Thursday, October 29, 2015

Kabul: ANIM Chamber Orchestra Concert

The Afghan National Institute of Music (ANIM) was inaugurated in 2010 with the goal of developing young Afghan musicians.  The institute admits students regardless of gender, ethnicity, and social standing, and they even have outreach for the most vulnerable kids - orphans and street children.  The school hosts students from fourth to 14th grade (for children roughly nine to 20 years old).  Those who complete grade 12 get a high school diploma, and those who complete grade 14 leave with an associate's degree.

The U.S. government has supported ANIM with grants and other assistance, and in 2013, just three years after it opened, ANIM's chamber orchestra went on a U.S. tour and performed to sold-out audiences at the Kennedy Center and Carnegie Hall.

Today, the talented bunch performed for the Embassy community.

Before the music started, there were remarks, about half an hour's worth, and they were tedious.  The remarks themselves were fine, but after every string of words, a Dari translation would follow.  It would seem that presenting a speech with translation would double the time it takes, but it actually more than doubles it.  There are a lot of pauses as the speaker trades time with the translator, and sometimes they end up tripping over each other, wasting even more time.

When the speeches were finally over, the musical portion kicked off with "an afternoon rag," as the violist presented it, that featured two young ladies on sitars and a young man on tablas.

Their performance was nice, but it was marred by the Embassy's sound system.  The speakers were humming loudly and occasionally the feedback would fare up and cause a buzzing noise.  It was distracting and unfortunate.

The second piece was also traditional.  This time, a young man presented a composition of his own making on a rubab - a small lute-like instrument.  He was accompanied by the young man on the tablas and another young man who was laying down beats on a wooden box.

The piece started out at a good clip, but as it progressed, it kept getting faster.  By the end of it, the kid on the rubab was surely on the verge of igniting his fingertips.  It was almost like Afghanistan's answer to "Flight of the Bumblebee" as this kid kept hitting the gas.

As amazing as the performance was in its own right, however, something else made it even more special.  The rubab player was toward the front of the stage, and the rest of the children was sitting behind him in layered crescents, orchestra-style.  As the pace kept increasing, the rubab player's fellow musicians were clearly digging it.  They lapped up the funky rhythms, and they loved the frantic pace.  The faster it got, the bigger the smiles got.  This type of performance changes every time, and the kids were on the edge of their seats waiting to see what their friend could do.

When he finally ended in a flourish, all of the kids were beaming, and the audience responded with a standing ovation.  It didn't feel forced as they sometimes can.

With the small-ensemble performances finished now, the entire orchestra was put into service for the remainder of the show.

They went through a few more Afghan melodies, and while they weren't familiar to me, they were enjoyable.  The last one, "Laili Laili Jaan," was introduced as "the unofficial national anthem of Afghanistan," and my Afghan colleague sitting near me bristled at this.

"No one calls it like this," he muttered. "It's just a pop song."

The violist invited the audience to participate, and I wondered what this might entail.  I thought people might sing along, but clapping seemed to be the crowd's preference.  Hitting every downbeat, the people held steady throughout the entire song, even during lighter segments when boisterous clapping was a bit annoying.

After "Laili Laili Jaan," the violist told us there were a few surprises coming up, and she made a joke about the orchestra showing us their "range" (wink, wink).  The surprise was that the rest of the concert featured American music, and the joke alluded to the first song up, "Home on the Range."

"Home on the Range," while well rendered, was unfortunately a bit dull.

When the next song started, I had it pegged in the first two notes.  It was "What a Wonderful World," and it was pretty wonderful.  The arrangement was interesting with different instruments leading the melody.  I especially liked the exotic sound of the sitar solo.

The show ended with "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," and it was also well done.

The organizers had really picked some low-hanging fruit when they selected the last two songs, but I'm not ashamed to admit that they worked on me, hook, line, and sinker.  Seeing these youngsters playing these two songs - the first about harmony, optimism, and the beauty of life, the second about longing, hope, and escape - packed an emotional punch.

There are some bright spots in the peace and security situation in Afghanistan today, but it's still a very tough place to thrive, especially for a child.  Violence is high and opportunity, low, and to see this group of bright-eyed, talented children playing their hearts out made we wonder how many would manage to beat the odds.

"If happy little bluebirds fly beyond the rainbow why, oh why, can't I?"


I think I've got something in my eye.

Thursday, October 01, 2015

Farewell, David

David was always pushing it.  He drove too fast, partied too hard, and to borrow a phrase from Dad, he let his mouth write too many checks that his ass couldn't cash.  His life was wild, a controlled chaos, but when his first wife died, young and unexpectedly, control began to slip away and only the chaos remained.  He began to unravel.  Sometimes, when life gives you lemons, it's damn near impossible to make lemonade.  Such was the case for David, and he would spend nearly a decade battling addiction and depression, trying to reconcile the loss of his wife and that which remained in the world of the living.

