Heroes of Sound: All you need to know about the Aga Khan Music Awards and beyond

Ati Metwaly , Friday 26 Apr 2019

The inaugural edition of the Aga Khan Music Awards took place in Lisbon Portugal, between 29 and 31 March, gathering musicians, art managers and official from the North Africa, Middle East and South Asia

Aga Khan Music Awards

Among the numerous activities of the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) – a large network that has improved lives in many communities across the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia – the most recent is the Aga Khan Music Awards (AKMA).

Part of the Aga Khan Music Initiative (AKMI), the Awards were held in 29-31 March at the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum in Lisbon, Portugal. In the performance category the winner was composer, educator and oud player Mustafa Said, the only Egyptian among the award’s 14 nominees.

The three-day celebration started with a meeting of well-known cultural figures with representatives of governments where the Aga Khan Network operates for the announcement of the following winners: Franghiz Ali Zadeh (Azerbaijan) in Music Creation; the Omnibus Ensemble (Uzbekistan) in Education; Badiaa Bouhrizi, also known as Neysatu (Tunisia) in Social Inclusion; Farhod Halimov (Tajikistan) and the Gurminj Museum of Musical Instruments (Tajikistan) in Preservation, Revitalisation, Dissemination.

Ballake Sissoko
Ballake Sissoko, laureate of the Distinguished and Enduring Contributions to Music Award. (Photo: courtesy of AKMI)

Also announced were the awards in Distinguished and Enduring Contributions to Music – which went to Oumou Sangaré (Mali), Ballake Sissoko (Mali) and Dariush Talai (Iran) – and the Patron’s Award, which went to Mohammad Reza Shajarian (Iran). The Performance Award winner was not announced until the performances were given on 30 March.

Following a grand reception, the guests moved to the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum’s main hall where Prince Amyn Aga Khan, the brother of the Aga Khan, gave a short introductory speech about the newly launched awards.

“The award aims to recognise an exceptional creativity, promise, the musical performance. When my brother [HH the Aga Khan] launched the music initiative, back then it focused on Asia where it played an important preservation role, something that was very needed in the face of either neglect or repression (in the times of Soviet Union’s power over the then Soviet republics),” the Prince clarified, stressing music’s power of communication as “special, enormous and universal. It binds people together and unites them.”

The Gulbenkian Orchestra conducted by Pedro Neves then took the stage featuring the AKMI soloists and/or composers including Sirojiddin Juraev from Tajikistani performing on a variety of long-necked lutes from Central Asia, in his own Suite for Dutar and Orchestra, saxophonist Basel Rajoub from Syria in his Golden Waves; Syrian Feras Charestan’s composition Samai which he played on qanoun, among others.

Farhod Halimov
Farhod Halimov, laureate of the Preservation, Revitalisation and Dissemination Award (Photo: courtesy of AKMI)

Aga Khan Music Awards in Performance Category

Starting early in the morning and until sunset on 30 March, 14 musicians from Egypt, Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, Turkey, Iran, Pakistan and India gave the Performance Award concerts. It was a plethora pf talent, with each performer presenting their own cultural depth and unique approach to music and heritage, some using the traditional vocabulary of their countries or regions, others experimenting with intercultural dialogue, crossing geographic borders and moving above space and time. In this large selection of creative colour, many audience members found it hard to predict the winner.

“How can you pick one above the other?” was a question asked by many listeners. During a break between the well-known Egyptian cultural activist Basma El Husseiny, former head of Al Mawred Al Thakafy and current head of the Lebanon-based Action for Hope, expressed the same thought: “There are so many amazing performers, each very unique, many mesmerizing with their repertoire and performance, whether classical and traditional or those who approach heritage with contemporary musical minds. Picking the best is very difficult; which culture, which virtuosity should we place over the other?”

The news that Mustafa Said had won wasn’t announced until late evening by jury member David Harrington shortly after the last nominee stepped off stage. Many wondered why the announcement wasn’t kept till the grand ceremony, but this being the first round of the Music Awards that was a minor glitch. 

Mustafa Said
Mustafa Said, laureate of Award in Performance category. (Photo: courtesy of AKMI)

Said had escaped to his room and resolved to sleep rather than respond to interview requests and other demands of the media, who had already mobilised, but he agreed to meet me in the lobby of the hotel. 

With typical humility he explained how happy he was to be performing among the 14 nominees: “I am always happy when I perform. The listeners will not enjoy music if I don’t enjoy it.” Often reaching out to Arabic poetry, whether old or new, Said’s music reflects his interest in the musical traditions of different nations. “I listen to all kinds of music, from Andalusia to Iran, and the far east,” he said, speaking to Ahram Online. “I admire traditional instruments; I am not a fan of anything that has an electronic element to it.”

Visually impaired, Said studied oud at the Arabic Oud House in Cairo, and learned Western music at the Haldey School for the Blind and Visually Impaired. The Aga Khan brochure details that Said has recorded several albums and participated in international music festivals as a soloist and a member of the Asil Ensemble for Contemporary Classical Arabic Music, which he founded in 2003. 

