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From Kabul to ‘Heaven’: Afghani Trumpeter Finds Friends and Music at Chosen Vale Seminar in Enfield

  • Ahmad Baset Azizi rehearses for a concert at the Stone Mill in the Enfield, N.H., on Thursday, June 21, 2018. Azizi is attending the University of Kansas and is in Enfield to participate in the Chosen Vale seminar. (Valley News - August Frank) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Ahmad Baset Azizi rehearses for the Chosen Vale seminar at the Stone Mill in the Enfield, N.H., on Thursday, June 21, 2018. Azizi fled violence in his home country to attend an arts high school in Michigan. He is now attending the University of Kansas. (Valley News - August Frank) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Ahmad Baset Azizi discusses their instruments with fellow musician Viveca Lawrie, of Sedona, Ariz., Azizi was originally drawn to the piano, but a teacher pushed him toward the trumpet. Azizi is participating in the Chosen Vale seminar for musicians at Shaker Village. (Valley News - August Frank) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Ahmad Baset Azizi rehearses for the Chosen Vale seminar at the Stone Mill in the Enfield, N.H., on Thursday, June 21, 2018. Azizi fled violence in his home country to attend an arts high school in Michigan. He is now attending the University of Kansas. (Valley News - August Frank) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Staff Writer
Saturday, June 23, 2018

Many days during his mid-teens, Ahmad Baset Azizi hid his trumpet and kept his ears and eyes open for snipers and bombers on the walk between his home and his music school in the capital of Afghanistan.

Other days, depending on the season, he waded through floodwaters or mud in the streets of Kabul to keep an appointment for a lesson or to play at a concert in a foreign embassy.

Now 18, he’s pursuing his passion in the United States. This week and next at the Enfield Shaker Museum, the University of Kansas sophomore-to-be is comparing musical and life notes with more than a dozen young trumpet players from around the world during the Center for Advanced Musical Studies’ annual Chosen Vale International Trumpet Seminar for rising performers.

On Wednesday, three days into his stay, Azizi described the setting as “the first place I can probably call a trumpet Heaven.”

“I like these people; they’re a little bit calmer (than people and musicians in big cities),” he said. “The coaches and the players are like family.”

So is seminar founder Ed Carroll, who invited Azizi on the recommendation of the American trumpeter who had taught Azizi via Skype during the teen’s final two years in Afghanistan.

“We don’t want to treat him as ‘The Afghani Kid,’ ” Carroll said on Thursday. “We’re inviting him into our community. … It’s a musical environment that perhaps he hasn’t been introduced to yet. We want to show him where the bars are set for musicians at this level, as well as what our humanity is like.”

Humankind and -not-so-kind began testing Azizi early: He was born in Kabul in 1999, two years before the United States invaded his country in an effort to rid it of al-Qaida terrorists and their indigenous Taliban allies.

By the time his father, who works in the Ministry of Defense, enrolled him in the Afghanistan National Institute of Music in Kabul in 2011, the young Asizi had been seeing dead and wounded people and body parts in the streets of his hometown for years. In the relative oasis of school, he hesitated at first to choose an instrument, having only seen pianos and violins on TV, so someone assigned him the trumpet.

It wasn’t love at first sight.

“For a while I pretended to like it,” he recalled. “But when I learned a couple of notes, it was, ‘Oh, my goodness: I want to learn this!’

” ‘Maybe this sound is the best sound in music.’ ”

Few outside the school agreed. Since they drove Soviet forces out of the country in the late 1980s, the surviving fundamentalists of the Taliban have been threatening, torturing and killing listeners and practitioners of music in general and of Western music in particular.

Even after U.S. and allied forces decimated al-Qaida and pushed the Taliban into remote parts of the country and neighboring Pakistan, friends and acquaintances advised Azizi against playing his trumpet, or at least carrying it openly between home and school.

Yet Azizi’s parents, who had sent him to the school in hopes of distracting and shielding him from carnage he’d witnessed at and around his primary school, continued to encourage him to pursue his passion. By 2013, he was playing principal trumpet for the National Orchestra, often at foreign embassies around Kabul.

But he was always looking over his shoulder, as the Taliban kept attacking government and cultural sites around his home city. In 2014, a boy strapped with explosives made it into a Kabul high school where an audience full of diplomats and Afghan leaders was watching a play. The ensuing detonation killed a German spectator and wounded the music institute’s director, Ahmad Naser Sarmast.

