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From Kabul to the Kennedy Center: Unity through Creative Expression

Extended Feature with Elham Fanous

10/17/2021 • Reading Time: 4min

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About Elham Fanous 

The 24-year old Elham Fanous is the leading Afghan pianist of his generation. His life’s work is to embody a positive face of Afghanistan’s future and to provide hope to musicians and artists living under threats to their creative expression all around the world.

Elham has performed as a soloist on US State Department-sponsored appearances at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC and Carnegie Hall in New York City in 2013. He performed at the Library of Congress for the 2017 Anne Frank Awards Ceremony. He has also played for members of the diplomatic corps of Australia, China, Germany, Italy, and Korea. He has performed for former Afghan President Hamid Karzai and international dignitaries in Kabul and at the Afghan Embassy in Washington DC through the Embassy Series: Uniting People Through Music Diplomacy.

 

Elham recently graduated from the prestigious Manhattan School of Music under the instruction of Philip Kawin as the recipient of Edith Kriss and the International Advisory Board Scholarships

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Interview with Elham Fanous  

1.  I want to start with your childhood, naturally, but music in your family began earlier than that. Tell us about your father. 

Yes, my father is an Afghan and Indian classical singer. To be more specific, he specializes in Ghazal (epic poetry set to music). During the Taliban regime between in 1996 and 2001, he used to practice and sing very privately with doors closed and windows shut.

 

During that time he was doing all sorts of other jobs to support and provide for the family. In 2002, when I was 5, I started playing tabla (An Afghan/Indian Classical instrument. I used to accompany my father and when I grew up, around the age of 11, my father encouraged me to pick a western classical instrument like the piano or the violin.

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2. Until 2001, when U.S. troops disbanded the Taliban government, music was illegal.  For the first four years of your life, what was it like to experience an art form which was forbidden without reason?

Since I was born in 1997 which was a year after the Taliban took over the country, I don’t remember clearly the chaos that was going on around but I do remember the sound of bombs and gun fires. But my parents tell me how difficult things were during that time. Of course I wanted to know why, but I was too young to understand the people, cultural beliefs, religion, etc. My parents did their best to protect their children to not be affected by that kind of environment. I am lucky by the time I was 5, things started to get much better. I just can’t imagine something as beautiful as music being banned. Luckily, at the very least,  I did hear my father singing privately.

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3. Through YouTube, you became fascinated by the performances of none other than Vladimir Horowitz.  Do you remember what it was like to stumble upon his playing?

Even though I was not exposed to the piano at the time of watching him play on YouTube, I was still fascinated by the way of his playing, sound, technique and just music making in general. I fell in love with the sound and the shape of the instrument. I watched more videos and watched the reactions of the audience, and it made me want to learn the piano even more. I could immediately tell that the way Horowitz played the piano was special even though I didn’t know much about the piano and western classical music.

4. Tell us about your studies at the Afghanistan Institute of Music.

It was a wonderful experience. Although we had to overcome many obstacles. For example; I didn’t have a piano for the first 2 years of my piano studies. The first year I entered, when I was 11 years old, there was one piano and 25 students. We had to stay in line to practice for 15-20 minutes but of course as the years went by, things started to get better and better each year. We received more pianos and other donations from different countries and embassies plus international teachers started to work there. My first piano teacher was from Italy, Adriana Mascoli. One of the kindest human beings I know and one of the most important teachers in my life. It is funny because young kids usually don’t really like to go to school, but I was waking up extra early to go to the school and practice a little bit before classes start. I must say that I did really dislike the school that I was attending before ANIM, so it was a huge and wonderful change for me especially because we could study both music and academic subjects at ANIM. It was a special school, the environment inside the campus was completely different than the outside. In a way, ANIM was my first home.

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5. As a pianist, do you feel especially close to any particular composer?

I feel very close to Frederic Chopin because I can express what I have to say with his music.

6. Afghanistan is at the crossroads of the East & West with an extremely rich cultural heritage.  What is Afghan music like?  Do you play or transcribe any traditional works?

Afghan music can be very exotic like gypsy or Hungarian music and that’s why I sometimes feel close to some of Liszt’s works, especially the Hungarian rhapsodies. There are different scales, modes and microtones that make the music sound very unique. It’s not really possible to play the microtones on the piano but you can somehow achieve it by short trills and ornaments. I have and I do transcribe some Afghan songs on the piano and that’s one of my favorite things to do, especially when I take a break from practicing western classical repertoire, although I haven’t written them down.

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7. What was it like to travel to the States with the school orchestra & perform at Carnegie Hall & The Kennedy Center?  How did this experience play into your dream to study music in New York?

It was quite a unique experience for me. I have always wanted to study in the US but when I visited in 2013 with the school orchestra, I decided to make it happen, especially since I met some wonderful people during my visit who later on helped me in my journey. And of course, it was an amazing experience to play a duet of Chopin Nocturne in C-sharp minor with the Violinist, Mikhail Simonyan at Carnegie Hall. I was 15 then and honestly didn’t know much about the hall and how prestigious it is but when I think back, I am like “Wow, did I really play on that stage?” Overall, it was a very exciting experience and I was really looking forward to coming back and studying here because of all the great facilities and opportunities.

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8. Your story reminds us all that music is so much more than an art form within itself.  What are your hopes & goals not only as a concert pianist, but as a cultural ambassador?

I have many small/big/short term/long term dreams. I definitely want to inspire as many people as possible all over the world by speaking and performing for/with them. I want to show a new and positive face of Afghanistan to the world. Furthemore, I want to dispel the preconceptions that some may have about the country and just make a positive impact in the world. I do want to be a cultural diplomat/ambassador/representative. I am planning on recording an album in the near future, which will be the first album from an Afghan pianist so it is very exciting and I look forward to that.

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9. What do you have to say to any individual or society who feels like their creative expression is being restricted?

First of all, I definitely empathize with that society and those individuals and I want to tell them not to give up or lose hope because it is the ambition and life-long goals that drive us everyday. If you truly believe in something, it will most likely happen. Furthermore, the beauty of creative expression is that you can be flexible with your goals. Therefore, you can create something even in a restricted environment. It is important to think of what you have rather than what you don’t.

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About Maryam Raya

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Maryam Raya is an internationally acclaimed and award-winning concert pianist based in New York. Praised for her “Dynamic Stage Presence” by the Union of Excellence, Maryam has performed recitals worldwide, in countries including England, Spain, France, Italy, China, Estonia, Latvia, Finland, and Dubai and has performed at renowned venues across the United States including multiple appearances at New York’s Carnegie Hall, The Kennedy Center, Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, The National Opera Center, multiple international embassies, among others.

Described as a “Complete Artist of the 21st Century” by Info Music France, she has been featured in countless international art, fashion, and music magazines across Europe as well as American news outlets such as CBS news. With an extensive and diverse repertoire, including numerous solo programs and over thirty concerti for piano and orchestra, Maryam is passionate about bringing classical music to younger audiences through her captivating performances and lectures.