Portrait: Qais Essar

Qais Essar is a young Afghan-American musician widely known for his mastery of the Rabab in his music. Essar’s music is a blend of traditional and classical Afghan music with a modern sound. The musician has played internationally, released two albums, and is also part of the band, Qais Essar & The Qosmonauts. Below, you can read our interview with Essar and find more about him here: http://www.therabab.com/

When did you first pick up the Rabab (is there a story behind this)?

It’s your typical love story really- boy meets rabab, boy falls in love with rabab, boy’s life is turned upside down and would never again be the same. I started my formal training and education in music at a very young age, around 7 or so. To some people’s surprise, I played Tambour, and later even the Sitar before I played Rabab. And it wasn’t only limited to eastern instruments. This time also coincided with the beginning of my western music education as well, so I was also playing the violin, guitar, and trying my hand at other various others. Though proficient, I was still left, whether I was aware of it or not, feeling incomplete. This longing for wholeness led me to the Rabab, subsequently ending the dance between different instruments. I had discovered the sound I would use to communicate where words fail, I found completion.

Much of your music combines the contemporary with the classical, do you find this to be in a way your reclamation to your Afghan cultural roots? Do you find that it is necessary to spread more exposure of Afghan music and culture?

Not only is the combination of the contemporary with the classical a reclamation of my cultural roots, but it is a claim on the future- a redefinition of Afghan music, for a new global audience. Given the current political climate the music becomes a vehicle to address my own socio-political agenda naturally, which is chiefly, to provide a different narrative from the negative image that is perpetuated in popular media. To look at the art of a people is to look into their very hearts, so what better way introduce others to Afghanistan and the beauty of its music and culture.

In 2017, what does it mean to carry the identity of an Afghan artist? Is the label “Afghan musician” limiting or enlightening for you personally?

Personally, I feel it comes with a serious responsibility. Artists enjoy something that others may not have an easy access to- an audience. Be it an audience of 50, or 500000, artists have an innate way of reaching people. So, while I have some people’s attention, I can act at a self-appointed ambassador of sorts, and introduce others to a world of sounds and colors unknown to them. And given the tensions among people today, and the need for representation, it’s a privilege to share this music with a global community and to feature what I think is the very best of my ancestral home.

Your music and videos have an esoteric, almost longing quality to it that hints at influences by Rumi and other mystical Sufism influences. Are there particular aspects that you are drawn to and want to incorporate in your music?

I feel like music has always been my cane in the darkness, as I fumble around blind in lifelong existential crisis. The Sufi longs for divine union with the beloved- I feel music can give you glimpses of this. A tool, holy, music has the ability to transcend the listener far beyond into realms unknown and to offer a look behind the veil. Arcane knowledge and sciences hold that the universe was created by the energy of sound, that the world is sound.  In this light, music is an interpretation of the divine. All the answers are there, we just must learn to listen. Sarod maestro Ustad Ali Akbar Khan had once said concerning Indian classical music, “These songs [are] not for entertainment… you are collecting power, knowledge… purifying your inner soul”. These are concepts that I strive to educate myself further on over the course of my life, and to hope to be able to apply it to my own music.

Any future tour dates in Afghanistan?

Touring Afghanistan would be a dream realized. I eagerly await the opportunity to go and perform for my brothers and sisters, and to honor the land that bore the instrument that led me back.   

Image Courtesy of the Artist

Image Courtesy of the Artist