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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Voices of Afghanistan is an ensemble of musicians from Central Asia who now live in the United States. Their musical backgrounds and their ages vary. What they share is a passion for the music of Afghanistan and the desire to introduce it to American audiences. Banning Eyre spent time with these musicians as they created their debut album, "Love Songs for Humanity."

BANNING EYRE, BYLINE: Like so many Afghan musicians, the core members of this group have fled violent conflicts at home, moving from Kabul to Peshawar, Pakistan, and when that became a Taliban stronghold, the United States. Most now live in Fremont, California, south of San Francisco, and home of Little Kabul.

That includes 65-year-old Ustad Farida Mahwash, a legend whose voice is known to every Afghan who lived during the '70s and '80s. When we met, I asked her to sing one of her famous ghazals, light classical love songs with beautiful melodies.

USTAD FARIDA MAHWASH: (Singing in foreign language)

EYRE: Mahwash recalls listening to her mother recite the Quran. She tells me, I got this voice from her. That may be, but Mahwash's is the voice that would matter in Afghanistan.

MAHWASH: (Singing in foreign language)

MARK SLOBIN: Mahwash was part of a generation of young women who appeared in public, but more importantly, they appeared on the radio.

EYRE: That's ethnomusicologist Mark Slobin of Wesleyan University in Connecticut. Slobin did groundbreaking fieldwork in Afghanistan in the early '70s, a relatively peaceful era there and a time when Mahwash became a national star.

SLOBIN: She had been a secretary at the radio station and was discovered, like, you know, sort of a Hollywood story. But we're not talking about Hollywood here. We're talking about a society that has a very low value for music and had a very low value of the idea of women appearing in public to sing. So she went through various problems even in the good old days, a period that's now considered the golden age.

MAHWASH: (Foreign language spoken)

EYRE: Mahwash recalls that golden age vividly. She says men and women worked together and people were happy. Watching the militancy and oppression in Afghanistan today, she says, I am totally confused. I don't know where these people came from.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

EYRE: Mahwash's principle collaborator in Voices of Afghanistan is young enough to be her son. Born in 1976 to a renowned musical family, Homayoun Sakhi rapidly became a master of the rubab, a double-chambered lute that is the national instrument of Afghanistan. The rubab is at least a thousand years old. But within a short time playing it, Homayoun was already inventing new techniques for it.

OMAYOUN SAKHI: I was practicing every day, eight hours, 10 hours, 12 hours every day.

EYRE: Homayoun started playing higher up the instrument's neck than anyone had before. And he developed a technique of picking in both directions.

SAKHI: I told them, like, father, I want to play, like, faster. And after that, I was just like...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

EYRE: Homayoun was keen to show off his innovative bends and slides, but Mark Slobin points out that before all that, this young player mastered folkloric and classical traditions.

SLOBIN: Even as a child, he made it his business to learn all the styles. He's quite a repository of a lot of information. And because of this dislocation and destruction, he is sort of a walking archive himself and a kind of national treasure.

EYRE: An American producer, Dawn Elder, brought Mahwash and Homayoun together with the other members of Voices of Afghanistan, and they created the group's debut CD, "Love Songs for Humanity." It's a mix of Central Asian art music, folklore and classical popular songs, like this one, "Zim Zim."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ZIM ZIM")

VOICES OF AFGHANISTAN: (Singing in foreign language)

EYRE: Speaking in her home in California, Mahwash says the CD title, "Love Songs for Humanity," gets right to the message these musicians want to convey.

MAHWASH: (Foreign language spoken)

EYRE: Art in general, she says, and singing especially, is all about love. I am a messenger of love. It doesn't matter if you're Jewish, Christian, Buddhist or Muslim. I love humans, all humans.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MAHWASH: (Singing in foreign language)

EYRE: For NPR News, I'm Banning Eyre.

SIEGEL: Banning Eyre is senior editor at afropop.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

AFGHANISTAN: (Singing in foreign language)

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