Arizonian with Afghan roots, Qais Essar meshes his love for his heritage with a vision of the future. There is incredible beauty in keeping the traditions of your heritage alive through growth and evolution. Music is his magic.
Qais plays with soul. It's impossible to watch him on stage and not feel like you wished you played the Rabab too. The first time I saw him perform he played a classical set at a small showcase; the next week I saw him perform a more western-influenced set with his band, Qais and the Qosmonauts, that they had played at SXSW a week earlier. I've now heard my favorite rendition of Drake's Hotline Bling.
I met up with him for coffee a few days later to hear more about his story. He's an eccentric dude, with passion and a message. He seeks to show that there is more to his culture than the negative stereotypes most often associated with Afghanistan.
So, who are you?
Who is Qais Essar? I have answered this question a hundred times, giving a hundred different interviews and I now realize that I really didn’t know then.
Is Qais the habitual body that resides currently in Phoenix, Arizona, and was born to Afghan freedom fighters Najia and Akhtar, or a surge of energy that travels through my wiry appendage- a surge of energy that finds liberation in creating music? Is one more real than the other?
I am focused on re-definition: re-definition of a culture’s music and art, re-definition of the stereotypes that are designated to those of Eastern origin in the West.
How do you describe your music/sound?
It has taken so many years of learning, performing, writing music, writing HORRIBLE music, experimenting, failures- all an alchemical process that has led to the culmination of this new body of work and what my “sound” may be described as. Semantics however, are limiting, and if I do try to put it in words, it would resemble a pearl necklace of adjectives and niche subgenres.
“eastern-experimental-modern-creepy-classical-chamber music”… has an ebb and flow, what say you? I am marrying new traditions in new ways not heard before- we are creating the genre.
How did playing the Rabab become your thing?
Prior to the Rabab, I had begun training in both Eastern and Western forms of music on various instruments, and though I excelled and showed promise, the sound of the Rabab ensnared my heart. It was then, that I chose the Rabab to be the voice to express myself.
Is there a greater goal to your music?
Aside from my efforts in Art, I have my own socio-political agenda- namely to confront racism and xenophobia. In many places I perform, people have not even met an actual Afghan in real life, let alone know what a Rabab is. Their only insight on Afghanistan maybe what can be collected from popular media outlets, which often portray Afghanistan in a negative light. I want to show people that for every bad bit of news they read regarding Afghanistan, there are 100 other beautiful things about where I’m from that outweigh it. I really want to work towards the day that Afghanistan is firstly affiliated with beautiful music, art, and people- not war and violence.
What does being HYFNated mean to you?
Our HYFNs allows us to have a more diverse perspective. Growing up immersed in two different cultures, we have a vantage point, bridging cultures together. Knowing the best (and worst) of both worlds we can weave traditions together in harmonious ways, and given how the world keeps getting smaller, this becomes a bigger job. How long can borders separate people? Being HYFNated is the inevitable future.
What’s one challenge you’ve had with your culture growing up and how did you overcome it?
We often voice our frustration when the Man generalizes minority groups and assigns bogus stereotypes, but what was most frustrating was when I saw that these very generalizations and stereotypes were being perpetuated by the very same minority group being profiled. The aforementioned vantage point from the previous question that lets to have insight on two different worlds, doesn’t mean necessarily that you’ll fit in in either of them. I stopped letting imaginary expectations that existed only in the minds of others dictate my path in life, I make my own reality.
And how has your culture played a positive role in your life?
The beauty in my culture has, and will forever continue to inspire me and my work. It has also given me a purpose- to work towards the preservation and positive advancement of my culture. It’s there in every note.
What’s something you’ve learned that you found most valuable?
If there is one thing I have learned in my career thus far that I would scream to the heavens and anyone else that would hear, is that there is no room for ego in music. We are but mere vessels trying to channel something far greater than ourselves- music. I believe that those gifted with musical talents are like satellites, that they are gifted with something that can intercept and relay these interstellar messages. If anything gets in the way of this transmission, the message is altered. Stay humble, and remember our roles as cosmic mediums.
How does your family feel about your path?
Albeit it was a tough sell in the beginning, my choice equating to blowing my nose with my college degree, my parents have become some of my fiercest supporters. Most of my Youtube views are my mom.
What’s next for you?
I am preparing for my second LP release, Tavern of Ruin, which I may have previously mentioned being the apex of my creative endeavors. In the past I would hashtag any reference to the new work with #magnumopus, magnum opus- the great work. It’s my greatest work, I am very invested. Rabab has never sounded like this, never in this context, and I am beyond excited and humbled that I can share this with others.
If someone only listened to one of your songs, which would you want it to be?
I love all my music babies equally, so I would invite whoever to listen to the entire new record. But if I REALLY had to pick one, it would be what will be the first release for the new record, which will be debuted very soon.
We'll be following Qais' journey and sharing his new work with you on HYFN as soon as we can.