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Taqi Khan is a musician
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Conversations
31 March 2014

Taqi Khan is a musician

Interview by David Havea
Photography by Nicola Dracoulis

You may not take Taqi Khan as a musician upon first meeting the mild mannered singer and multi-instrumentalist. The quietly spoken, neatly dressed Khan does not sport any of the stereotypes generally associated with a Melbourne muso; there’s no indie rock beard, no hipster vest or hip hop hat. Yet his unassuming appearance belies a deep seated passion for music that far surpasses the latest musical fad.

 

Hailing from the mountain city of Quetta in Pakistan, Khan comes from a Hazara family who were originally from Afghanistan. “When the Russian forces came to Afghanistan my parents lives became too difficult so we were forced to migrate to Pakistan when I was about 3 years old” Khan relates to me matter of factly. The source of Khan’s stoicism soon becomes clear as he enlightens me on the plight of the Hazara people in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Subjected to a long history of persecution and repression, Hazara culture was not allowed to flourish and becoming an artist as a Hazara person became a risky endeavour. Which makes Khan’s obvious enthusiasm for Hazara music and desire to champion his people’s culture all the more impressive.

As a musician myself, I know the challenges of pursuing the arts. From creative blocks to business considerations, it can be a difficult task at the best of times. However I can barely imagine attempting to freely express myself while receiving serious threats from fundamental religious groups while also contesting with negative feedback from parts of my own community. Taqi Khan dealt with all this, while also enduring the difficult economic circumstances and dangerous political turmoil inherent in life in Pakistan. Eventually, Khan’s predicament in Quetta became untenable and he was forced to seek refugee status in Australia. Once settled in Melbourne Khan turned his attention to empowering the Hazara community here and around the world by way of his contemporary interpretation of traditional Hazara music. After being a part of Multicultural Arts Victoria’s annual Emerge Festival in 2013, Taqi will again perform at the festival in 2014 and plans to continue spreading his musical message of hope for the future of his people.

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David Havea: What was the inspiration for you to work with Multicultural Arts Victoria? Was it to bring the Hazara community together?

Taqi Khan: The main thing is to promote our culture, because from long time ago in Afghanistan, being from our ethnic group, we were not allowed to promote our music or promote our culture or traditions so our language and traditions were eroded. Every Hazara artist who leaves Afghanistan and lives overseas gets a chance to do something for our people because we have been persecuted for such a long time. This program is part of my responsibility as a known member of the Hazara community, it is my duty to do this for my people and bring them together. Especially as Hazara people are always very sad and don’t have good events and get special days so it’s a chance for everyone to get together and celebrate our culture and show support for those who are starting new lives in Australia.

I understand that your family is originally from Afghanistan?

I was born in Jaghuri in the Ghazni province of Afghanistan. My parents were from the Urazgan province, but due to fighting and war they moved to Jaghuri. When the Russian forces came to Afghanistan my parents lives became too difficult in Jaghuri so we were forced to migrate to Pakistan when I was about 3 years old, so I grew up and was educated in Pakistan. So I have no memory of Afghanistan as a child but later in 2004 I visited Afghanistan, mostly in the Kabul province but one night in the Ghanzi province. It was very dangerous at the time and as I travelled by car I saw many places where there was a lot of fighting, it was really scary.

That sounds very scary! Why were you in Afghanistan at such a dangerous time?

Actually, my big brother was missing so my family sent me to go and search in Kabul but nobody had seen anything and we have still lost my brother. After that I went back to Pakistan and then in 2009 I came to Australia.

I’m sorry to hear that about your brother. So you actually spent most of your childhood in Pakistan?

Yes, I grew up in Quetta City. Nowadays the situation is still very bad in Quetta, even just recently, 26 people were killed in a bombing attack. I spent all my time in Quetta and I can’t forget that city but I faced many difficulties as a refugee child there. When I was very young I was working in a coal mine and also in the bizarre in shops and restaurants.

That’s hard work for a kid to be doing, were you not in school at the time?

No I was attending school at the same time! But we needed money so I had to work part time as well. But for a 12 year old, working in a coal mine is hard work! But when I wasn’t in school I had to earn money to pay for my books and my uniform as my parents had a lot of financial problems.

Does the rest of your family still live in Quetta?

My parents and siblings are still there, I didn’t tell them when I decided to come to Australia by boat. I’d asked my father before and he said he didn’t want me to go as it was too dangerous. But it was also too dangerous for me in Quetta as everyday there were target killings and many problems, we couldn’t go to Afghanistan because there was many economical problems in Pakistan. So life was very hard for us. When I came to Australia by boat I was sent to Christmas Island and in 2010 they gave me a visa to come to Melbourne. Then I learnt that during my journey that my father got very sick and had a heart attack after he learnt I had left Pakistan. It was a big wish of mine to go back and see my father again one day but unfortunately I will never see him again.

