Sahba Aminikia’s Flying Carpet Children Festival

Photo of Sahba Aminikia

Two years ago, 38-year old Iranian-born composer Sahba Aminikia ’13 decided to leave a secure teaching job in San Francisco and, by kismet or intention, join the circus. He has not looked back on his decision to become artistic director of the Flying Carpet Children Festival in war-torn Mardin, Turkey, an ancient city in southeastern Turkey that is currently home to some 5,000 child refugees.

The festival brings together distinguished international performers and composers, including several of Aminikia’s teachers and fellow students from SFCM, circus artists, multi-media producers, trance dancers, as well as traditional Kurdish musicians as part of an effort started by Sirkhane (Circus House), a Turkish non-profit offering free music classes and social circus workshops to children in schools and refugee camps. Founded in 2012 by visual artist and social worker Pinar Demiral, Sirkhane’s mission is “to serve as a catalyst for positive change in the lives of vulnerable children.”

Aminikia credits Demiral’s work as the inspiration for his decision to launch the festival and later become Sirkhane’s musical director at its school in Mardin, where more than 3.5 million refugees have fled since the onset of the Syrian civil war. Demiral, he says, began her effort during the worst of the violence and conflict, when border cities were being bombed, and refugees were fleeing at the rate of a 1,000 per day. He learned of her work by chance, over drinks at a bar in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood in San Francisco, from a friend whose sister worked as a volunteer clown at a circus school in southern Turkey.

Aminikia soon discovered they were looking for a music coordinator. “I had a few Skype calls with Pinar,” he says, “and she told me about the school, its structure and mission. She said she wanted a music festival and that if I wanted, this can be mine. Those were her exact words.”

His own experience as an Iranian refugee was part of his decision to create the Flying Carpet Festival. During his senior year at SFCM, Aminikia returned to Tehran to visit family. He had recently been interviewed by the international public broadcasting agency Voice of America about a composition he had been writing.

“That interview provoked many things,” says Aminikia. “When I got back to Iran, I was basically abducted in front of my parent’s house. They [Iranian security forces] took me to the desert and put a gun in my mouth. I come from a family who are followers of the Bahá’í religion, and this guy was telling me to say three times that I was a Bahá’í so he could shoot me. They were beating and forcing me to say it. Then he started pulling the trigger while the gun was in my mouth but there were no bullets inside. They beat me multiple times and emptied a pepper spray capsule in my mouth and left me in the middle of the desert. I woke up and couldn’t really see anything, just this haze of light. Somehow I found my way to a guard kiosk, and they drove me back to Tehran. I was told I had 48 hours to leave Iran or they would come and kill every member of my family. It was very traumatic. The only good thing was that when I woke up in the desert I could hear this music in my head. It was the first movement of Shostakovich’s second string quartet. It was very strange. Maybe it’s the human brain’s function that fights what’s happening and tries to replace it with something beautiful—that treasure and jewel in your mind that you always have to keep.”

The defining moment in his life, Aminikia calls it the starting point for his later realization that “it was ok to go to Turkey and work for children. I am as much a foreigner in Mardin as you would be. I don’t speak Turkish. I don’t speak Arabic. But I just wanted to do something. We need to learn how to defend the rights of people who are not necessarily our people.”

As he told a KQED Arts interviewer, “I can be the guy who’s at the border receiving people from the other side.”

The experience informed Aminikia’s creative life as well. In 2017, as an artist in residence for the Kronos festival, he composed Music of Spheres, a sacred work featuring voices from the children’s choir of the Afghan National Institute of Music (ANIM), that nation’s first music school. “It was a remote collaboration with them,” he says. “I was so inspired to work with children, particularly those who had been traumatized and were experiencing war and violence every day.”

