Two Musicians Play Across Cultures

05 April, 2019

A two-person musical group performs almost every day in the Washington, D.C. area.

Masood Omari and Abigail Adams Greenway both play tabla, a musical instrument from South Asia, in Greenway's home outside Washington. They call the colorful room where they play Tablasphere. And they call themselves Tabla for Two.

Omari describes the tabla as two drums, with one drum producing a lower sound than the other. There are sticks on the side to change the sound. The top of the instrument is made of goat skin.

Greenway says the sound of the drums makes her feel peaceful. What is unusual is that she and Omari both play the tabla together, giving them a modern sound. They play three kinds of music: one is classical Indian music. Another is traditional music of Afghanistan and India. The third is modern music for Western ears.

"We play new music for the New World, we call it. It's our signature music and it is composed by Masood. It's for two tabla players," Greenway explained.

Greenway's history

Greenway grew up in Erie, Pennsylvania, a U.S. city long known for its factories. Her first two names are the same as those of Abigail Adams, wife of the second president of the United States.

"I grew up listening to classical music and American Jazz," Greenway said. "My father was a classical violinist."

Greenway was once an artist. She moved a long way from the art world when she became interested in Afghan music and musical instruments.

She first became interested in the tabla when she first heard the music of India. "I heard the music and I just said this is the most amazing instrument I've ever heard, the tabla," she said, adding, "They say that when the student is ready, the teacher appears."

Greenway met Omari eight years ago at a store that sells Afghan goods.

"I realized that he was this amazing tabla player and I asked for lessons. I didn't know at the time where this was going. All I knew is that I had a huge desire and a force pushing me to learn to play the instrument."

Masood Omari says that Greenway did not speak the language of Afghanistan, but understood the beat and the melody. She was excited to learn and learned quickly.

Omari's history

Omari fled Afghanistan when he was 15 and resettled in Pakistan. There, he studied tabla for 10 years before coming to the United States in 2002.

Greenway has learned to play harmonium, an instrument also known as a pump organ, from Omari. He said that Greenway plays harmonium like no one else: very soft and gracefully.

After spending years studying hard and in training, the two musicians formed Tabla for Two. They play at embassy and museum events, universities and at the Tablasphere for invited guests.

Cultural ambassadors

Greenway told VOA that she does not have problems being accepted as a woman playing Afghan music.

"I am clearly an American female and I am playing their music. It's a coming together of cultures," she said. "When I play this music they are accepting me, the Afghan people are accepting me."

This makes Greenway feel "like an ambassador," which is the way Omari thinks, as well.

"I believe that I have an important role playing and preserving the music of my country, Afghanistan and sharing it with the world."

I'm Jill Robbins.

June Soh reported on this story for VOANews. Jill Robbins adapted her report for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

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Words in This Story

drum – n. an instrument with a hollow, or empty center, with a drumhead stretched over one or both ends

signature – n. something such as a quality that is closely connected with someone or something

lesson – n. a class; something learned by study

melody - n. a pleasing series of musical notes that form the main part of a song or piece of music

gracefully adj. pleasing in movement

guestn. someone who is invited to one's house or an event