Today I went to the British Museum to hear a concert of traditional Afghan music by Homayun Sakhi and Yusuf Mahmoud. Mr Sakhi plays the rubab -- a double-chambered lute -- while Mr Mahmoud plays the better-known tabla.
Someone from the Aga Khan Music Initiative, which sponsored the concert, read out an introduction explaining the music we were about to hear. But to be honest, it was delivered in a monotone and I didn't pay much attention. So I'll just give you my impressions.
Each piece seemed to start with Mr Sakhi tuning his rubab. Eventually he would drift into playing a melody. Mr Mahmoud would listen for a few minutes, then give his drums a dusting of Johnson's Baby Powder and join in. The two of them would match and exchange rhythms, seeming to improvise on a central theme.
The result was magical. The rubab turned out to be a very versatile instrument, producing drones and percussive plucks at the same time. I've always loved the sound of the tabla, but had never seen it played. It was good to observe just how the smaller drum created the tuneful beats, while the larger drum pulsed like a heart under the music.
The pieces the duo played didn't vary as much internally as Western compositions can. Each piece maintained the same mood throughout, and was based on one or two melodic phrases -- only the tempo and the octave changed. It's a cliche to call such music "hypnotic," but it really does have the power to take you in and sweep you along.
Perhaps the most enjoyable part of the performance, though, was seeing how the two players interacted with each other. At the beginning of one piece, Mr Mahmoud listened to the rubab's melody for much longer than usual, shaking his head as if to say, "No, I can't do anything with this," until Mr Sakhi hit on something that inspired him. As they played, the two looked at each other constantly, picking up cues from one another and sometimes grinning from sheer delight.
(The camera didn't shake during that last picture; their hands really were moving that fast.)