Sheridan Immigrant's Historic Story Told Through Music

Apr 12, 2019

The story of 20th century Sheridan immigrant and entrepreneur Zarif Khan resurfaced in the last several years. After a 2016 New Yorker story that detailed Khan's life, University of Iowa jazz studies professor and musician John Rapson was inspired to tell Khan's uniquely American story along with composer Danyel Gaglione. 

The performance details Khan's immigration to America, his life in Wyoming and his shocking death, while also tackling America's history with immigration laws. Wyoming Public Radio's Catherine Wheeler met with Rapson during the tour through Wyoming to talk about how he was inspired to create the show.

John Rapson: In the June 5th issue of the New Yorker, I read the article. And I realized I had all the constituent parts to create a piece to tell the story. Dave Moore, my neighbor, and he's an iconic folk singer; We always wanted to do a project together, but we could never figure out how to put a western folk singer together with a jazz musician. And then met Danyel, who is a recent immigrant and has only been in Iowa for three years. So he plays the mandole. And I realized I think I knew all the other musicians we could piece together since I had the Middle Eastern part and the western part, and I could do all the stuff that put the glue in between. And Danyel was raring to go, and the two of us, we wrote the show in two months.

Catherine Wheeler: So, could you describe the show to people who may not have the chance to see it or haven't heard it yet? What's it like? Because I've heard it's a little different than you might think.

JR: Yeah, it's impossible. We often find that people don't know what to expect. So you gotta start from the fact that we have actually 11 pieces of music and two monologues, in this case done by members of the band. Only one of songs has lyrics. So we tell the story using silent movie script that's projected over the band. And we have images to illustrate them as they go along. So it's kind of like a silent movie slideshow with superscript that is accompanied by music all the way through.

CW: What about the story made you want to tell it that way?

JR: Well, I set out to write a jazz tone poem. And it was only because I realized I wanted to help the audience know the story that we added all the words and pictures. And it became more unique. So that, that was the necessity, was the mother of invention, in that case.

CW: What are some of the bigger pieces that stand out to you in the show and what do they sound like?

JR: Oh man. That's just way too hard to guess at. Each movement has its own character. The very first movement is built out of the Middle Eastern form, and we're using Middle Eastern instruments. And we're doing something that tells the story of how he left the his home in Afghanistan and wandered through India. The Ballad of Hot Tamale Louie is sung by Dave Moore, and it's old fashioned western ballad and it tells the entire saga in the way you might hear a story of Billy the Kid or something like that.

CW: What was it about the story that really inspired you or really connected with you and made you want to create something about this person and about this story?

JR: It was a combination of things that came together at the same time. First of all, that's a beautifully told story. Kathryn writes so very well, and the way she laid out all of the elements in a complicated way. She didn't make any blanket states or umpire judgements. She just said this is what happened or, you know, look at this. So I just loved how it unfolded. So that's the first part. Then of course, the issues of immigration were very important to me. And I have to be real honest and tell you I had a vision for the music because of the combination of all these different ethnic influences. But for me, this story right away for me recommended a different number of constituent elements that I could explore and fuse together.

CW: Why do you think the story resonates today or that this performance resonates today? And what makes it applicable to the audience?

JR: I think the reason it resonates is that we all can identify in some way with Zarif Khan. We all have immigrant backgrounds and they're really complicated ones. We all came over for different reasons, but the reasons that we came over aren't the reasons that we stayed. And all of us have integrated in certain ways with the cultures that we're in. And so I think the reason I want to tell that story is for us all to figure out how complicated and integrated our own identities are in the same way.

CW: John Rapson is one of the composers of Hot Tamale Louie: The Story of Zarif Khan. Thank you so much for speaking with me.

JR: It's been a pleasure.

The show is touring around Wyoming April 10-13.