Ustad Daud Khan Sadozai: “It is difficult to keep and maintain a traditional style if the life itself is not in a traditional way”


Ustad Daud Khan Sadozai was born in Kabul and studied the rubab, the national instrument of Afghanistan, under Ustad Mohammad Omar from the age of 17. He later moved to Germany where he currently resides, though has also studied the Indian sarod with the legendary Ustad Amjad Ali Khan. With an abiding passion to preserve Afghan traditions he has performed across the world in various ensembles and is also an active teacher. His playing is lyrical and deeply moving, as you can see in his solo performance of ‘Raag Pilu’, which we’re really excited to premiere. He was also kind enough to answer some questions for us.

Cyclic Defrost: How did you first come to study the rubab?

Ustad Daud Khan Sadozai: As a teenager in Kabul, I got interested in learning the rubab. My father insisted that I had to go to an Ustad (master – teacher) to learn, and at 17 I was very fortunate to be accepted among the disciples of Ustad Mohammad Omar, the best rubab player of his time. I studied with him some years until I left to Germany for university. From there I kept working on his lessons and through recordings that my father made of him.

Cyclic Defrost: You’re playing solo in this piece Raag Pilu, though I’m aware that you could equally be playing with percussion or other instrumentation. What is the difference for you when playing solo or with others?

Ustad Daud Khan Sadozai: Rubab is mostly played as an accompanying instrument, following a singer through a variety of genres – folk songs, ghazals, modern songs… One can also play the melodies of the songs without the singer, imitating the voice – that is the easiest. To really play solo, especially in the classical style in its great depth, is a different and much bigger challenge. A soloist should be very well learned to successfully perform this style, it takes years of practice. So if there is another musician to play with in this style (like a percussionist, or another melodic instrument – this is called jugalbandi), he must also have adequate knowledge. In this style two good musicians can go on stage together with little to no rehearsal, because they know the common language. Personally I like both to play alone or with other musicians.

Cyclic Defrost: I’m also aware that you also studied sarod under Ustad Amjad Ali Khan. Is there a natural connection between the music of Afghanistan and India?

Ustad Daud Khan Sadozai: There is a very natural connection between the music of these two countries. The history of Indian and Afghan music, in particular classical music, is closely related: Indian music is like a big ocean, and Afghanistan one of its affluent. As a matter of fact there used to be no border between the two countries, and many Afghan musicians went to India while many important musician lineages came to Kabul from India around the end of the 19th century. The Indian sarod was actually developed from the Afghan rubab by Ustad Amjad Ali Khan’s Afghan forefathers. The classical music styles of both countries are very similar, drawing from the world of ragas. But Afghanistan has its own taste of folk music, with its specific rhythms, melodies and dances. Especially inside Ustad Amjad Ali Khan’s school of sarod, the rhythmic, almost percussive style of rubab playing is present, namely through the action of the right hand. Learning sarod in this school actually helped me a lot with playing the rubab.

Cyclic Defrost: What attracted you at first to the rubab? And what continues to inspire you?

Ustad Daud Khan Sadozai: The sound of the instrument did! I remember first hearing the rubab from the waves of Radio Kabul, not live. Eventually, my father had in Kabul a shop of antiques and such, with several instruments including a rubab that I was trying to play. It had several other instruments: tanbour, dilruba… every day some musicians came to drink tea, repair and play some instruments. I remember one fondly, Khalifa Gulmamad who was a tanbour player. I loved to listen to the musicians coming into the shop, and I loved each of those instruments, but rubab the most. From there started the journey into music.

Of course, it is difficult to keep the inspiration after so many years away from the land, in a foreign country that does not speak in the same musical language. My beautiful memories of the peaceful years in Afghanistan come to me when I play. But this music is strongly connected with spirituality, and to play the rubab is like a prayer. This is also how I keep inspired.

Cyclic Defrost: How many hours do you think you have played the rubab for in your life?

