Ustad Mohammad Omar / Zakir Hussain
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Ustad Mohammad Omar with Zakir Hussain
Virtuoso From Afghanistan
Smithsonian Folkways (

cd cover Ustad Mohammad Omar was one of the most influential instrumentalists in Afghani music in the 20th century. He brought the rabab into the realm of Afghani classical music, which had been heavily influenced by Hindusthani music. Ustad Mohammad Omar joined Radio Afghanistan in his early 30's and began his work as Director of the National Orchestra of Radio Afghanistan. He became known throughout the country, and is responsible for the rabab gaining the unofficial status as Afghanistan's national instrument. Mohammad Omar shows the incredible emotional depth which can be achieved with this instrument in Afghani classical music.

The first piece, a Shakal and Naghma in the mode Emen is a masterpiece. The shakal is the unmetered, unaccompanied and improvised introduction. The beauty of his rabab is shown in exquisite detail as he introduces the mode. The introduction slowly becomes more rhythmic, until he suddenly leaps into the main theme of the piece, now joined by the tabla. The theme is highly rhythmic, and pushes forward with an uncertain momentum through variations. Mohammad Omar adds extensive ornamentation to the variations including a pizzicato in the upper register which works as an almost disturbing and plaintive counterpoint to the theme. The variations build up tremendous speed and tension until a cadence is reached. There is a brief silence before the second major part of the piece begins. The rabab, alone once more, improvises in a darker mode until a new theme, similar to the first, is introduced. Again highly rhythmic, but strained in the darker mode, it is more hesitant in its rhythm, as if it was carrying a painful burden. The pizzicato counterpoint is even more disturbing with this theme. The movement moves haltingly until it begins picking up speed. Suddenly the music accelerates quite quickly, changing to a much brighter mode, breathing an innocent joy into the piece which comes like an awakening. The piece ends in brilliant and happy virtuosity (one can only hope it is a metaphor for Afghanistan, a happy ending after a long nightmare).

A masterpiece, however, is the description for another recording Mohammad Omar made of this piece. Unfortunately, it is not so fitting for this performance, recorded in 1974 with a young Zakir Hussain accompanying. Zakir Hussain is an unmatched tabla virtuoso, who can display the highest musical genius, but he has had difficulty playing in the role as accompanist on occasion. In this recording Zakir Hussain overshadows the rabab, sometimes even interrupting the flow of the piece as he becomes a solo musician. As a result this piece suffers too much and becomes weak in comparison to Mohammad Omar's other recording.

The other pieces on Virtuoso from Afghanistan encounter the same difficulty, with the exception of the one piece (intended) as a tabla solo! You are able to discern some of Ustad Mohammad Omar's great artistry, particularly in the unaccompanied introductions such as the seven minute shakal for Emen, but I would encourage any reader to not stop with this recording and seek out Mohammad Omar's other recordings. Though they may be difficult to find, they represent some of Central Asian music at its finest. - David Dalle

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