Classical Music

ROCO Features Immigrant Stories In My Journey To America

Milad Yousufi, as well as other immigrants, will be the focus for ROCO's My Journey To America.
Milad Yousufi, as well as other immigrants, will be the focus for ROCO's My Journey To America. Photo by Classic Photography Group
Eddie Murphy's Coming 2 America isn't the only story debuting this week about an immigrant. The fabric of our country's diversity, stitched together by people who hail from every corner of this Earth, is on full display Thursday as ROCO presents an intimate performance titled My Journey to America, named after the world premiere quintet composed by Afghan composer Milad Yousufi and co-commissioned by the Winsor Music Consortium. My Journey to America is a suite of five short movements, each preceded by a spoken narrative by Yousufi, describing his journey from his dramatic birth story in Kabul, Afghanistan to becoming a refugee in New York City. The concert takes place, via livestream, at 7 p.m. at Holocaust Museum Houston.

No matter what our native tongue is, melody, rhythm and the emotions they create cross all barriers. Yousufi's personal journey serves as a poignant reminder of how music creates the language we all can understand. Born in 1995 during the civil war in Afghanistan, he lived under Taliban rule, where tight restrictions were placed on artistic endeavors. Yet, like all creative types, he found a way to follow his passion.

"First I started with drawings and paintings when I was 3. At that time, music was banned. Even paintings and drawings were forbidden. My father realized I was interested in art, and he moved me into a calligraphy course at 4 years old," he said, speaking of the few arts that were permissible. "I drew a piano on paper and pretended to play. I’d play drums on my pillow with sticks. That’s how my journey started."

When the Taliban rule was lifted, the arts flourished in Afghanistan, and Yousufi took advantage of every opportunity to learn and study music and art. By the age of 12 he was teaching painting and was able to attend the one and only music school in Kabul. After only three years of formal piano training, Yousufi was one of four students accepted into a music program in Denmark; He was also chosen to represent Afghanistan at various music festivals in The Netherlands, Belgium, Poland, and Germany. He placed third in the International Golden Key competition in Frankfurt, Germany.

As a celebrated musician, he visited the United States several times. It launched a track that would bring him to the United States permanently.

"I came to the United States for the first time in 2013. The third time I came to the United States was in 2015 for a summer camp. I was supposed to go back, but due to security reasons, I applied for asylum here. Now, I currently live in New York City," he said.

While in the United States, he has found his tribe, often receiving requests for commissions for groups that feature immigrant musicians as well. One such group he performed with recently is The Refugee Orchestra Project.

"I had my very first commission with The Refugee Orchestra Project. They commissioned me to write an ensemble piece. I started collaborating with this wonderful group, and I still am part of that family and still collaborate with them," he said.
Yousufi also teaches and uses both his own experiences as a refugee and the common thread of art to bring out the best in his students.

"Mostly when I work with students, I like for them speak about their life and feel happy. I think the population of these countries have anxiety because of war and famine. They use the pieces to express their individual selves. I don’t need to speak their language for them to understand. We don’t need language; we only need art to connect with people," he said.

ROCO's concert will showcase a seven movement piece by Yousufi that allow great detail into his experiences growing up in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan to his current status as a refugee living in the United States. What's more, the concert lineup will feature other compositions that touch upon the immigrant experience.

Tom Hinck's "Fanfare for Rosa": This piece is an emotionally-charged fanfare based on interviews conducted with migrant children. These children recalled their experiences often tinged with terror and trauma upon entering the United States from South and Central America for the first time. However, this fanfare develops in strength and optimism over the course of its six minutes to a hope-filled response to the immigrant crisis.

Bohuslav Martinu's "Quartet for Oboe, Violin, Cello, and Piano": Martinu was a Czech composer of modern classical music. After leaving Czechoslovakia in 1923 for Paris, Martinu deliberately withdrew from the Romantic style in which he had been trained. During the 1920s he experimented with modern French stylistic developments. His symphonic career began when he moved to the United States in 1941, fleeing the German invasion of France. His six symphonies were performed by all the major U.S. orchestras.

Igor Stravinsky's "Elegy for solo viola": Having lived in Russia and various European countries, Stravinsky came to the United States and was naturalized in 1945. He was undoubtedly one of the most influential composers of the 20th century whose career spanned 60-plus years of creativity.

Programming that showcases the best of the world's artists isn't so much of an intentional act as much as it is the organic result of ROCO's mission to continue dialogue across composers to find the best and brightest of what is current and happening in the music realm. As such, ROCO is widely recognized for diversity in programming. A recent study from the Institute for Composer Diversity found ROCO is the number one ensemble in the United States for performing the works of women and number two for the works of composers of color. Additionally, ROCO has the third-highest number of commissions in the United States and has premiered nearly 100 commissions from living composers.

ROCO presents My Journey to America via livestream as a co-commission by the Winsor Music Consortium at 7 p.m. Thursday at Holocaust Museum Houston, 5401 Caroline. For information, visit Free.
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Sam Byrd is a freelance contributor to the Houston Press who loves to take in all of Houston’s sights, sounds, food and fun. He also loves helping others to discover Houston’s rich culture.
Contact: Sam Byrd