He has published academic articles and given lectures on a range of topics in Middle Eastern art and Arabic music, and has collected more than 500 early Egyptian and Arab songs. He served as artistic and archives manager of the Arab Music Archiving and Research Foundation in Lebanon from 2008 to 2010, and has been its director since 2010.

Master Musicians
The Master Musicians perform during the inaugural celebrations of the Aga Khan Music Awards, 29 March, Lisbon (Photo: Aga Khan Music Awards/AKDN)

The Elephant in the Room

On 31 March, an interesting midday seminar that brought together key figures from AKMI and AKDN as well as the jury members – David Harrington (USA), the founding member and first violinist of the Kronos Quartet; Akram Khan, the celebrated British dancer-choreographer; Jean During, a renowned French ethnomusicologist specialising in the music of the Central Asia; Salima Hashmi, a well-known Pakistani artist and curator; and Nouri Iskander, a Syrian musician and musicologist – addressed such questions as the reasoning behind the choice of Said. 

“Seeing the range of talents, it was almost impossible to announce the winner. In addition to that, the jury is very diverse in their creative practice. A very interesting conversation emerged in the jury room,” said the seminar moderator, Sir Jonathan Mills, former Director and Chief Executive of the Edinburgh International Festival, in the course of the seminar which among many issues aimed at addressing "the elephant in the room," as Fairouz Nishanova, AKMA director, put it.

 “In fact, there are 14 winners; there is no question about that,” Noshanova said opening her speech. 

“All the finalists made it through such an extraordinary and rigorous selection. Every single finalist is recognised, every single one is getting a trophy, and every single one is getting a prize and the support that AKMI offers. We did the awards’ first cycle in less than 11 months and my worry was whether we were going to get the quality of nominations we sought. Not only did we get that, we also understood that it takes a long time to create a performer of that calibre. None of us is under the illusion that there is just one winner.” 

Nishanova referenced AKMA’s official announcement that the “awards programme is created to recognize and further develop exceptional creativity, promise, and enterprise in music and music education in societies across the world in which Muslims have a significant presence.” 

30 March seminar that brought together key figures from AKMI and AKDN as well as the jury members – David Harrington (USA), the founding member and first violinist of the Kronos Quartet; Akram Khan, the celebrated British dancer-choreographer; Jean During, a renowned French ethnomusicologist specialising in the music of the Central Asia; Salima Hashmi, a well-known Pakistani artist and curator; and Nouri Iskander, a Syrian musician and musicologist. (Photo: Ati Metwaly)

She added that “most of the nominations came back from the countries and regions where Aga Khan has done very good work over the decades. Some of the countries were those where we just began to make ourselves known, such as Indonesia, part of Australia, Niger, Singapore etc. We received 70 nominations from Central Asia, but only three from Malaysia. So we know what our homework between now and our next cycle is. Please continue to nominate.”

Akram Khan was the first jury member to elaborate on the choice of Said, saying it was a very unanimous decision: “As a dancer I am a musician as well, because my body is my instrument. In this sense I’m searching for what makes us human and for me the answer has been given by the winner. There was something fragile about Mustafa Said’s performance and at the same time I didn’t know where he was going to go. And when you are in a place where you do not know where you are being taken you develop a trust in the artist and this is an extraordinary experience.” 

Here as elsewhere it was clear the jury was looking for more than technical virtuosity – the magic, the 'je ne sais quoi' that makes a musician stand out was crucial. 

As Salima Hashmi put it, “I was the outsider in a sense since I work in visual art therefore I felt like ‘what do I know about the technique?’ But I think there is a point when you are listening to a great performer that you feel the ease with which the creation comes about and when all those components that make up technique and virtuosity have been left far behind.”

Dariush Talai
Dariush Talai, laureate of the Distinguished and Enduring Contributions to Music Award (Photo: courtesy of AKMI)

For his part David Harrington stressed “a magnetic thing, something that pauses me; when I have no choice, I have to go with it. For me that has always been the basis of music adventures.” He underscored “the incredible experience” of becoming acquainted with the submissions and being part of the 14 concerts. 

On the other hand Nouri Iskander spoke about a bigger concept of an artist and a performer: “An artist’s life is an always developing one; it doesn’t freeze in a moment. Part of the wisdom of this award in its first round is what will happen in between the development of each of those artists. Education, institutions, instruments and support – culture doesn’t spring up overnight, it springs from the very deep roots, so it’s not a coincidence that it should now bear fruit, 20 years after AKMI was launched. The importance of the award is not only what happens here and now but also what happens from here on forward and continual support for the development and evolution of these artists. This is an ongoing process.”

Indeed, as it was repeatedly pointed out during the seminar, “The past is in front of us, not behind us.” This is probably what the Aga Khan Music Awards encourage and promote the most. 