I imagine that must have been incredibly difficult for you. Growing up in Pakistan, when were you first exposed to music?

I first had private lessons in Quetta, my teacher was a Christian so he would give me lessons in his house.

And what were you taking lessons in at that time?

I can play the the Hazara instrument Dambora but I taught myself to play that. It’s a simple instrument with only two strings but it has an amazing sound. Because of the persecution of the Hazara people we haven’t had as much progression in things like music and this instrument is an example of that.

We were not allowed to go and buy instruments so we had to hide and make them ourselves. We haven’t had as many professional artists and professional musicians, which is proof of how oppression has affected us.

It must have been hard to pursue music in that kind of environment.

At that time the government persecuted us and didn’t allow us to get a musical education. But even in our own community I had people telling me that for me to play music was bad because they had been taught to be fearful of it. There is still people like that in the Hazara community in Australia. This also makes it hard to find female singers as girls aren’t allowed to learn music.

In those circumstances, how did Hazara culture manage to express itself in the arts?

There were many artists of different types but it was hard for people to be professionals, they would just have to do everything themselves. It was a way to share their pain with other people.

Is that what inspired you to pursue music yourself?

When I was very young in school I was singing in some school programs, things like the national anthem, and my teachers would tell me that I had a good voice so I started liking music at that time. And after that, when my music teacher accepted me to study with him I decided that I should work on music seriously and especially on Hazaragi music to give a good message to my people that music is not bad and bring positive changes to their lives. So I sing in different style, sometimes with traditional Hazaragi poems and words with classical Indian style music but I also sing Hazaragi with pop music and hip hop style. It’s a good experience and I like trying different styles.

What kind of reaction do you get from the Hazara people when you combine traditional Hazara poems with these more contemporary styles of music?

Actually during a ten year period there was a lot of change for my people, many people moved to Australia or Europe and got a education and then they could understand that music was a good thing.

There are now so many Hazara writers and artists and educated people around the world working very hard to convince our people that we are also human and we can do these things and improve our lives.

When I recorded my track Gumaan and did a video for it in Sydney in 2011, I put it on the internet it was voted first position as the best Afghani song around the world at that time which shows a big change (in the perception of) Hazaragi music.

Had you released music before in Pakistan?

In 2006 I released a CD called Moghul Dukhtar which had a track called Tashki Tashki. The quality wasn’t very good because there was no professional studios or musicians in Quetta. It was the first video clip of a Hazara song and we tried to make it look professional. We had a girl singing with me but she wasn’t Hazara as Hazara girls are not allowed to sing. So I just got a Pakistani girl and taught her the words and she sang it in the studio and for the video I just got a girl in traditional Hazara dress to lip synch the words. This song became very popular because it was the first time in our history that people had seen a woman singing one of our songs. I had many calls of support from around the world after that.

That must have been very gratifying! What was the situation like for you at home in Pakistan when you decided to try and make it to Australia?

Even though many people liked my first album, at the same time I got many letters from different religious organisations like the Taliban saying that they wanted to kill me for having a girl sing my music and be in my video.

They said it was shameful for me, I remember one time a lady came up to me in a shop abusing me, saying I should be ashamed of myself.

Was some of the negativity coming from the Hazara community as well?

Yeah, there was still some people who were very religious and didn’t like music but it wasn’t their own idea from their mind. Because they had been taught that music was not good they were misguided people. They were told they were not allowed to be happy or dance or sing songs.

So it got to the point where it was riskier for you to stay in Quetta than to take the risk of trying to get to Australia?

Yes. But every time we heard the news from the internet or TV it was that many people had died on the way to Australia.

When I left my home and my parents, I was 99 percent sure that I would die.

It was risky for me because it was illegal and conditions on the boat were not good. But also at that time in Quetta it was very risky, when someone would leave their home in the morning they couldn’t be sure that they would make it home alive. Still at the moment we have these problems in Quetta.

Is the rest of your family still in Quetta?

My mum, my sister and one brother are still living there. And my brother who we lost in Afghanistan, his wife and children are there also. I’m sending money for them from here, that’s why I’m working here.

What kind of reaction have you gotten to your music from people outside the Hazara community?

They also really enjoy my music and my style when I’m performing. When I was performing with Multi-Cultural Arts Victoria last year at the many events for the Emerge Festival around Victoria, many different people would come and watch us and enjoy the music. This made me happy to see.

Are you finding younger Hazara people are more excited about the arts as well?

Yes! Especially when I’m always performing in the community and doing community programs, many young people are coming and dancing and being happy.

This is my aim, to deliver my ideas to people with a modern type of Hazara music.

I want more things that inspire me to...

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