That same year, Azizi’s trumpet teacher left the school, and the teen started combing YouTube and other internet sources for veteran players willing to help him improve. After watching videos of David Bilger, principal trumpeter for the Philadelphia Orchestra, Azizi sent a friend request via Facebook, identifying himself as “the best trumpeter in Afghanistan ... because there are only two.”

Intrigued, Bilger agreed to tutor Azizi weekly via Skype.

“At that point, it wasn’t about getting the chance to go to college in the United States for music or to go to prestigious seminars,” Bilger recalled this week. “He just said, ‘I want to get better. I need a teacher.’

“How can you say ‘no’ to that?”

Bilger said “yes” even though the time difference between Kabul and Philadelphia meant staying up well past 11 at night, after his own kids had turned in or after one of his own concerts, so that Azizi could use the internet connection at his school, usually at dawn, to gain access to Skype.

“There was a lot of effort on his part to make himself available for the lessons,” Bilger said. “I would always ask him, ‘Have you warmed up yet?’ and usually he had. One day he said he hadn’t and I asked, ‘What’s different today?’ He said, ‘It rained.’ After I said, ‘Well, yeah?’ he sent pictures of the streets between his home and the school, where he’d had to choose to walk through either knee-deep water or knee-deep mud to get to the school.”

“This sort of put things in perspective about his drive to make this work.”

Classical clarinetist Robin Korevaar, a former colleague of Bilger’s during their years together with the Dallas Symphony, noticed the same determination in the engaging teenager during a guest residency at his school. She helped arrange an audition for Azizi to the Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan, which awarded him a scholarship for the the first semester of the 2016-2017 school year. To help Azizi meet additional expenses and stay the full year, thus qualifying for a visa, Korevaar and Bilger started a GoFundMe campaign that raised more than $30,000, including $5,000 from the music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra.

“We had more than 200 individual donors, mostly from people from the music community and people they knew,” Bilger said.

Azizi and his benefactors’ efforts caught the eyes and cameras of media outlets ranging from CBS and Fox News to various websites. The ensuing attention came in handy: After the University of Kansas School of Music awarded Azizi a four-year scholarship, supporters ran another GoFundMe campaign, this time for $85,000, to cover additional expenses — and thus help Azizi to qualify for a green card.

“Within three days, we’d raised over $60,000,” Bilger said. “More than 1,100 people who had not heard of him before seeing Baset on the news or reading about him stepped up. It really renewed my faith in humanity.

“People wanted to help.”

The support, then and now, is helping Azizi adjust to living and studying thousands of miles from his parents and his three sisters, whom he hasn’t seen since he left for Interlochen in the summer of 2016. While they talk on the phone, a poor internet connection at the Azizi home makes conversations on Skype and FaceTime barely worth the trouble.

“Now that I’m in a safe place, and they are not, it’s not easy,” he said. “This is a different world, a different planet. It’s so far away. It’s probably harder for them than for myself.”

Not by much.

“My dad’s in the military, and I try to be tough like him,” Azizi said. “But sometimes you need to cry about pieces of your heart.”

About three months ago, more help came from Carroll, an Interlochen and Juilliard-trained trumpeter who teaches the instrument at the California Institute of the Arts, lectures at Dartmouth College and directs the Center for Advanced Musical Studies, which runs a percussion seminar at Chosen Vale as well as the gathering of trumpeters. Carroll knew Bilger from the trumpet community, and had conversed online with Azizi for several years, so when Bilger inquired, Carroll invited the youngster to this year’s trumpet seminar.

“We all know each other,” Carroll said. “We’re in touch as much as we possibly can be. … We’re all on the same team, all on the same ladder.

“This is the crowd Baset needed to see.”

Walking around the museum grounds during his free time, Azizi sees and hears other trumpeters tooting practice notes from the chapel, from the upstairs guest rooms of the museum’s Great Stone Dwelling, the adjoining Mary Keane Chapel and from surrounding buildings, the way birds with throats of brass might sing.

And between rehearsals and recitals, he quizzes teachers and performers from Brazil, Germany, Canada, England, Hungary, Italy, France, Norway and the United States — not only about the instrument and its masters, but about how each of them wound up at Chosen Vale.

“We can learn just by talking,” Azizi said. “I enjoy it. That’s the way I learn. I never learn from reading a book. I learn more when I hear about you, sharing your experiences.”

Ahmad Baset Azizi performs with faculty and student trumpeters at Enfield’s Mary Keane Chapel on tonight, during the second of the Chosen Vale seminars’ four free concerts. The music begins at 8, after a preview discussion that starts at 7:30.

David Corriveau can be reached at dcorriveau@vnews.com and at 603-727-3304.