WASHINGTON — An Eastern man and a Western woman make up one of the most unusual musical groups in Washington, D.C.
Masood Omari and Abigail Adams Greenway both play tabla, an Eastern percussion instrument, every day in Greenway’s basement outside Washington. They call this colorfully decorated studio, Tablasphere. And they call themselves Tabla for Two.
Omari introduces the instrument: “This is a goat skin and the middle part, the black here, is burnt steel, coming from the steel powder and pasted with a strong glue and put in the center. It makes a cosmic sound, you can see?”
To Greenway, every note that emerges from the tabla is a “prayer.”
“It’s mathematically perfect and very meditative,” she adds.
What is unusual is that she and Omari both play the tabla together, giving them a modern sound.
The duo plays three different kinds of music, much of which can be heard on YouTube. The first two are classical music and traditional music of Afghanistan and India. The third:
“We play new music for the New World, we call it. It’s our signature music and it is composed by Masood. It’s for two tabla players,” Greenway explains.
Greenway grew up in Erie, Pennsylvania, a manufacturing city steeped in U.S. history. Her first two names hark back to the wife of America’s second president, Abigail Adams.
“I grew up listening to classical music and American Jazz,” Greenway says. “My father was a classical violinist.”
A visual artist, Greenway moved a long way from all that when she embraced Afghan music and musical instruments.
She first became intrigued when she was introduced to the music of India. “I heard the music and I just said this is the most amazing instrument I’ve ever heard, the tabla,” she said, adding, “They say that when the student is ready, the teacher appears.”
The pair met eight years ago in an Afghan antique and textile shop in Washington.
“I realized that he was this amazing tabla player and I asked for lessons. I didn’t know at the time where this was going. All I knew is that I had a huge desire and a force pushing me to learn to play the instrument.”
“When I saw her first time Abigail, she doesn’t (didn’t) understand the language of Afghanistan. (But) she understand (understood) the beat and melody, and she was very exciting (excited) to learn. She learned quickly.”
Omari fled Afghanistan when he was 15 and resettled in Islamabad. There, he studied tabla for 10 years and received his mastership before coming to the U.S. in 2002.
“What’s really extraordinary is that Masood is singing and playing tabla at the same time,” Greenway says about her teacher. “That is exciting.”
Greenway has learned to play harmonium, also known as a pump organ, from Omari.
And here, she earns his praise: “Abigail is playing harmonium in a style no one can play like her. She is playing with her fingers. She is playing very soft, graceful and gentle.”
After devoting years to intense study and practice, the duo formed Tabla for Two. They play at embassies, museums, universities and at the Tablasphere for special invited guests.
If Greenway worried about acceptance as a woman playing Afghan music, she discovered differently.
“I am clearly an American female and I am playing their music. It’s a coming together of cultures,” she says. “When I play this music they are accepting me, the Afghan people are accepting me.”
This makes Greenway feel “like an ambassador,” which is something of Omari’s philosophy as well.
“I believe that I have an important role playing and preserving the music of my country, Afghanistan and sharing it with the world,” he says.
“It’s just the beginning. I’ve just started learning about a place that I knew nothing about that has been so ravaged,” Greenway enthuses.
“And I’m thrilled to show Afghanistan in a positive, beautiful light.”