After 9 p.m. nearly every Thursday since June 2014, the Khyber Pass Cafe near Macalester College in St. Paul has presented music bristling with risk, adventure and spontaneous improvisation. Curated by four musicians and labeled “jazz” by default, the ruckus is sure to attract a small but hearty cadre of listeners each week.
It doesn’t take much time spent with Emel Sherzad, who owns the Khyber Pass with his wife, Masooda, to understand how he became the spiritual shepherd for this weekly adventure. Sherzad has good reasons for his love of spontaneous improvisation — a visitor can spot it in artwork he painted for the cafe’s walls and in some of the food he cooks, but it’s most apparent in his musical tastes.
Sherzad, now 55, was sailing along as a precocious student in a prominent family in Kabul, Afghanistan, back in the late 1970s. “In the 11th grade, for the first time in my life, I made plans,” he said. “I was going to go to art school after high school. Two months later, I learned how the future is unknown.”
The Soviet army invaded Kabul and helped stage a Communist coup. Nearly 30 members of Sherzad’s extended family were executed. Another 60 became political prisoners. Sherzad spent nine months, including his 17th birthday, in jail.
One of the remarkable things about this episode is how music helped sustain him. Sherzad remembers what he was listening to on his headphones — John Coltrane’s “Africa Brass” and Terry Riley’s “In C” on a double-sided cassette tape — that fateful day in April 1978 when the Soviets laid waste to his neighborhood.
He later managed to smuggle a pen and some unrolled cigarette papers into jail — supporters kept sending smokes to his father, who was imprisoned for 2½ years.
Then Sherzad began writing the names of all the musicians he wanted to catch up on if he was ever set free.
“In the beginning, they just came pouring out,” he remembered. “Then, of course, it slowed down to a trickle. But in nine months, I never ran out of names. It was an obsession.”
Listening for passion
Nearly 40 years later, the obsession hasn’t abated. Sherzad recounted the story of his jailhouse list while sitting in the Minneapolis studios of listener-supported radio station KFAI (90.3/106.7 FM), where he has hosted his own weekly show, “International Jazz Conspiracy,” for 21 years.
In the car on the way over, he had popped in his own version of a “mixtape” — a homemade CD with Brian Eno’s “Music for Airports” layered over compositions by German reed and keyboard player Gunter Hampel.
How has Sherzad fulfilled his jailhouse promise to himself? Most intimately, there are the Saturday night jam sessions, when Sherzad honors the spirit of his musical heroes by getting lost in his own performance.
For more than 15 years, after all the patrons have left the cafe, Sherzad invites a handful of musicians into a cramped pink room at the back of the restaurant. Orders of ribs are brought in from Rooster’s BBQ 2 miles away, traded for an equal amount of Khyber Pass kebabs. From midnight until dawn, Sherzad and his friends talk music, listen to music and, for at least a few hours, engage in raucous free-form music jams.
“We are stupid loud,” he said with a big smile. “There are electric guitarists and drums, and mostly I am on a detuned guitar with a synthesizer, turntables and other sound-making devices.
“I call it my adult sandbox because, for what we do, I am happy being as illiterate and childlike as possible. I go into a zone where my consciousness is not there.”
As for the Thursday night concerts, the genesis was unfortunate circumstance. Sherzad and his wife both cook and wait tables at the restaurant, which he describes as “a well-oiled machine with a skeleton crew and a tiny bank account.” When they took a week off for vacation six or seven years ago, it precipitated a financial crisis that put the Khyber’s future in jeopardy.
Well aware of Sherzad’s passion and patronage, the local music community clamored to help him.
“For two or three weeks, all these musicians showed up [for benefit concerts] and we got caught up,” he said. “It was amazing. I felt so lucky and grateful.”
Paul Metzger, a longtime banjo and guitar player, wanted to keep the shows going. As a close friend of Sherzad’s and the most accomplished musician regularly attending those Saturday “pink room” jams, he knew Sherzad would be open to fostering the sort of experimental, relatively noncommercial music scene so vital to a small but significant segment of local artists.
Initially, Sherzad balked at the idea. He believed he lacked the resources to compensate the musicians for the labor, time and connections necessary to properly curate such a series. Metzger persuaded him to let the musicians take the entire proceeds of a $5 cover charge, plus a free meal and drinks for the evening. That was sufficient payment for providing an outlet for improvisation and experimentation.
As for the bookings, Metzger proposed that he and three other musicians of his choosing would take responsibility for one Thursday each month, lightening the load for each curator while broadening the scope of the music presented.
More than two years later, there has been a show at the Khyber almost every Thursday save for Thanksgivings. The music ranges from avant-garde solo shows by Milo Fine (one of the Khyber’s original curators and Minnesota’s dean of “free jazz”) to variations on Gamelan music from Bali. Drummer Dave King of the Bad Plus once played a show that bucked the typical assemblage of 12 to 30 people and packed the house.
There are “noise” bands and “electronica” groups and squirrelly, squawking interplay reminiscent of New York City’s loft scene in the 1970s.
“I think if we had any preconceived notions about this, it was to have a nice venue and stimulate listeners,” said bassist and curator Adam Linz. “And going into our third year, I think we’ve done that.”
Linz was a founding member of the progressive jazz trio Fat Kid Wednesdays, which became the unofficial house band of the once hallowed Clown Lounge at the Turf Club in St. Paul more than a decade ago. He likens the modest but buzzed-about scene at that club to what is happening now at the Khyber.
Sherzad was a dedicated patron of the Clown Lounge. He, too, sees the similarities, citing the way the Khyber turns into “a listening room” where people don’t talk but focus on the music.
Although Sherzad isn’t involved in the bookings, he is a peripatetic presence on Thursdays, greeting patrons at the door and serving food and drinks.
“Emel is a gift,” curator and drummer Davu Seru said. “It is frankly not advisable from a business perspective to do what he is doing. He takes risks, and as improvising musicians, we do, too.”
“Some things are so convincing, you do them out of love, without thinking too much,” Sherzad said. “Music is convincing without explanation. If you love it, it touches you; there is no need to ask yourself why you love it, you just love loving it and are grateful.
“I think about going to prison and losing my country, and I feel tremendously sad for all the poor people who have suffered. But to me personally, it was a blessing in disguise — I love that phrase. Because music has been instrumental in making me believe that we are lucky to live in this world.”
Up next at Khyber Pass Cafe
When: 9 p.m. Thursdays. Tickets: $5 at door.
Sept. 29: Phil Hey solo: One of the best drummers in the Twin Cities for more than 30 years, Hey will show off his musicality with this rare solo performance during the first set. The second set will be a trio with Khyber curators Adam Linz on bass and Paul Metzger on guitar.
Oct. 6: Davu Seru: The Khyber curator ranks among the region’s most versatile drum stylists. He’ll team up with guitarist and Red House recording artist Dean Magraw for two sets of duets.
Oct. 27: Paul Metzger: The senior Khyber curator will deliver two solo sets of his musical specialty, modified banjo, with bow and fingering. It sounds like a blend of about three genres.
Nov. 10: Tim Kaiser: Kaiser plays something he calls “electroacoustic contraptions” that bark and drone. He’ll play with violinist, trumpeter and entomologist/beekeeper Elaine Evans for some fascinating music.
Britt Robson is a Twin Cities-based writer. On Twitter: @brittrobson