“Kite Runner’s” Tabla Player, Salar Nader Offers A Glimpse On World Music & Above All, Humanity

On Monday night, “Un-Block The Music” is going to see The Kite Runner on Broadway. In preparation I interviewed tabla player, Salar Nader. I know little about Central Asian music. 

If you don’t know, The Kite Runner is the story of a childhood friendship being torn apart. It follows one man’s journey to confront his past and find redemption. The show starts on a beautiful afternoon in Kabul. The skies are full of the excitement and joy anticipating the start of a kite flying tournament. But neither of the boyhood friends can foresee the incident that will change their lives forever.

Readers know, my journalistic experience has been mostly in pop/rock music. Not much intimidates me, but I panicked a bit. I love singing bowls, but what’s a tabla? That’s a drum? (In fact, it is two drums. One drum creates treble and tonal sounds and the other produces bass.) What would I ask Salar? Well…the moment he picked up the phone and we started the interview, I was immediately at ease and fascinated by his kind personality and what he told me about his art and life experience.

Salar is on the stage during the entire show. In fact, he is on stage with a 15-minute tabla solo before the show even starts. “That solo gets everyone tuned in…like a preview in the movie theater before the feature,” Salar explained. It’s not an instrument we typically hear in pop music. Besides that, the audience has just come from Times Square and all of its New York sounds. The preview brings them into focus.

Something to think about when watching or talking about The Kite Runner is that music has been banned in Afghanistan for over a year. As an American, that is awfully hard to wrap my head around. Remember when Footloose the movie was released? We thought the plot of banning dance was ludicrous. But, in Afghanistan, the ban on music is actually a second ban. The first was from 1994-2001. Before even talking about The Kite Runner, “Un-Block The Music” wants to share a bit about Salar’s background.

Salar’s parents left Afghanistan during the Russian invasion in 1979. “There were different phases of the exodus from Afghanistan,” he explained. “Some family members were picked up and never heard from again. We always have hope they will eventually show up alive.” In the meantime, Salar’s parents landed in West Germany and he was born in Hamburg in 1981. “I was in Germany up until about 3 years old. The only pictures I have of myself from back then is with the tabla,” he said.

That’s not surprising when you look at his family’s musicality which on his mom’s side consists of composers, poets, singers, lyricists. “My dad plays Afghan’s national string instrument, the rubab. His playing is featured in The Kite Runner. I recorded him and I drum over that recording during one of the show’s scenes.” That’s not his dad’s whole story though. In 1979, his dad was part of a talent show much like America’s Got Talent. He made it into the top two contestants a week before the Soviet invasion happened. He never told Salar what happened to the other singer until recently. “Five months ago, my dad finally told me the other singer’s name. He is the biggest vocalist in Tajikistan where he fled. It made me upset and sad, but my dad said, ‘when you were born, I saw you gravitate toward music and decided I would put all of my energy into empowering you!’”

And he did just that. In 1984, Salar and his family came to the U.S., first to New York, but eventually settling in San Francisco. It was in California at the age of 7, Salar started taking tabla lessons. One of Salar’s relatives witnessed his constant drumming on every surface of the house, and he said, there is a tabla guru, Zakir Hussain, that teaches every summer in Berkley. He said, “you should take your son to see if he will take him on.” They did. The average age of Zakir’s students at the time was 40 years old, so when “I walked in, his face lit up. By my second year, at 9 years old, he had me join his advanced class because I was a sponge and absorbing everything. Sometimes I would just sit there to watch and listen. By the age of 12, I started accompanying legendary classical vocalists from India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.”

Salar’s story with his dad reminds me so much of the stories I share with my own daughters. It touched me. Salar said, “my dad was my ‘soccer mom’ until I got my driver’s license at 16. Finally, one day, I asked, ‘are you picking me up after practice?’ He said, ‘nope. You are on your own.’ I remember that call like it was yesterday. I was excited to be independent, but sad also. During those eight or nine summers, the drives back and forth to practice were bonding times for us. They were the best years of my life.”

Salar said, he often struggles with his mission of presenting beautiful music and trying to save Afghanistan. He said, “I am grateful to be on Broadway; to make it from where I started.” But, he felt he had to do more. He teaches and he talks with a lot of musicians through different social media platforms; many who have fled as his family did. “They don’t have the money to buy an instrument let alone pay for lessons. I knew I had to find a way to help represent the music of Afghanistan and the arts as well. I rolled up my sleeves and started the Salar Nader Tabla Foundation which awards scholarships to musicians.” For information on the foundation and how to apply for a scholarship, go to https://www.salarnader.com/salar-nader-tabla-foundation.

That brings us to The Kite Runner which opened on Broadway in July. The show is not a new one. A few years back, Salar collaborated with Khaled Hosseini, who wrote the novel, on a stage adaptation. The production was adapted by Mathew Spangler and directed by David Ira Goldstein. Salar composed and performed the musical score for an initial run at The San Jose Repertory Theatre.  He then reworked the score, arranging and composing works entirely from the world of Afghan, Pashto folklore and ghazal. Salar’s work has been nominated for several awards.

