Keeping traditions alive

Arts: A state program offers grants to master-apprentice teams working in a variety of folk forms.

January 29, 2004|By Laurie Willis | Laurie Willis,SUN STAFF

Jennifer "Jasmine" Arfaa stares intently at the santur strings while tapping them, as if afraid to withdraw her gaze. When she does, momentarily, she glances at Ahmad "Alex" Borhani, who is accompanying her on the santur and daff, Persian instruments he has mastered.

They play for about 10 minutes in near-perfect unison, rarely getting off beat. The music fluctuates between strong, high-pitched tones that seem to warn of danger, and weak, melodic inflections that soothe.

Borhani and Arfaa are in the soundproof studio behind his Northeast Baltimore home playing "Autumn," a tune they performed well enough last fall to land a $2,000 grant from the Maryland Traditions Folk Arts and Culture Apprenticeship Awards.

Borhani and Arfaa were among 10 master-apprentice teams that won the stipends, which give $1,800 to the mentor and up to $200 to each student.

"The money's not important to us," Borhani said. "It's the honor, the recognition."

Maryland Traditions was launched in 2000 as a partnership between the Maryland State Arts Council and the Maryland Historical Trust to help develop support for folk arts and folk life, said Rory Turner, program director for Folk and Traditional Arts at the arts council.

Other winners included Baile McKnight of Prince George's County and Jason Jabar Smith of Baltimore County, who make African drums, and Thomas and Anna Lipka of Baltimore, who practice screen painting.

Arfaa, 26, who lives in Columbia but grew up in Harford County, has worked with Borhani since April. She said she wanted to learn to play a Persian instrument because of her parents.

"I was born here, and my two sisters were born here in Baltimore," Arfaa said. "Our parents were born in Shiraz, Iran. I play this [santur] because my parents are my role models, and I'll be forever grateful for what they've done for me and my sisters. I think we should repay them by respecting their culture."

Arfaa said she enjoys working with Borhani, whom she described as very patient and talented. "He lets me make mistakes, and then we go over them," she said.

Borhani established a musical school in the United States after arriving here from Iran in 1985. He now has 20 students in Philadelphia, 10 in Baltimore and five in Virginia -- all of whom practice in person with him.

He has far more "virtual" students around the globe, who purchase instructional videotape kits in which he demonstrates how to play Persian instruments such as the santur, daff, ney, tonbak, setar, kamanche and tar. The students communicate with him through e-mail.

When he learned about the awards, he immediately thought Arfaa should be the student with whom he applied.

"She is highly educated, and she is good in music," Borhani said. "She's a prize winner in composition in Maryland. The most important part is she's young. She's the age that I like, that I can teach her all the secrets of Persian music and she'll continue my work."

In all, 15 teams applied for the stipends, Turner said.

"We tried to distribute the application forms as widely as we could," Turner said yesterday. "The application contained several questions for the apprentice and the master individually, as well as questions they had to answer together. It was designed to give us a sense of the nature of their work and the quality of their proposed learning experience."

The applications were accepted in September and winners were notified last month.

Borhani and Arfaa were excited to win. So was McKnight, who has been crafting African drums for 33 years and was introduced to African drumming and dancing by friends who took him to an African dance studio in Washington in 1971.

McKnight said he wants to use his craftsmanship to help people become more tolerant of each other's cultures.

"I'm very much focused on this work that I do," McKnight said recently, minutes after working with Smith, a teen-ager who attends Baltimore County Community College. "This is what I want to do to make my contribution to build community."

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