Spring 2005 (13.1)
Musicians Go to Afghanistan
Healing the Wounds of War
Jean Pierre Guinhut
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,
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.
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."
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
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
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
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
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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