Ustad Daud Khan Sadozai: I certainly played a great lot! When I first came to Germany for my studies, I played very little. I had left my teacher in Kabul, was busy with school, the neighbors didn’t like the sound… so there wasn’t much chance to play. But after I travelled to India and became a disciple of Ustad Amjad Ali Khan, I started to practice a lot more as he advised me to. From this time music, whether the rubab or the sarod, became my everyday companion.

Cyclic Defrost: How important is improvisation in your music? What does improvisation mean to you?

Ustad Daud Khan Sadozai: It is very important, the essence of our music. When Ustad teaches you a raag, you will learn its specific rules and identity, learn some paltas (composed phrases), and eventually you can start to play something from your own self, from your heart. Then each time you play a composition, like a classical composition or a simple song, you may feel the desire to play something from you that will fit nicely with the composition and enrich it, something from inside (your joy, your sorrow…). Each time to play a piece as such is like playing a new composition, it will never sound twice the same. The compositions themselves, especially in the classical style, are born out of improvisation from the great master musicians in contact with nature, their inner feelings… But in order to improvise in a way that pleases you and your listeners, you need to know very well the raga system. It is most important.

Cyclic Defrost: I understand you now reside in Germany. Is there a large Afghan community in the country, and an appreciation of traditional music?

Ustad Daud Khan Sadozai: While there is a large Afghan community in Germany, I can hardly say there is a large appreciation of traditional music. They are all busy with their life – to learn the language, study and work, afford their house… This music is not for immediate gratification; to enjoy this kind of music you need peace, tranquility in your mind, and then you may encounter its beauty. Some Afghans young and not so young do have the desire to learn the instrument here, but I do not see them being committed to the vast amount of practice needed and they mostly seem to stop after a while…

Cyclic Defrost: Obviously it is a very difficult time to be a musician in Afghanistan, which places culture and traditions at real risk. Do you feel a responsibility to share the traditional music of Afghanistan to keep it alive?

Ustad Daud Khan Sadozai: Of course, with the title of Ustad (master) comes the responsibility of some knowledge to be passed on to the next generations, that which has been imparted by your own Ustad… This is keeping the tradition alive, which is still evolving. It is even more important when this tradition is at great danger at home. Yet, there is a tendency today for the music which remains to go towards western, modern genres which I believe denature it. Today for example, I saw a video: a tabla (drum) solo with electric guitar accompaniment. While it is interesting to experiment, this kind of association does not fit our music. We have so many beautiful instruments to provide lehra (the repeated melodic theme over which the drum solo is built) to a tabla solo. Obviously I can’t call this traditional. But it is difficult to keep and maintain a traditional style if the life itself is not in a traditional way. In this time, it is quite a difficult task to keep it alive.

Cyclic Defrost: I understand that you are also a teacher. What is the most important advice you could give to someone who is interested in learning the rubab?

Ustad Daud Khan Sadozai: In the first place, one needs to have some talent for playing music. Some people may have passion for the music, but lack the right talent to perform it – they shall become good listeners and that is very fine. Then, one needs to have a good instrument to practice on, one that gives the satisfaction and motivation to go on with one’s practice. With this, one needs patience, eshq (“love” in its spiritual dimension), and a regular time for practice. And of course, one needs an Ustad (master)! Then the way becomes easy.

Cyclic Defrost: Is there anything else that you would like to share with us?

Ustad Daud Khan Sadozai: I am happy to see, through the seminars I teach or the concerts I give, Western people getting more and more interested and involved with traditional music. Years ago I saw perhaps the wish to listen but not to play. Yet I wish to say that anybody who enjoys the sound of rubab and wishes to go deeper, must understand the ragas underlying the music. It doesn’t matter if it is folk music, or classical or ghazal, all of this music is rooted in ragas. Only if one understands the raga system, may the sound of rubab reveal its full power. A lot of people play rubab nowadays, but I can’t understand what they try to play. The instrument might sound ok, but the music is confused with regards to the raga, and so for me it doesn’t carry the same quality.

You can find more about Ustad Daud Khan Sadozai here.


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Bob is the features editor of Cyclic Defrost. He is also evil. You should not trust the opinions of evil people.