Baran: Music that goes through the body and into the heart
Updated: Feb 10
Re-reading the English translation of Mohammad Sharif Saiidi’s Baran, I find myself shivering again and again as I linger on each line allowing the imagery to find purchase in my body. I resound with the feel—the embodied experience—of the rain itself as it wends its way through ‘root and rock’, is slapped by the wind and encountered thorns and stones on its way down the mountain. The poem’s power comes from its ability to convey what can’t otherwise be articulated to those of us who have never been ripped from our homeland and thrown into the whirlpool of immigration and diaspora. This is some of the imagery that Elaha gives us in her description of the piece. She goes on to tell us that:
“The composition represents the journey of refugees that cross many lands and borders, picking up elements of culture and tradition along the way. In that sense, this piece is the culmination of my own personal journey through the world.”
I am from the tribe of rain, I am of the spring generation
Drop by drop, I lend myself to rock and root
From the sky to the earth, I've fallen down to cry
To the thunder and lightning of my voice, the painful tune of my two
From the wind a slap and from the mountain, I've purchased thorns and
On my own shoulders how far I've carried my tombstone
Where is the home of the rain? My two wet eyes or the clouds,
I always carry my nest with me, I've nothing save for these two homes
The distance is great, betwixt weeping and smiling
You laugh through your window as I rain down upon the pavement
– Mohammad Sharif Saiidi
Mohammad Sharif Saiidi is a contemporary poet of Afghanistan who now lives in Sweden.
But you don’t actually need the translation to feel the impact of the poem’s content when it is sung by Elaha in her setting for voice and orchestra (as orchestrated by collaborator, Matt Holborn).
Elaha’s own story is one of extraordinary courage in the face of intense persecution: as a Hazara—a widely persecuted minority in Afghanistan, a woman, and as a highly visible professional musician. Such a triumvirate of characteristics in Afghanistan placed her in an extremely vulnerable position and ultimately she was forced to leave the country for her own safety. Her continued existence and her refusal to be silent, to be seen and to be heard, is an act of the boldest resistance against those who would see her killed. Elaha is genuinely radical. You must read the interview in Songlines in November 2022 with Simon Broughton to begin to comprehend what Elaha represents in the world.
What makes Elaha’s music so compelling, is the way in which it is so intensely personal and yet transcends individual experience. The deep interconnectedness with the musical and cultural heritage of Afghanistan with the ‘now’ and contemporary experience of the young people of her generation creates unique musical expression which feels both timeless and so essentially of today.
As a singer-songwriter it is Elaha’s practice to perform her own compositions and that was no exception when we invited her to write a piece for the Orchestral Music of Afghanistan: Looking Forward project. Do take a listen to the short extract here:
The piece begins with solo rubab leading into Elaha’s quiet first phrases. The tabla slowly sneaks in before pizzicato strings and bass drum interjections add to the increasingly rhythmic and energetic profile of the work. Over the course of the verses orchestral waves of sound give a sense of soaring and underpin the emotional intensity of Elaha’s singing.
The composition grew out of musical material she was writing for a concurrent project: The Boy With Two Hearts, a play based on a true story of a family flight from Afghanistan across Europe to the UK in the late 1990s. The family is forced to leave due to the mother’s advocacy of women’s rights. Produced originally at the Wales Millennium centre to fantastic reviews, it had a second run at the National Theatre just this autumn, where I had the opportunity to hear the musical DNA of Baran interwoven into this powerful story of human resilience.
There are two upcoming opportunities to hear Baran: On Friday 10th February 2023 at 5.30pm in the Drama Studio at the University of Sheffield there will be a private screening of Elaha's performance along with a Q&A with the artist. Tickets and info here.
Elaha will be singing Baran live for the second time with the Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra on 15 June 2023 in the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford. You can purchase tickets here.
For more information about Elaha and her composition, visit her composer page here.
Read more about the other compositions in the Orchestral Music of Afghanistan: Looking Forward project here.