Larry Porter — pianist, Afghan rabab player, and composer — is truly a cultural bridge. As a performer, he plays jazz piano and Afghan rabab with equal proficiency. Likewise, as a composer, he musically code-switches back and forth seamlessly between jazz, Afghan folk and classical songs, Central Asian music, Indian music, and his own original music that absorbs all of the above into a new idiom. I have been receiving emails from him with videos of his work for over a year, but it was only about two months ago that I paid such close attention to one video that it reached something deep in my memory bank.
The video, sent to me by my music guru Aashish Khan and Porter, showed a performance of Porter on rabab playing with Fumie Hihara on the Japanese zither koto. The piece was recorded in Berlin, where Porter has lived and worked for many years. The beautiful combination of these two stringed instruments - the rabab (mellow, earthy, and percussive) and the koto (delicate, ethereal, shimmering) — was astonishing. I searched for more videos of Porter, and the more I watched him, the more I wondered whether we had met before. Where and when? In the western Himalayan town of upper Dharamsala, India, or in Kabul, Afghanistan during my year-long overland sojourn to the Indian subcontinent?
Rewind to 1976. I had met a man then who resembled the Porter on the videos (albeit some 35 years younger), getting off a crowded bus in Dharamsala wearing Afghan dress and struggling with his instrument in the crowd. We greeted each other, as western travelers at that time did, and he said he would visit me in my hotel room to show me his rabab. (I had recently spent six weeks in Afghanistan so was a little familiar with the instrument.) When he came to my room, one of the songs he performed for me was the “national” song of Afghanistan, “Anaar Daane” (Pomegranate Seeds), singing in Farsi as he accompanied himself on rabab.
Fast forward to October 2011. I emailed him asking if he was the same person I had met many years ago. He promptly replied, “Thanks for your mail. I'm blown away to say the least. I was indeed in Kabul and Upper Dharamsala late in 1976. If there was a second American running around Kabul at the time playing rabab and singing "Anaar daane ne dara, anaari bi daane", then I'd like to meet him! Tell me, did the story about visiting your room take place in Kabul or Dharamsala? By the way, there's a photo of me in Kabul taken back then by some guy with an old box camera. Check it out
He went on, “I consider people who made that overland trip in the 70s soulmates. We share something very special which unfortunately ceased to exist shortly thereafter.” Resonance!
(which I came across by way of a classical Indian music online group), he demonstrates a beautiful east-west rendition of the Indian raag Bageshree (albeit rather roughly recorded in the early 1990s).
Porter’s grasp of the classical Indian raag and its expression, as well as his utterly successful “transliteration” to piano is inspiring. He develops the melody richly with his right hand, comp-ing deliciously subtle, spot-on jazz harmonies with the left. When the vocalists sing, his left hand functions like a drone, invoking the Indian tanpura The latest youtube clips he sent my way showcase his Afghan Trio, featuring his traditional Afghan rabab playing.
You can see his whimsical delight playing the simple, sweet melodies of these folk songs. He improvises them using the cyclic movement of Indian music. His clarity of tone, control of intonation, and dynamic range are impeccable throughout.
And finally, in his Raga ‘n’ Roll, one can see the fruits of his thirty plus years to reach his goal to "...combine everything I know about jazz and Western music with everything I know about Afghan, Central Asian and Indian music . . . "in order that" . . . an actual transformation takes place in this fusion and not just a layering.” In other words, “I [Porter] hear this music as having its own integrity different than the mere sum of its parts."