Qais Essar: Bright Star

I was introduced to Qais Essar, an Afghani-American musician, by another artist, and someone dear to my heart – Fared Shafinury. We connected some time last year, yet, thanks to much personal upheaval, it took me several months to secure a conversation.

I was keen to speak with Qais, his beautifully hypnotic sounds struck a chord with me, in an instant. Moreover, I have long had a great curiosity about the music of the region. Our blood lays at opposite directions, my own in the North of Persia, Qais firmly in the heart of Afghanistan, yet, I found his musical creations familiar, for so intertwined are the sounds of the ancient silk road, one is able to hear faint whispers of familiarity in much of the music, from the Caucasus to the farthest corner of the Khyber.

There is a blend of the East and the West in Qais’ creations, sometimes distant echoes others having a profound presence. In our conversation, Qais expressed his affection and admiration for Led Zeppelin, “I love them just too much” he said. You can really hear their influence in much of his music, that sense of taking rhythm into a new dimension especially.

Qais by Cesar Orozco Photography.

Qais could easily be in a rock and roll band, with his soulful brown eyes, long hair and beard. Place him in an etched leather jacket and skinny jeans and he would make the perfect School of Rock candidate, yet for Qais, it’s the rabab, not the guitar that he holds in high regard. The rabab is an instrument with its roots in Central Afghanistan, and played for centuries across many of Persia’s brother nations, taking the player into a creative hinterland of low and high sounds.

“My main influences” he explains “are the forefathers of the classical Afghan tradition, particularly in regards to the rabab, like Mohammad Omar Khan, who is considered the father of the instrument, and some of that was due to him bringing the classical tradition to the rabab, which is really a folk instrument, on Terry Riley, Steven Reich. My Eastern education in classical music came at the same time as my Western education in classical music, so these two always traveled parallel with each other. I was able to enjoy influences of both the East and West, especially Minimalist composers like Terry Riley and Steve Reich.”

Qais by Bill Goodman Photography.

With Qais creative process, it begins with a specific intention, which then gets built upon, flourishing in various forms. “It starts with an idea, essentially. Let’s take this latest album as an example, it starts with some big story, it’s not really a fun time, as I rip at it, it’s almost violent, and then I piece together a story. At best you get closer each time you do something like that, and I feel like it was a little bit close to what ultimately would resemble a solid artistic statement that I would like to make. My latest E.P is also a step into that direction on another wing. It was inspired by the bombing of this camp in Afghanistan (the U.S bombing of a supposed Taliban stronghold in Achin District, located in the Nangarhar Province of eastern Afghanistan, using MOAB) So ‘Millions of Afghans Bombed’ is a playoff of that, and that just happened that weekend. So there’s ideas, then there’s a slow process of just draining yourself.”

Having checked out a number of Qais’ performances, there’s a definite presence that I could feel even when watching a short YouTube clip. On the subject of performing live, he revealed “I check out essentially. I would hear stories of these Ustad’s who congregated at Kharabat, the old art district of Kabul, where even before they used to pick up a rubab they would first do ablutions as if they were preparing for prayer, so I treat music with that same reverences, be it the contemporary stuff or be it the classical stuff, I approach it as if I were approaching worship, so for me that would equate to checking out, what I initially said. Kind of dissolving the self, more in line with the Sufi philosophy really. so for me at the very best on stage I am just a vessel, I can try and translate what I feel in the best way I can.”

Qais by Cesar Orozco Photography.

I felt that there was some kind of reservation when speaking to Qais, as a somewhat shy man myself, perhaps Qais was shy too, but that’s all superficial, because what Qais conveyed, at the very root of our conversation and something ever present, from beginning to end, was a joie de vivre, an irascible and untamed love for creating music, continuing to perfect and push his own boundaries. The message was that music should have many layers, even the most joyful of songs can have an intensely provocative message.

A restless soul, it would be a lie to say that he is a man satisfied with his creative output. “I’m never happy, nothing will ever sound like it did before, it shouldn’t. I’m not the same person I was yesterday and art is supposed to be a reflection of you, not only of you but of the times we live in. For me as a performer, everyday I practice a certain amount of time because I do want to better hone my skills and to be able to physically do more, because it will enable me to do better. I feel if I would never ever want to be content with what I create, because it would halt me on my quest for perfection.”

A brooding and thoughtful personality, subdued in passion, but Qais love and enthusiasm for his music makes him incandescent. He is without ego, no hint of pomposity nor self-aggrandising ever emerged. I was reminded of a quote from one of England’s greatest poets, John Keats, from his poem ‘Bright Star’: “Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art— Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night.”