During the years of struggle, there was always some new calamity lurking.  Between the vehicle accidents, medical scares, and other mishaps, David faced grim odds more than once, and time and time again, he managed to prevail like some cat with nine lives.  In late September when he suffered a heart attack and fell into a coma, I was told that he was in bad shape, that this time was different, that death was near.  I was also told there was a slim chance he'd pull through.  The doctors didn't put a number on it like you see on TV, but even if the odds of survival were a mere one percent, I fully expected David to take that and run.  Surely he had one more ace up his sleeve.

His coma had its ups and downs, and every time I received a positive report, no matter how small, I knew it was only a matter of time before he opened his eyes.

It wasn't meant to be.

Once the neurologist confirmed that David had no brain activity, he was disconnected from the machines that kept him alive.  He didn't die right away, though.  He slumbered on twenty-one hours more before he breathed his last dramatic breath, surrounded by family.


I obviously knew David my entire life, but my strongest memories come from childhood.

Oddly enough, I don't actually remember some of my "memories".  Rather, I've heard them second-hand, woven into the family mythology by my parents.  Probably the earliest story of this variety happened when I was still shy of my first birthday.  I was attempting to take my first step, and David famously knocked me down.  I guess he preferred me as a crawler.

About a year later, we had another run-in.  We both had plenty of things to call our own, but David had something special.  Roughly one square meter of soft cotton, his blanket featured puppies on a yellow checkerboard background, and he loved it.  I loved it too, perhaps because it was so treasured, perhaps because that's what babies do.  We fought over that blanket off and on until one day Dad took a very Solomonic approach and ripped it down the center.  I went from having no share of the blanket to owning half, and I was elated.  David was devastated.

Over the course of the rest of our childhoods, he would exact his revenge.  Compared to David, I was a runt, and he rarely passed up an opportunity to dispense a noogie, Indian burn, or headlock, or to practice his favorite move, fart torture.  I, in turn, became a world-class cry-baby and tattle-tale.

There were good times too, of course.  Like many kids of our generation, we'd wake up early for Saturday morning cartoons.  The networks didn't broadcast 24 hours a day back then, so we'd often switch the TV on when it was only static.  This was no problem because with our blankets and sleeping bags, we came prepared to wait.  Eventually the Star-Spangled Banner would play and a flag would wave on the screen, signaling the start of the broadcast day.  While Mom and Dad took the opportunity to sleep a little later, we kids would sit in front of the TV for hours, proudly sporting our Underoos.  Rachel wore Wonder Woman; David, Superman; I was always Spiderman, and eventually Ben would join us as Batman.

I remember the electric fence experiments we conducted in rural Virginia while visiting relatives.  We'd join hands and the person on the end would grab the electrified fence.  We'd all feel the buzz.  Then we'd try other variations, with the last person touching the fence with different things like a broom handle or a clump of straw.  Fun like that ranked up there with playing in the creek!

Then there was the pizza problem.  For some reason, David would often get sick as a child when he'd eat pizza.  A related mystery was why my parents continued to let him eat it, but I suppose they were waiting for him to outgrow his reaction.  David and I slept on bunk beds, and he had the top one.  On pizza nights, he'd get sick in the middle of the night and puke off the side of his bed.  From my prime location, I could watch the vomit ooze down the wall and drip off his sheets.  And nine times out of ten, David would continue sleeping, seemingly unaware that he'd just turned our room into a bio-hazard contamination zone.  Struggling not to vomit myself, I'd have to fetch Dad to clean up the place.  No matter how hard we scrubbed, though, there was a red burst on our otherwise blue bedroom wall that never came out.

I remember camping with David, and the "Lord of the Flies" element he'd bring to the party.  Maybe he'd drop a bottle rocket in the campfire or maybe he'd push someone through a spiderweb.  In any case, he always brought some excitement.

In his teens, David caused a stir by becoming a cheerleader.  At the time, and maybe still to this day, the notion of a male middle-school cheerleader was unheard of in our small Tennessee town.  David did it to meet chicks, and it seemed to work.

I remember riding with him in his beloved Nissan 300ZX, and in particular the time he wedged the gas pedal with a stick, stood up through the t-top, and screamed at the top of his lungs while we careened down the highway at 50 miles per hour with no one at the wheel.  I played that off like it was no big deal, but of course it was terrifying.

I think back on the small things too - his smile, his drawl, his flair, his sentimentality.  We have a family joke that when three or more Calls get together, there will be tears before the night is over.  David was as sappy as anyone, and he would often be the one turning on the waterworks.  He could be a knuckle head at times, but he was our knuckle head.  He loved us, even though he didn't always show it.


Dreamer, schemer, charmer, snake-oil salesman.

Friend, lover, manipulator, good ole Southern boy.

Boy Scout, gear head, story-teller, addict.

Daredevil, romantic, body-builder, joker.

Son, brother, father of six, grandfather twice over.

David Allan Call

July 23, 1974 - October 1, 2015

Miss you.  Love you... and sorry about the blanket.

Rest in Peace.