When Craig Hella Johnson recommended I Am the Beggar of the World, a book of traditional Landays folk-couplets by Pashtun women on the Afghanistan and Pakistan border, to friend and fellow composer Jocelyn Hagen, he knew exactly what he was doing. The two-line poems composed anonymously and shared among mostly illiterate women all but erased from society are beautiful bombs.
I call. You’re stone.
One day you’ll look and find I’m gone.
This poem in particular stuck with Jocelyn. It was composed by a teenage rising leader who was beaten for her desire to write, and in protest set herself on fire and burned to death. She called herself Muska.
Conspirare offered Jocelyn another rare thing: a commission to share these women’s poetry through the composition of a full-length choral work. So began a five year-journey that became “Songs for Muska,” which Conspirare premiered as part of the March Moderns Festival this spring. In pre- and post-concert talks, the hope for peace behind the words and music were shared.
“I was instantly drawn in by the beauty, efficiency, and hard truths packed into these dense statements about their lives.” She accepted the commission, aiming to weave into her composition the spirit of the women poets she had never met but felt she knew through their words.
“How can I take what these women have experienced and share it with the world through music?” That was the question Jocelyn sat with for months, experiencing something like writer’s block. It wasn’t until she discovered another book of poems by contemporary Afghan women, called Load Poems Like Guns, that she found her way in. “It was a poem called ‘Ode to My Earrings,’” she recalls which was really an ode to femininity.
“Then I had the hard realization if I’m going to do this, I wanted to do it right,” she recalls. Jocelyn plunged into learning as much as she could about Afghan music. “I am a folk singer at heart,” she says, “and my own singing experiences and the elements of Afghan musical traditions mingle in different ways throughout the work.” She bought a drum from Istanbul and incorporated the mandolin played in manner that echoes an indigenous lute-like instrument. The piece incorporates the words of Afghan women, traditional rhythms and chords, and Jocelyn’s own love of folk song. Learn more about the process behind creating “Songs for Muska.”
Just as thrilling for Jocelyn, though, was the opportunity to be with Farzana Marie, poet and translator, and Somaia Ramish, poet and political activist whom Conspirare brought in for March Moderns. Somaia traveled all the way from Afghanistan; her trip was made possible with the assistance of attorney and Conspirare stage manager Viera Buzgova.
“I write poetry to make beauty and to make a better world,” Somaia told Conspirare audiences in her quiet accented English. “It’s not easy for a woman,” she added. “Most families don’t let women or girls say what they want.”
Translator and Persian scholar Farzana Marie became familiar with the landay, a particular form of oral poetry, as an Air Force officer in Afghanistan. The landay is a scrap of oral poetry traditionally created by and for women who cannot read or write. Mostly anonymous and orally shared, landays have traditionally belonged to no single woman, and therefore, to all. Her translations brought this traditional form with contemporary subject matter to the written page. However, in Afghanistan she experienced a massive stroke. She continues to heal from its effects, including aphasia. She gracefully lives the irony of being a talented poet and translator responsible for sharing the voice and lives of Afghan women with the world who herself has trouble finding words.
Conspirare first gave Songs for Muska a workshop performance in 2017. Artists and audiences received the work-in-progress enthusiastically, propelling Hagen into the final stages of completion. The work received its formal world premiere by Conspirare in March 2019 in Austin, Texas, as part of its March Moderns Festival. Hagen was present for the week of intensive rehearsals leading up to the performance, offering the composer’s perspective and insight to the musicians as they prepared her work.
“Through art and friendships like this,” Craig said at the post-concert talk with the composer, poet, and translator present, “we find the joy and peace which seems so easy when we come together to make music.”
“My heart is full,” Jocelyn wrote on Facebook after the concert. “This past week with Conspirare has been amazing and overwhelming. In fact, I’m a bit at a loss for words – so many emotions and such beautiful music making. It was such a joy to meet Somaia Ramish from Afghanistan, and to reunite with Farzana Marie for such a momentous occasion. This piece has changed my life, and I do not say that lightly.”
Read the poems that inspired Jocelyn Hagen’s “Songs for Muska”:
I Am the Beggar of the World: Landays from Contemporary Afghanistan, translated by Eliza Griswold.
Load Poems Like Guns, translated by Farzana Marie.
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Article by Melissa Eddy and Robin Bradford