An Interview with Colin Davin, the American Guitarist who Teaches in Afghanistan
By Guy Traviss
I first met American guitarist Colin Davin when he was passing through London on his way to the Middle East. He was visiting the city to catch up with an old fiend and former duo partner, who had suggested putting us in touch about this unusual teaching position. So it was in one of London’s historic pubs, just around the corner from the Royal College of Music, that I sat down with Colin to learn something new about the classical guitar world.
Colin, how did you come to teach in Kabul?
My connection to Kabul and the Afghanistan National Institute of Music (ANIM) was a colleague from my time studying at the Juilliard School, the cellist Avery Waite. At the time of my first trip, in January 2013, Avery was the full time cello teacher there, and was part of the team bringing in guest teaching artists for the school’s annual Winter Academy. Without any idea that I was being considered, an email came one day to test my interest, and about a month later, I was in Kabul!
How long have you been doing it?
I’ve now made three trips to Afghanistan; January 2013, June 2013, and January 2014. Currently, I’m in the logistical phases of planning a slightly longer residency this year, most likely in the early fall.
Who are you teaching?
The students I teach in Kabul represent many segments of Afghan society. They range in age from 9 to their early 20s, from each of Afghanistan’s main ethnic groups, and quite remarkably, are both boys and girls. Part of the school’s mission has been to reach the most disadvantaged members of Afghan society, and their partnership with an orphanage run by AFCECO (Afghan Child Education and Care Organization) has been vital to this. Several of my guitar students, as well as students in other studios at ANIM, live at AFCECO. I’m lucky enough to have been able to visit AFCECO and give some performances there, as well!
I have also spent a great deal of time teaching the full-time guitar instructor, Ustad Basir Hosseini (a multi-instrumentalist whose skills most closely approach the jack-of-all-trades “studio” guitar label), who has been able to apply many of the principles I’ve taught in my visits, throughout the entire school year.
How well known is the classical guitar (or similar) known in that part of the world?
The classical guitar is not well-known in Afghanistan. In fact, the guitar was likely not even introduced to the country until the 1950s, and in classical, folk, and popular music, it has not been a major
presence. In recent years, it has become somewhat more common in popular music, but is still overshadowed by the harmonium and the rubab (Afghanistan’s “national instrument”). While the rubab is certainly quite different from the guitar, it is a fretted, plucked string instrument, so it’s not unreasonable that this connection could make the guitar a welcome fit in Afghan musical culture. As for the classical guitar, it is an instrument in its infancy. There are no professional classical guitarists in the entire country, and as I mentioned before, the teacher at ANIM is not a true classical guitarist per se, but rather someone who knows a little bit about many different styles of guitar playing. The students I’ve taught have the opportunity to become the first generation of professional guitarists in Afghanistan’s history.
Are there any risks/protocols you have to follow to stay safe?
Safety is of course a concern in Afghanistan; the US State Department never fails to issue travel warnings telling Americans to just stay away. The reality, though, is that daily life does not consist of dodging bullets and duck-and-cover drills. The presence of foreigners in Kabul is by now quite familiar, and while there are certain areas we are told to avoid (as there would be in any major Western city), we can generally move about without any sense of fear. We do have drivers employed by the school to shuttle us around the city, but there is no real security detail traveling with us.
Statistics are a little hard to track down, but there are far fewer foreign civilians killed by insurgents in Afghanistan than there are people killed by gun crimes in American cities. That said, there have been several attacks in Kabul during my trips there, including one during rush hour traffic, and an assault on the airport. While none of these have affected me directly, it is a reality of life there that such incidents are possible.
What other interesting things have happened there?
Well, every day is an interesting anecdote. I’ll offer one light hearted story, and one that’s a bit sadder.
Afghan food and beverage changes with the seasons, and it was really exciting to be there in the spring last year, when fresh juices (often topped with chopped pistachios) and sheer yakh (ice cream made with cardamom, pistachio, rose water, and maybe ginger) are available. We made a stop for ice cream that was a sort of drivethrough situation; we pulled up to the place and a young man came over to take an order for us. A car full of foreigners and one Afghan driver each ordered sheer yakh, which was made fresh and delivered to our car. But this was no to-go operation, as we were served elegantly plated towers of ice cream in very attractive glass bowls, which we enjoyed together in our crowded Corolla.
On a more serious note: I’ve developed good relationships with some of the students there, in particular Saifullah Afzali, an older student who is very serious about the guitar, and Palwasha (who goes by just one name), a younger student who is at once shy and incredibly sweet. She made me a beautiful hand-made card each of my first two trips, and we had definitely established a close bond. My heart was broken, though, when she was not at school for my third trip. From what I could gather by talking to other students and teachers at ANIM, her cousin had developed an innocent relationship with one of the boys at the school; any sort of dating or romance is very much taboo in more conservative parts of Afghanistan, and as a result, the entire family took all of its children away from ANIM and I think about the unfairness of that reaction often, and can’t imagine what Palwasha must have thought when she was taken away from the school.
Saifullah, however, remains at school, but has to juggle the responsibility of working to support his very large family (his father is deceased, and women are still not typically expected to earn money to support their families) with his studies in music and other vocations. Without much time left for sleep, he nonetheless practices several hours a day, sometimes while waiting around in the hut where he works as a private security guard. His dream is to become a solo guitarist, and it’s clear that music is the most meaningful thing in his life. From a practical perspective, he will have to continue working this hard, and be very creative to find a career in an Afghan music industry that is still being formed.
Are there people around doing similar things?
As for others, there are certainly lots of other foreign guest teachers I’ve met in Afghanistan, though I can’t say much as to who else has done this sort of thing in other parts of the world. At ANIM, I worked with many extraordinary guests teachers, including guitarist Patrick Sutton on my most recent trip; Eden Macadam-Somer, a violinist who has now been there five times; Dana Frobig, who has helped establish an instrument repair workshop at ANIM; and Joel Schut, who filled in for an extended time when the previous violin teacher and orchestral conductor William Harvey was out of the country. And I have to mention, among the many foreign faculty currently teaching there full-time, Allegra Boggess, who inspires me with both her passion and skill as a teacher of piano and oboe, and in her tireless work handling a wide range of administrative responsibilities.
This article originally appeared in the September 2014 issue of Classical Guitar magazine.