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‘Banned Countries’ Take Center Stage in Kronos Quartet Concert

By Clara Longo de Freitas

The “Music for Change: Banned Countries” concert on March 2 will be about much more than just music, as the Kronos Quartet weaves together the traditions and soundscapes of several predominantly Muslim nations with a pointed political commentary on President Trump’s immigration policies.

Audience members entering the Sixth & I auditorium for the show, presented by Washington Performing Arts, will be greeted by a soundscape featuring the sounds of cities in Muslim-majority countries, including calls to prayers, street noise, radio excerpts and even a choir from Western China made up by women.

“It’s a totally sonic immersive experience,” David Harrington, artistic director for the San Francisco-based Kronos Quartet, told the Diplomatic Pouch.

The program features musicians from Afghanistan, Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Syria, Sudan and Yemen as a direct protest against Trump’s controversial 2017 travel ban, which initially prevented people from seven Muslim-majority nations from coming to the United States. The executive order, which also halted refugee admissions, was later extended to foreign nationals of North Korea, Venezuela and Chad.

The ban was promptly challenged in court and underwent several revisions before the Supreme Court upheld the executive order on June 26, 2018. Chad and Sudan have since been removed from the list, and Syrians are no longer banned indefinitely. Meanwhile, the ban still applies for immigrants seeking permanent status from Yemen, Iran, Syria, Somalia, Libya and North Korea, and those seeking temporary status — usually students and tourists — from Venezuela.

“When this travel ban was issued, Kronos and musicians all over the world were horrified and saddened and angered and challenged,” Harrington said. “One of our responsibilities as musicians … is we need to try to create musical solutions to human problems.”

Kronos Quartet, Sunny Yang, Hank Dutt, David Harrington, John Sherba
From left, cellist Sunny Yang, violist Hank Dutt, violinist David Harrington and violinist John Sherba — members of the Kronos Quartet — are performing “Music for Change: Banned Countries” on March 2.” Photo: Kronos Quartet

Harrington and the Kronos Quartet decided that it needed to “step up” and “try to do something in a musical way as a response.”

Kronos already had connections with musicians from many of the banned countries, but there was still a lot of research involved in the creation of the program.

“One of the things that I have learned was [that] sonic, emotional, musical landscape exists in so many places and is something to celebrate,” Harrington said, adding that this concert is not focused on anger but rather “beauty and wonder, and how incredibly vibrant the imagination of so many people from different countries can be.”

“Any attempt by any president anywhere to limit our ability to accept other people is unacceptable and is truly shortsighted. In the world that we live in, there is so much that we can do together, there are so many issues that we need everybody’s best thinking, and that includes people from every religion, every nationality. And for the United States, the most powerful country in the world, to have a leader who is so hateful and so is small is not acceptable,” Harrington said.

For 45 years, the Kronos Quartet has combined fearless exploration with a commitment to reimagining the string quartet experience. The award-winning quartet has become one of the world’s most celebrated and influential ensembles, performing thousands of concerts, releasing more than 60 recordings, commissioning over 1,000 works, and collaborating with an eclectic mix of composers and performers.

One of those performers is Iranian singer and activist Mahsa Vahdat, who is set to join Kronos Quartet on stage for the March 2 concert. Vahdat has collaborated with the quartet before for its Kronos Festival in 2017 and 2018. She and her sister Marjan Vahdat also joined Kronos for the upcoming album “Placeless,” set for release on March 1.

Vahdat told us that it is “an intense experience” to be a female musician in Iran. “[But] the beauty of being an artist compensates for all the problems that come often to me.”

Kronos Quartet, Mahsa Vahdat
Iranian singer Mahsa Vahdat will perform with the Kronos Quartet on stage for the ensemble’s March 2 concert.” Photo: Evan Neff

Vahdat started to sing from an early age and studied music in Tehran as a college student. Women faced severe restrictions after the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, including in the field of music. Female soloists were not allowed to perform at all in the country. It was only recently that female musicians were allowed to have concerts for all-female audiences. They can also sing to mixed audiences if they are presented as a choir member.

But these restrictions never prevented Vahdat from pursuing a career as a vocal artist. Instead, they encouraged and motivated her. She continued to record her albums and participate in concerts outside of Iran and taught music in Tehran.

“For many centuries, music [was seen as] a problem in Iran,” Vahdat said. “So it is very important to keep this treasure that has survived for years.” The musician used to tell her students that “maybe you cannot sing now on stage, but it is important for the next generation, to pass on to them.”

Vahdat now lives in San Francisco, where she continues teaching and opening doors for students from all over the world. Her songs are based on contemporary and classic Persian texts. “The Sun Rises,” which will be performed at the concert, is based on a poem by Forough Farrokhzad, an Iranian poet and film director who died in 1967. Farrokhzad’s modernist poetry was seen as controversial for talking about “feminine desire with no mask,” Vahdat noted.

“The message [of these poems] is so important to us — so fresh for Iranian society and also for the world,” Vahdat said. “The poems are placeless and timeless…. They embrace other people regardless from where they belong, the religion they have.”

That message is exactly what Vahdat wants the audience to take away from the concert.

“[The travel ban] just makes people more fearful of each other and creates separation between people,” she said. “After years of having collaborations with other musicians in the world, I really understood how human hearts are so close to each other, and how music and art can really make this relationship between different people, different cultures, so easy. It’s the language of the heart.”

Kronos Quartet, Mahsa Vahdat
The Kronos Quartet has released more than 60 recordings and commissioned more than 1,000 works since the group was founded in 1973.” Photo: Kronos Quartet

Vahdat also hopes that the concert changes people’s perceptions of Iran, the complex realities of which she says are sometimes distorted by the media.

“When [people] think about Iran, they just think about fear, darkness, war,” Vahdat said, but she hopes that the country’s music, poetry and traditions lead people “to become curious about Iran — because Iran is so undiscovered by many people of the world.”

“Music for Change: The Banned Countries” is performed on March 2 at 8 p.m. at Sixth & I. Tickets are $45. For information, visit www.sixthandi.org/event/kronos-quartet-2/ or washingtonperformingarts.org.


Clara Longo de Freitas is an editorial intern for The Washington Diplomat.




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