The 14 nominees represent many creative concepts, including both music that is deeply rooted in an ancient tradition and music that employs elements of the tradition – a maqam, for example – in a new context. 

The Aga Khan Music Awards will continue to take place and those interested are encouraged to check the AKDN’s website regularly for updates about the upcoming editions. As Sam Pickens, the AKDN Communications’ Deputy Director explained to me, the second edition will take place in 2021 but “because the Music Award falls during the same year as the Aga Khan Award for Architecture, and to make sure it falls in different years in the future, the next edition will be in two years and after that every three years.”

Badiaa Bouhrizi
Badiaa Bouhrizi, laureate of the Social Inclusion Award (Photo: courtesy of AKMI)

The Aga Khan Development Network in Egypt

The Aga Khan’s role in the region’s development -- including the musical one -- is unprecedented. Over the past years many music centres have been established and music education introduced to communities across Asia, North Africa and the Middle East. There have also been preservation efforts aimed at traditional instruments and music. To understand the magnitude of the awards as well as the depth of the AKMI operations – a fraction of AKDN’s activities in the region – a few important facts about the networks presence in Egypt and its impact on Egyptian society are in order:

To many local readers the name of Aga Khan is usually associated with Al Azhar Park which was developed by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC) on a 30-hectare (74-acre) plot of land at the centre of historic Cairo (the Darb Al-Ahmar neighbourhood). A generous gift from HH the Aga Khan to the city of Cairo – worth $30 million – today Al Azhar Park attracts nearly two million visitors a year. 

Readers who are more aware of the Aga Khan’s activities might also point to the Al-Darb Al-Ahmar Arts School, a project established in 2011 by the AKMI (in partnership with the Cairo-based NGO Al-Mawred Al-Thaqafy or Cultural Resource and, following Al-Mawred’s departure from Egypt in 2014, managed by the El Genaina Company). The school focuses on training children and young adults from Al-Darb Al-Ahmar and other low-income quarters of Cairo in the circus arts, theatre, and music – particularly brass and percussion instruments. 

To date the school has brought to light many remarkable performers whose lives have drastically improved thanks to the methodology implemented by AKMI. With the recent closing of the El Genaina Company, we are yet to discover new plans laid for the Al-Darb Al-Ahmar Arts School.

Mustafa Said
Mustafa Said receives the award during the final gala performance. On the stage: H.H. the Aga Khan; Prince Amyn Aga Khan; Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, the president of Portugal; Fairouz Nishanova, AKMA director; Mustafa Said and his mother. (Photo: courtesy of AKMI)

Al Azhar Park and Al-Darb Al-Ahmar Arts School will be known to some if not all readers, but there is also the Aga Khan Historic Cities Programme (AKHCP), an agency which conducts urban regeneration projects in historic centres and has led many valuable restoration interventions in Cairo and beyond. In Al-Darb Al-Ahmar alone, AKDN launched the Urban Regeneration Programme which included the conservation of seven historic monuments in the area (including the 14-century Amir Aqsunqur’s Blue Mosque), excavation of one archaeological site, rehabilitation and/or reconstruction of over 120 houses, pavement of 5,500m² of streets, installation of 3.1 km of underground sewage systems, etc).

The Om Habibeh Foundation in Aswan, the southernmost governorate, was established in 1991 by the AKDN with the aim of supporting the social and economic development of disadvantaged communities. 

“An Egyptian not-for-profit organisation, the Foundation empowers local capacity to advance education and income generation initiatives,” reads the AKDN’s website, adding that to date the OHF’s long-term development programme has reached over 80,000 people in the Aswan governorate. In the cultural sector of Aswan region, in 2017, the Aga Khan Music Initiative and the Aga Khan Foundation, in partnership with Om Habibeh Foundation as well as the University of Alberta in Canada, also began working on the Aswan Music Project. 

“The project aims to promote musical participation, musical development and cultural continuity by encouraging interest in Aswan’s traditional artistic heritage, especially through musical training of teachers, children and youth.”

Those are only some examples of the many activities that the Aga Khan Development Network carries on its shoulders in Egypt and a drop in the ocean of its agencies operating across the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia. The AKDN’s website sets out more about the network’s activities: “The Aga Khan Foundation brings together human, financial and technical resources to address some of the challenges faced by the poorest and most marginalised communities in the world. Special emphasis is placed on investing in human potential, expanding opportunity and improving the overall quality of life, especially for women and girls. It works primarily in six areas: Agriculture and Food Security; Economic Inclusion; Education; Early Childhood Development; Health and Nutrition; and Civil Society.” 

Culture is definitely one of the tools binding those communities together and helping them.

Al Darb Al Ahmar
'Lost and Found' performance by the students of the Al-Darb Al-Ahmar Arts School, El-Geneina Theatre, 2014. (Photo: Bassam Al-Zoghby)

* A version of this article appears in print in the 18 April 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Heroes of Sound.

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