Homayoun Sakhi is a master of the Afghan rubab—the double-chambered lute that’s at the heart of Afghanistan’s Pashtun klasik tradition. Born in Kabul in 1976, Sakhi was heir to one of Afghanistan’s great musical dynasties. His father, Ghulam Sakhi was a student and brother-in-law of Ustad Mohammed Omar, a revered musician with a direct link to the origins of Afghan classical music.

When young Homayun apprenticed himself to his father, he became the repository of a tradition that stretches back to the mid-19th century, when the Amir of Kabul imported North Indian classical musicians to perform at his court. Growing up in Kuchech Kharabat—Kabul’s famed musicians quarter—Homayun readily absorbed many musical styles, from Afghani classical music to Persian ghazals and Hindustani ragas; as well as Indian and Pakistani cinema music and Western pop and classical sounds.

But recent history hasn’t been kind to Afghanistan or its musicians, and Sakhi and his family fled Afghanistan in 1992 when fighting between rival warlords made Kabul a battlefield. The family settled in Peshawar, Pakistan and Sakhi began to make a name for himself performing for homesick refugees. While civil war gave way to the rise of the music-intolerant Taliban (who banned music and confiscated and burned cassettes and CDs), Sakhi and his fellow Afghan musicians in Pakistan were experiencing a kind of golden age, where musicians from all over the country were thrown together to share their regional styles. Sakhi was exposed to the rubab-playing of masters from Herat, Peshawar and other musical epicenters, and it broadened his understanding and appreciation of the range of the versatile instrument. His playing evolved beyond the confines of tradition and he became known as an innovator and assimilator. Eventually, he opened his own music school in Khalil House, the artistic center of the Afghan émigré community.

Sakhi’s journey didn’t end in Peshawar, though. In 2001, he secured a visa to travel to the United States. While many of his contemporaries were returning to rebuild their country after the fall of the Taliban, Sakhi was quietly building a new life in the Afghan enclave of Freemont, California. There he founded another music school and resumed his recording and performing career, now working closely with another Kabuli master musician, tabla-player Toryalai Hashimi. Together, the duo has begun making inroads beyond the Afghan community, recording their first album for the Smithsonian Folkways label in 2005, and touring internationally as part of the Smithsonian/ Aga Khan Trust For Culture’s Music and Voices of Central Asia tour.