No Visa Necessary to Hear Music of 'Banned Countries' with Kronos Quartet

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In response to the 2017 Executive Orders limiting travel to the US by people from largely Muslim-majority countries, the Kronos Quartet performs music from the original seven “banned” countries—Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen.  (Photo: Courtesy of the Kronos Quartet)

The Kronos Quartet has a long history of performing music with a political edge. Music for Change: The Banned Countries, coming up Saturday at Stanford’s Bing Concert Hall, is no exception. 

After the Trump administration issued executive orders limiting travel from majority-Muslim countries last year, the director of Stanford’s Iranian Studies program, Abbas Milani, was upset.  

"It's shameful on a human basis. But it's also destructive to the fabric of culture in this country. And, I would submit, to the long-term strategic interest of this country," Milani says.

Then he got an idea. Melani contacted the Kronos Quartet, long known for provocative collaborations. The pitch: music from “banned” countries—Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen—the original seven named by the Trump administration before it tweaked the list to pass legal muster.

Not that this would be the first time the Kronos Quartet has performed music from these countries or worked directly with artists originally from these countries. The program includes a number of works Kronos has performed for decades, like Islam Chipsy's Zaghlala arranged for a string quartet by Jacob Garchik.


The subtitle of the piece is Blurred vision caused by strong light hitting the eyes. You can search for information about Chipsy on the World Wide Web, or you can find him on Kronos Quartet's website, where the artist is one of many profiled for the English-speaking world's convenience:

Part of Egypt’s thriving underground music scene, Chipsy’s EEK trio has carved out a singular sonic niche distinct from the electro-chaabi artists who are almost required at wedding celebrations. Raw and lo-fi, his music is both virtuosic and unabashedly hand-crafted.

The program also includes new music commissioned specifically for this concert series, like Winds from South from the Iranian composer Aftab Darvishi and Dur-Dur Band's Dooyo. Dur-Dur Band, for those unfamiliar with the Mogadishu nightclub scene of the 1980s, delightedly blends funk, disco, and soul. Arranged by film score composer Jacob Garchik, it's easy to imagine Garchik and the band landing new contracts scoring films.

Perhaps it's not surprising then that Music for Change doesn't limit itself to the "banned" countries. This concert series is yet another opportunity for the quartet to celebrate music and musicians it loves from all over the Middle East, Asia and Africa.

"The music of the founders of the string quartet: Hayden, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert," says Kronos founder and first violinist David Harrington. "For many years, they were the only composers whose work I knew. When I was about 14, I took a look at the globe that was in my room, and I had this moment of realization. All the string quartet music I've ever heard was written by four guys who spoke the same language, were of the same religion, and they lived in the same city at one point or another. And that seemed really weird."

Harrington says the concert "is an exploration of life, of culture, of sound, of music." But he’s come to learn it’s not just the U.S. that bans people or considers certain cultural communication dangerous. "There are places in the world right now where there are things you can't listen to, you're forbidden to hear.

"They're scholars of music," says Milani of Kronos. "They put time into it. Behind every concert, there are months and months of training and rigorous scholarship."

Praising the quartet's "impeccable taste," Milani notes Harrington was already so well-versed in the music of the Middle East and Africa, he had ideas about who and what to highlight from the first meeting.

"He went through the people, right off the top of his head, that he knew existed. I was just flabbergasted at how clearly ready he was," Milani marveled.

After Stanford, but the Kronos Quartet heads to Europe and the East Coast to perform music from banned countries there, too.

  • 12/4 — Santa Barbara, California: UC Santa Barbara Arts and Lectures
  • 2/8/19 — New York, New York: Carnegie Hall
  • 3/2/19 — Washington D.C.: Washington Performing Arts
  • 5/9/19 — Sonoma, California: Green Music Center

Music for Change: the Banned Countries is one night only, Oct. 20, 2018, at Stanford’s Bing Concert Hall, More information here.