For me personally, the highlight was arranging, preparing, and conducting The Four Seasons of Afghanistan at the gala. And if I had to pick one highlight of that immensely rewarding and complex process, it would be working with the young boy who ended up playing the beautiful slow movement of Winter on the ghichak.
He's a teeny tiny little boy with bright red hair and a mile-wide grin. He's 10 years old but looks about 6. He's so excited about music that as soon as he gets his instrument, he runs to the practicing room, grinning the whole time. Oh, and he's far and away the greatest prodigy I've met.
Only obstacle to him becoming world famous? The instrument at which he is so astonishing is the ghichak, little-known outside the region. I hope he will do for the ghichak what Ravi Shankar did for the sitar, Zakir Hussain for the tabla, and Kayhan Kalhor for the kemencheh.
He studies with Ustad Murad, our kindly ghichak teacher who plays the solo ghichak part in the Four Seasons. Ustad Murad is one of the most inquisitive ghichak players I've heard: while other ones I've heard stay firmly within the tradition, Murad experiments with making his own ghichaks, adding more efficient pegs, using different bows, and even making one with four strings instead of the traditional two.
So I'm not surprised he produced a student like this little fellow. One day a couple weeks ago, Murad came to practice the Four Seasons with me. At the end of last week's practice, this tiny student came in. Murad smiled and passed him the ghichak. He played the first two lines of the slow movement of Winter perfectly.
My jaw dropped. At that moment, Dr. Sarmast came in, and the boy repeated the feat. Dr. Sarmast was equally impressed and asked Murad in Dari when his student had started the piece. "This morning," came the answer. If my jaw could have dropped further, it would have!
This is a kid who started playing ghichak just a few months ago. Before he came to our school, he was working on the streets, living a desperately poor life. And here he is, effortlessly learning music from Western notation, something few if any ghichak players in history have done. Murad said that if we could get the boy ready for the gala concert on February 9, he could play the big ghichak solo!
So every morning, long before the other students arrived, this sweet little boy pokes his head in my door, grins, and asks to get his ghichak. Then we work. In one week, he learned the entire thing. How many years had I been playing before I could do the slow movement of Winter? Around seven years? And that was a piece from my culture, where reading music is common.
He asks for whole sheets of heart stickers: why? He covers his ghichak with them. It's the cutest thing you've ever seen: the whole instrument has bright yellow, orange, and blue hearts places in symmetrical patterns. One time, he held his hands behind his back and said he had a present for me. "Where are your keys?" he said urgently in Dari. I held them out. With a big smile, he thrust his hand at me. He was holding a small teddy bear key chain. It looks a little raggedy, but meant the world to me.
Finally, the day of the concert arrived. He was a little nervous, but Dr. Sarmast did a brilliant job calming him down. The whole concert was a deeply moving, tremendous success for all the performers, but I didn't tear up until the very end when this young man (and he has earned the right to be called a young man with his disciplined behavior) played the slow movement of Winter with such beauty and dedication. The reaction of one audience member was typical: "I still can hardly speak without crying."
Thank you so much to everyone who made the Winter Academy, the Gala Concert on Wednesday, and the Four Seasons happen, particularly the Goethe Institute, Embassy of Finland, Embassy of USA, and French Institute of Afghanistan. On a personal level, thank you above all to Dr. Sarmast for his extraordinary work; to my amazing colleagues and students at ANIM; and to the red-headed boy, small in stature but large in spirit, who made an unforgettable impression in the hearts of everyone in the audience last Wednesday, reminding them never to forget to have hope.
Today, I leave for Berlin, where I will represent Cultures in Harmony at this conference sponsored by the Institute for Cultural Diplomacy. Soon I will write here with a report about the conference.