Founded in Kabul by ethnomusicologist Dr. Ahman Sarmast, himself the survivor of a Taliban suicide bomber attack, ANIM serves Afghanistan’s most disadvantaged children, including orphans and street vendors. Aminikia described Music of the Spheres as a lullaby without borders. As choral texts, he adopted traditional lullabies in three distinct dialects of Persian, the language spoken both in Iran and Afghanistan. “I used them to bring the voices of Kronos Quartet, the ANIM Girls Choir, and the San Francisco Girls Chorus together in order to create a human experience in which these passionate musicians can connect to one another from across the oceans for us to hear even for a short period of time, and even through a virtual world.”

Shortly after that work’s premiere at SFJAZZ, Aminikia made his first trip to Mardin to see the circus school and travel to its three centers in towns along the Turkish-Syrian border. In Nusaybin, decimated by bombings in the warfare with ISIS, Aminikia began recording voices of children singing in the streets while tanks patrolled the city. After he finished, more kids surrounded his car, begging him to record them. “I was encountering children asking for something, every single one of them wanted to sing first. So there was this huge need. And it created a conflict in me. Here I am working as a Middle Eastern Iranian composer in San Francisco, and that’s a great experience, but at the end of the day I always felt that I could easily be replaced by anyone else. And there’s this situation happening in this part of the world, where music and art and beauty are needed the most.”

So in May 2018, Aminikia and Demiral began organizing the festival. In the first year, they won a $100,000 grant from the U.S. Embassy. The idea was to create an international artistic platform for artists in residence to work with the children in Mardin. “The environment and the place itself,” says Aminikia, “has this quality that grows you into something else. Maybe a more advanced version of yourself because you are working with people who are in extreme need, children who have experienced trauma and extreme violence. So in the first year, I mostly reached out to my friends from SFCM that I used to study and work with, including composers Luciano Chessa [Music History and Literature faculty] and Aleksandra Vrebalov ’96. They immediately accepted.”

Some 25 artists came from around the world to form a collective that toured different parts of the region giving intensive workshops, leading rehearsals and performances in villages where, as Aminiki explains, culture and any kind of educational experience are rare. The goal was to create a piece of art or music with children and have that performed in several places. The experience was transformative for the children as well as the artists. For his part, Aminikia organized a children’s choir in Nusaybin to sing the traditional Kurdish song Le Dine. In recruiting the children, consistency and collaboration were essential parts of the pedagogy. “They had to come twice a week,” says Aminikia. “And we set an objective so that by the festival they had to be ready to perform six or seven songs.”

Aminikia and cellist Helen Newby ’15, a member of the Amaranth String Quartet, which had performed one of his works at the 2017 Kronos Festival, gave workshops and ran rehearsals for the mostly middle school children in the choir, which has now grown to 16 members.

Given the language and cultural barriers, it was a challenge for the artists as well. Everyone had to throw out their artistic and pedagogic playbooks. At one performance, Aminikia had SFCM’s Luciano Chessa perform with a traditional Kurdish dengbej singer. Dengbej is an ancient Kurdish song tradition whose melismatic bards (poets) travelled from village to village, singing ballads and epics that preserved Kurdish cultural traditions and historical memory. “I paired the dengbej singer up with Chessa who is a completely avant-garde composer,” says Aminikia, “and he created this beautiful improvisation with five or six bells, which the shepherds use there for the animals.”

For this year’s festival, Aminikia added more circus performers, acrobats, fire dancers, trapeze artists, jugglers, and choreographers performing with classical music and hula hoops in villages where there is often no electricity or stages. To create an overall performance narrative, Aminikia used Sufi poet Attar’s 12th century classic, Conference of the Birds. “We tried to incorporate many artistic layers in the performance, and that is the whole premise of the festival. We don’t just bring entertainment. We bring serious art with an educational perspective to children who are most in need. Normally, they never have access to anything like this.”

Aminikia hopes to sustain this volunteer-based artistic collective both as an ongoing event and for the impact it has had on refugee children. “As musicians,” he says, “many of us graduate from conservatories, and we learn how to attend auditions. We learn how to write compositions, but one thing we forget is that each and every one of us has extraordinary power to make a change in our surroundings. It’s almost our duty to do so.”

To learn more about Sirkhane and the Flying Carpet Children Music Festival, visit https://muzikhane.org/fcf