever to be held in Mazar-i Sharif (located in northern Afghanistan), where a large proportion of the local population is Turkic-speaking. It was called the "Novruz Festival of Red Tulips" (Jashnware-ye Gol-e Sorkh). In Mazar, the Shirvan Trio represented Azerbaijan at an ancient flag-raising ceremony at Hazrat Ali's mosque. They also performed for the governor of Ghazni (east central Afghanistan) along with a local ensemble in a double recital, which also included Afghan-Indian music and mugham.

Why are you so enthusiastic about this specific group - the Shirvan Trio?

Left: The Shirvan Trio from Azerbaijan with Ambassador Guinhuit in Afghanistan.

Back when I was first assigned to Baku in 1998, I was so keen to explore the many facets and charm of mugham music. I love Alim Gasimov [famous mugham singer in Azerbaijan] as much as anyone does, and so do the members of the Shirvan Trio.

But it is impossible to ask a top artist to come and sing and play for hours on end for me whatever I would want. But that's exactly what I was interested in. It was as simple as that. I wanted to create a systematic approach to listening to mugham on a regular and frequent basis so that I could hear all the modes - "mughamat" - one after another. I wanted to listen to the main ones first - of which there are 12; and then I wanted to proceed to the secondary mughams (approximately 70 more). The mughams of the Azerbaijani tradition are extremely precise and very expressive.

These wonderful young musicians in the Shirvan Trio accepted my proposal with enthusiasm and so we began immediately. The group consists of Samir Shirinov as khananda (singer), Namig Rezazade (tar) and Elton Naghiyev (kamancha).

So between 1998 and 2000, we organized a performance in Baku once a month, and twice whenever possible. We have continued this process, which may not have any terminating point. Perhaps, we will never be able to finish it.

As you can imagine, with the passage of time, their talent has developed and the quality of their performances has strengthened. Naturally, my own knowledge and sensitivity has deepened as well.

I do love and appreciate other music of this same genre (Arabic "maqamat" and "muashahat", Turkish "fasil" and "taksim", Iranian "dastgah", and Afghan-Indian "ragas", "ghazal", "khayyal" and "qawalis").

The great theoretician Al-Farabi (870-950 A.D.) so ably described all the rules and secrets of this genre in Kitab al-Musiqa (The Book of Music). But for me, I'd have to confess my preferences for the mughams of Azerbaijani style and tradition. To me, they are the most accomplished and most beautiful.

What is it that drives you to organize these concerts in the midst of war and the uncertainty of daily life there in Afghanistan - especially given all the hardships, lack of security, and the daily aggravations of sporadic access to electricity, water, heat, medicine, food? So then, why do you insist on music?

Left: The Shirvan Trio performing mugham in Kabul. Ambassador Guinhuit has brought this Azerbaijani group to Afghanistan on five occasions.

It's only natural for me to do so because music is an integral part of my own life. And having the chance to actually meet musicians personally is a million times better than listening to recorded music (despite the fact that the quality of recording technologies these days is unsurpassable).

Being in the presence of musicians as they perform makes you feel closer to the musicians themselves - you feel the immediacy of their lives, the consciousness of pure emotion. You begin to realize how long and difficult they've worked to train themselves.

Of course, musicians are very much like the rest of us human beings. They have the same daily life and the same practical and moral concerns as we do. But the spirit of melody, combined with poetry and improvisation makes this music so unique that when they perform from the depths of their soul, they almost seem to be celestial - from another world.

War has taken many lives of musicians throughout the world. I was recently reminded of another great musician, French composer Maurice Ravel, who fought on the front lines during World War I. What a tragedy if we had lost him!

But, in Afghanistan, where the musical tradition is so rich and so multi-layered, the losses have been enormous. The death of musicians from war should be commemorated in history as one of the worst crimes against humanity.
Music is part of the heritage of this ancient nation. This is what drives me to be so active. We've done our best to bring these music sessions, free of charge, to Afghanistan as an effort to begin to help restore some of the culture and the heritage of these people.

Afghans are a people whose dignity, charm and hospitality are legendary. My friends and I discovered Afghanistan in the late 1960s and were drawn to its famous musicians like Ostad (Master) Sarahang and Ostad Mahvash. We used to think of Afghanistan as the most beautiful country in the world.

Now it has systematically been destroyed by two generations of ignorant and brutal tyrants. So what is our conclusion to all this chaos? Simply to make music! And we have done it, and we will do it again and again until the sound of music will heal the wounds of the souls and reconcile people to their own identity and traditions. It's particularly important that we as representatives of Western countries and cultures show an unwavering openness to other traditions and living cultures because they enrich one another.

It is critically important that we express this openness and not just talk about it abstractly. We must stress the plurality and the beauty of the world. That means that we must exclude any tendency to uniformity, or worse yet, to commercialization.

What I've learned from the past 30 years of my endless travels and eagerness to acculturate is the value and virtue of differences. I pray for this world to maintain these differences, and for human beings to embrace and exalt the "unknown part of themselves". No other human language is as immediate and as meaningful as music - any type of music. But in my experience I have found no other music more compelling and more culturally or spiritually elevating than Oriental classical music.

Even the disasters brought on by war and the post-war reconstruction should never stop us. Music is an integral part of human dignity and freedom. Here in Afghanistan, it is a sort of duty and proof of human solidarity. We must not give up. Our duty is to give the Afghans renewed confidence; to help them rise up on their feet so that they never again tolerate anyone taking advantage of their spirit of tolerance and friendship. To be part of this renewal process, indeed, brings me enormous pleasure.


Other articles by Ambassador Jean Pierre Guinhut:

Diplomatic Interview: Guinhut, Ambassador from France (AI 6.1, Spring 1998)
A Two-Way Street: France's Cultural Diplomacy with Azerbaijan (AI 8.4, Winter 2000)
The Man Who Loved Too Much: The Legend of Leyli and Majnun (AI 6.3, Autumn 1998)

Other articles about Afghanistan:
Focusing on Afghanistan by Photojournalist Reza (AI 10.2, Summer 2002)


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