Dawn: A torch in solidarity with the irrepressible women of Afghanistan
Updated: Sep 20, 2022
It is difficult to begin writing about Meena Karimi's composition Dawn without feeling a burn in my chest and a lump in my throat—it's actually physically impossible. She manages to capture with soulful beauty the struggles and triumphs of the women of Afghanistan, and uses this musical statement as a torch to ensure that women's rights in Afghanistan are not forgotten. A much-needed message and so compellingly done.
Dawn was premiered in Kabul on 7 March 2021 in celebration of International Women's Day with the composer as soloist. She was accompanied by the National Orchestra of Afghanistan (of the Afghanistan National Institute of Music) with Arson Fahim conducting—a fellow student and collaborator who also assisted with the orchestration of the composition. On the 5th of July 2022, Dawn received—not its first—but its second London performance in less than a year (listen to the excerpt below and you'll know why!). First performed by Chineke! and cellist Ève-Marie Caravassilis on 16 October 2021 in the Queen Elizabeth Hall, the second performance was part of the Spitalfields Music Festival and was performed by cellist Mats Lidström and the Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra on the Orchestral Music of Afghanistan: Looking Forward concert, the focus of this blog series. The US premiere took place in upstate New York on 24 July 2022, performed by the GrassRoots Festival Orchestra and cellist, Elizabeth Simkin.
In the programme notes for Dawn Meena tells us that:
Dawn "represents the story, struggles, strengths, and pain of women and girls in Afghanistan. Afghan women have always had to fight in order to achieve one basic human right such as going to school or participating equally in a country that they are part of."
And with this cause at the core of her musical imagination, Meena takes us on an emotional journey through her composition.
The piece starts with a profound stillness as a single soft clarinet note draws the audience into an intimate musical space. Soft strings enter with a warm but bittersweet A minor progression gilded with a hint of melodic turn in the first violins. With a gesture as strong as it is gentle, the solo oboe sings into being a mingled world of sadness, courage and hope (I was so overwhelmed by oboist Joe Sanders' extraordinary performance of this part during our concert in July I nearly lost the plot!). A breath. A silence.
The solo cello makes its first independent statement, again rising in a way that is irrepressible and yet twinged with a sense of longing. You can hear the composer's clear voice here, one where song and story are at the core of her musical persona. Mats Lidström captured this narrative so powerfully with his committed and moving performance.
The introduction sets the emotional tone for the rest of the musical journey and is followed by the first main section of the composition. Meena describes the structure of the piece in her video recorded introduction to the work:
"The beginning tells the story of the hardship that women have had to endure in the last 40 years. In the middle section, women began to explore and embrace the many possibilities of their lives."
The solo cello now takes centre stage with a lamenting melody interwoven with heart lifting scales—the irrepressible hope and optimism which underpins the work. A brief but powerful reflective cadenza provides a conceptual bridge to the main second section of the work which is characterised by drive, determination and defiance. Pulsating strings galvanise the solo cello melody joined by winds and brass. Finally the entire orchestra, including rubab, dutar and sitar, present the bold and infectious theme which culminates in a dramatic pause on a high A in unison between the trumpet and the solo cello. Again, a breath. A silence.
A return to the first poignant material to remind us that progress for women's rights in Afghanistan has been slow... The clarinet joins the cello with a counter melody ultimately overtaken by the trumpet which matches the cello note for note as the energy builds. In a statement that now appears prescient, the piece abruptly ends on a dominant chord...unresolved. Uncompleted. A task unfinished.
"The reason why I left my song incomplete is that I wanted to tell the truth. The truth is the unfinished struggle of women. I will complete this song when all Afghan women have achieved their dreams and rights."
I believe—and I'd like to imagine Meena would agree—that with the world at their side, there is absolutely nothing that the women of Afghanistan cannot do. They are the future of Afghanistan and the Afghan people.
Meena Karimi (b. 2006) is a cellist, composer, and women’s rights advocate from Afghanistan. She started her musical studies on cello and dilruba and is currently majoring in classical cello performance at Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan, USA. If you want more information about how to programme this composition with your own ensemble to help bear the torch for the women of Afghanistan, or to be in touch with Meena Karimi to discuss possible collaborations, please be in touch!