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‘Our Universal Language’

By: Trent Shadid, The University of Memphis Magazine

The University of Memphis prides itself on being an institution that encourages and cultivates special relationships that transcend the day-to-day requirements of pursuing a degree. In the Rudi E. Scheidt School of Music, the relationship between Nazira Wali and Dr. Kimberly Patterson exemplifies that type of unique connection.

Wali, a junior at the UofM from Afghanistan, is working on a Bachelor of Music in Cello Performance degree under the guidance of Patterson, an associate professor of cello. Their relationship goes back to 2014 when Patterson traveled to Wali’s home country as part of a music education program through the U.S. Department of State.

As a 14-year-old student at the Afghanistan National Institute of Music, Wali captured Patterson’s attention during a two-week stay in the Afghan capital of Kabul. Wali had found her love for music thereafter moving away from most of her family in Nuristan, a remote province in northeast Afghanistan, when she was only 6 years old.

“The students there just craved information,” Patterson said. “I met Nazira and I could tell immediately that she had an ear for music. She had a natural way around the instrument and craved more information.”

They stayed in touch and coordinated virtual lessons from opposite sides of the world throughout Wali’s teenage years. At 19, Wali moved to the United States through a sponsor in Charlotte, North Carolina, to chase her educational and musical dreams.

“As soon as I knew she was in the States, I made every effort to get her into the cello program here at the University of Memphis,” Patterson said.

Wali graduated from Piedmont Community College in the spring of 2021, gaining the required course credits and English-language competency to earn entrance to the UofM that fall.

“It was hard to be away from my friends and family when I first came to the United States, but I was so happy to get the education that I really wanted,” Wali said. “I wanted to be here because of Dr. Patterson. I knew if I could continue my studies with her, I could learn so much more. She understands me. She’s a mentor both in my musical life and personal life.”

The ongoing political turmoil and rights crisis in Afghanistan are difficult realities that remain consistently on Wali’s mind. She worries about her family and friends daily.

“She’s so strong and such a survivor,” Patterson said. “Her first year was incredibly difficult and emotional given the situation back home. Despite having endured so much, she has always shown up to every lesson and given her best effort. She’s the strongest person I know.”

Wali has found a home away from home in the U.S. performing with the Afghan-American Foundation. The group performed in Washington, D.C., in March, which led to an impromptu invitation to attend a White House reception in celebration of the Persian New Year of Nowruz. It was her second trip to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, which is just one of many well-known places she’s seen through her music.

As of March 2023, Wali had performed in nine countries — Germany, Switzerland, India, China, UAE, Oman, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan and the United States. She’s performed at Carnegie Hall, the Smithsonian and the Kennedy Center;and at the World Economic Forum and the Aspen Ideas Festival.

“She goes to the White House and she is kind of thinking, ‘doesn’t everyone get to come here?,’ because she’s already been twice,” Patterson said. “Her future is bright. She’s had Yo-Yo Ma, the preeminent cellist in the world, offer to help her personally. She needs more time at the instrument, like we all do, but the sky is the limit in terms of what she wants to accomplish.”

As she continues her cello studies, Wali strives to act as an ambassador for Afghan music and musicians.

“Afghan music is so vibrant and it’s my goal to introduce it to the world,” Wali said. “I love that I’ve met people from different backgrounds here at the University of Memphis and that we can come together through creating and making music.

“Our communication is not limited by language — music is our universal language.”

(This article originally appeared in The University of Memphis Magazine.)

Published inCollege of Communication and Fine ArtsRudi E. Scheidt School of MusicUniversity of Memphis

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