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Story of Afghan refugee couple inspires upcoming Arlington Chorale concert

Hamid Habib Zada tabla photo
Hamid Habib Zada plays the tabla (courtesy Ingrid Lestrud)

(Updated at 10:40 p.m.) When Hamid Habib Zada and Negin Khwalpak fled Afghanistan with their daughter Maram two years ago in hopes of escaping the Taliban, all they brought to America was a backpack full of diapers.

Their story is the inspiration for Arlington Chorale’s new concert, “We Stand Together,” which is premiering this Sunday, June 11 at 5 p.m.

Zada worked as a professional tabla player and Khwalpak as a conductor of Zohra, Afghanistan’s first all-female orchestra, before their escape. She currently studies conducting with a private teacher.

The Chorale’s artistic director, Ingrid Lestrud, noticed an online fundraiser for the couple in early 2022.

The fundraiser was posted by Jim Ross of the Alexandria Symphony, where Zada has played previously. After donating, Lestrud reached out to the couple and they quickly developed a relationship based on a shared love for music.

Zada and Khwalpak’s story serves as a guiding light behind Lestrud’s creative efforts to inspire change.

“This is one of the amazing things the show has — the voice of the refugee, the voice of the people that come from a hard situation, the people that started a life from zero and struggled [to get where they are today],” Khwalpak said in a brief interview with ARLnow.

For the upcoming show, Lestrud called upon Los Angeles-based composer Saunder Choi to create a piece that reflects the couple’s experience with loss, uncertainty, relocation and cultural empowerment. Zada will play the tabla during the live performance.

Choi commissioned Iranian poet Sholeh Wolpé to write a poetic narration to accompany his music. Both Choi’s composition and Wolpé’s poem are titled “Exile,” and will debut at Sunday’s concert.

“Poetry and music have the capacity to carry our histories, longings, and dreams,” Choi said in a statement. “Together they can create a bridge between people and cultures where we can meet and truly see one another.”

The couple and Lestrud believe that the music will raise awareness for local refugees and inspire community support. Though Lestrud has worked with Zada in the past, she aims to feature Khwalpak as a conductor later this year.

The concert will take place at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Arlington (4444 Arlington Blvd) at 5 p.m. Tickets are available for $20 on the Chorale’s website. Attendees may also purchase tickets at the door.

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