Before “Un-Block The Music” also talks about Salar’s vibrant career outside of theater, I just want to mention his recent involvement with famed Broadway musical director Mary Mitchell Campbell (Mean Girls, upcoming Some Like It Hot). A little more than a week ago, they were part of the “Little Amal Walk” in Times Square. If you are not familiar with Little Amal, she is a giant puppet created to raise awareness about refugee children. The puppet represents a 10-year-old Syrian refugee searching the world for her uncle. She has been all over the world. (For more about Little Amal and her mission, go to (https://www.walkwithamal.org/)

“Mary Mitchell Campbell and I were talking about working on two songs for the event. I said to her, ‘I will show up with my instruments and I am pretty sure we are going to knock it out of the park.’ We rehearsed for 5 minutes. We played it with 30 Broadway vocalists and musicians. The band was five piece and it just worked. It’s how open your heart and mind are. You end up making really great music.

Salar certainly has a lighter side to his personality and talent. While he did most of his growing up in the Bay area, Salar eventually moved to LA. He wanted to live the dream! “In 2013, I started itching to collaborate with a jazz master, perhaps a composer who also played live. Living in the world of social media, once or twice a week I put out reels of me practicing my instrument.” One of those reels was forwarded to Stanley Clarke, famed bassist, film composer and more!

One day Salar was “driving down Sunset and Orange to a burger place I love. I got a voice mail from a ‘310’ number and it started out…  ‘Hey, this is Stanley Clarke. I am looking for a tabla player.’ I nearly crashed my car. I had a moment wondering who was scamming me. Then, I listened to the voice mail which was like a minute and 20 seconds long! He said he needed someone ASAP for two songs on his new record. I knew it was the real deal! I rolled up my window and immediately called him back.” Stanley had seen one of Salar’s videos that was circulating on Facebook. It had a few thousand views and a couple of hundred shares. He told Salar that he liked his tone and what he did. Then he asked if Salar could come to Village Studios the next day. Salar did not hesitate. “I will be there!”

“I wanted to be as professional as possible, but I ended up driving to the wrong ‘Village.’ I typed ‘Village’ into my GPS and it sent me to the Village Restaurant. Those two distances are 55 minutes apart!” Salar called Stanley to explain the situation. He was nervous thinking, “Stanley doesn’t play games. He doesn’t want to deal with a headache off the bat. I was almost in tears. But, he just said… ‘get here when you can.’”

Salar’s goal in those 24 hours was not only to play well on those two songs but to join the band somehow. “We did one or maximum two takes on the tracks. When I was done, he turned off the microphone he was using in the control room. He picked up his upright bass and came back into the room. He asked if we could just play together for a second. I said… ‘I would be honored to so.’” The two jammed for 10 or 15 minutes then Stanley said, “ ‘you know I have a band that tours throughout the world.’  (I was trying to keep it together). ‘I will give you a call when there is a time we can play together again’.”

Salar left that recording studio and when he didn’t hear from Stanley immediately, he figured he never would. Then, five months later a Facebook advertisement for Stanley’s concert in Santa Monica popped up. “I thought wow…that’s happening tomorrow. Stanley never called me. Next thing you I knew, my phone went off. It was Stanley. ‘I told you I would give you a call. We have a concert today at 3 p.m. Can you be here at 2 p.m. so we can run though it? I’d like to feature you.’ I was flung into this celebrity hang with Stanley and his friends like Quincy Jones and Stuart Copeland. That was it. I was in. The next day I was on a flight to Georgia the country and then Hungary for jazz fests!”

What’s the moral of this story? For young people trying to make it in music, Salar said they shouldn’t worry about agents or managers at first. “You are your own best agent because you know yourself. You know what you are looking for. The most important thing is consistency and to never give up. Things have to organically happen.” Salar, who continues to teach, reminds his students that they have Tick Tock and Instagram at their fingertips. Of course, there is a lot of competition out there, but it is still a way to get noticed. “As much as I would like to get off all of my  social media, it is how I got the biggest opportunities of my life!”

Lucky for us, Salar stayed focused. To get a glimpse of his talent, go to see the The Kite Runner. It is playing at the Hayes Theater ONLY until October 30. You can get your tickets here: https://thekiterunnerbroadway.com/?gclid=CjwKCAjwp9qZBhBkEiwAsYFsb2cr0kFOkbq5amfKbeB2CY-vZBOlf59fivXzox3aVjNOEqu4WRe14RoCy0sQAvD_BwE#tickets

On Wednesday “Un-Block The Music” spoke with Composer/Music Supervisor Jonathan Girling as well. Like Salar, I found Jonathan warm and welcoming to my naïve questions. I will run that interview soon after I see the show on Monday. Can’t wait. Stay tuned.

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