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Inspired by an Incredible Journey

Inspired by an Incredible Journey

Composer, conductor, pianist, and graduate student at the Brooklyn College Conservatory of Music Milad Yousufi. Photo Credit: Virginia L. S Freire

Conservatory graduate student Milad Yousufi is an Afghan refugee whose story is full of sorrow, joy, and triumph—just like his music.

Born in Kabul, Afghanistan, in 1995 during a civil war at a time when music was banned by the ruling Taliban, nothing could stop Milad Yousufi from pursuing art and music.

Starting at age 2, Yousufi would draw keys and play an imaginary piano as well as play drums on his pillow. At 4, his father put him in a calligraphy course, because it was the only artform allowed.

By 2008—a few years after Taliban rule was lifted—Yousufi was studying at the only music school in his hometown with one upright and out-of-tune piano with 45 students. That piano training at the age of 15 turned into an opportunity to study at a music program in Denmark. By the time he was 18, Yousufi was touring Europe and performing both original compositions and those by masters like Beethoven and Bach.

Yousufi quickly built a musical résumé reserved for seasoned artists, including representing Afghanistan at prestigious international music festivals in the Netherlands, Belgium, Poland, and Germany. Playing sold-out concerts at both Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center in 2013 during his first journey to America with the Afghan Youth Orchestra, the pianist soon became the first Afghan arranger and conductor for the newly formed group in 2014.

Yousufi returned to the United States in 2015 for a music summer camp, but an attack at an airport back in Afghanistan left him unable to return home, and he decided to apply for asylum. He has lived in New York City ever since and has flourished in his new home.

After being awarded a full scholarship to attend Mannes School of Music, Yousufi studied piano with the world-renowned classical pianist Simone Dinnerstein, who became his close friend and mentor. He also found another anchor of support, the Refugee Orchestra Project (ROP), in 2017. Conceived by conductor Lidiya Yankovskaya, ROP attempts—through music—to demonstrate the vitally important role that refugees from across the globe have played in our country’s culture and society.

“The Refugee Orchestra Project, New York Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra, and Kronos Quartet have all been kind in working with me at the beginning of my composing career,” Yousufi said. “They helped me to connect with other people who shared a similar story to mine and to realize that we might have a different skin color or means of communication, but music is our universal language.”

After graduating from Mannes in 2020, he made his way to Brooklyn College, where he is pursuing a master’s degree in composition, studying under such professors as Dalit Warshaw, an accomplished composer/pianist who is also on the faculty at The Juilliard School.

“It has been a true joy to work with Milad in the year and a half since he joined my studio at Brooklyn College,” Warshaw said. “As an artist, he is brimming with such natural expressivity that comes forth through his various creative avenues—be it poetry, painting, piano performance, or music composition—and he is an ideal student in the way he internalizes any observations or suggestions, translating them into the world of whatever work he is creating.”

But it is his newest, unique project that encompasses his entire extraordinary journey. Titled “Journey to America,” it is a narrative composition told through seven short movements, each representing a major point in Yousufi’s life. It begins with the harrowing piece “My Birth Night,” which relays how his father took his pregnant wife five miles through dangerous war zones chased by wild dogs on their only means of transport—a bicycle—to deliver their son. That movement is followed by “Sorrow of Separation,” “My Father,” “Mosquito,” “Poem for My Mother,” and “Meeting Simone Dinnerstein,” and ends with “Farewell Kabul.” Each piece has its own personality and pace and is opened by Yousufi narrating its inspiration.

“People were asking me, ‘Why don’t you write a memoir?’ And this is what came to me,” the now 26-year-old second-year student said. “As a composer and artist, I started writing music that affected me emotionally. My music is about longing and separation and sorrow as a refugee. Everyone has their own country and relatives. I grew up in war, and sadly the same thing is happening again.”

“The premise is straightforward and fundamentally Romantic—to tell one’s own story through narration and a series of vignettes; the effect is both fresh and charming,” said Warshaw. “The fact that Milad, as the composer, performed as narrator adds to the effectiveness.”

“My Journey to America” is already being noticed by some of music’s most influential composers and artists. On October 25, Yousufi performed “Farewell Kabul” at the Terezín Music Foundation 2021 Gala at Symphony Hall in Boston. The theme of the event was “Our Will to Live,” a celebration of music by composers whose artistry sustained them during the Holocaust. The event included performances by Yo-Yo Ma, Nathan Meltzer, Simon Gronowski, and other renowned musical artists.

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