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Ray Routhier

Portland Press Herald staff writer Ray Routhier will try anything. Once. During 20 years at the Press Herald he’s been equally attracted to stories that are unusually quirky and seemingly mundane. He’s taken rides on garbage trucks, sought out the mother of two rock stars, dug clams, raked blueberries, and spent time with the family of bedridden man who finds strength in music. Nothing too dangerous mind you, just adventurous enough to find the stories of real Mainers doing real cool things.

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Posted: July 17, 2017

A prolific performer while at Portland High, flamenco guitarist returns for a show on Saturday

Written by: Ray Routhier
Behzad Habibzai, a guitarist who grew up in Portland, will perform Saturday at St. Lawrence Arts in Portland with his flamenco ensemble, Sonsonete. Photo courtesy of Behzad Habibz

Behzad Habibzai, a guitarist who grew up in Portland, will perform Saturday at St. Lawrence Arts in Portland with his flamenco ensemble, Sonsonete.
Photo courtesy of Behzad Habibz

Growing up in Portland, Behzad Habibzai couldn’t get enough music. Whether it was playing drums in a jazz or rock band or trying to learn the intricacies of flamemco guitar, he always felt comfortable with an instrument in his hand.

And his teachers at Portland High School made sure he always had one. He spent lunch and study periods in a band room and was in so many school groups he remembers one week when he performed in 16 concerts.

“I had so many teachers who gave me so much access to instruments, to music, who mentored me,” said Habibzai, 34, who has been playing guitar professionally off and on since he was a teenager, with a focus on flamenco.

Habibzai left Maine after high school and studied music at the Peabody Conservatory at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland. He’s been based in the Washington, D.C., area ever since. He played full-time for several years, concentrating on flamenco, and now splits his time between a tech company job during the day and music gigs at night. On Saturday, he’ll perform in Portland for the first time since his teen years, when he brings his flamenco ensemble, Sonsonete, to St. Lawrence Arts on Congress Street.

The ensemble includes his wife, Meghan Habibzai, a soprano who sings in the U.S. Army Field Band. They met when he was performing with a flamenco group at a theater in Washington, and she was in the audience.

Take a listen to Behzad Habibzai:

There are also two flamenco dancers in the group, one originally from Japan and one originally from Israel.

“They say there are more flamenco musicians right now in Japan than Spain,” said Habibzai, whose family immigrated from Afghanistan to Germany to Portland. “It’s popular all over the world.”

Flamenco is basically the music of Andalusia, a southern region of Spain on the Mediterranean Sea. Because of the region’s location and historical importance, the music is influenced by a variety of cultures.

It combines Middle Eastern harmonies with African rhythms and features classical guitar playing, dancing and singing. It’s upbeat and very rhythmic.

At the performance Saturday, Habibzai’s ensemble will play a mix of flamenco compositions by Spanish composers, songs he wrote himself and re-workings of some traditional flamenco pieces.

Habibzai’s family left Afghanistan after the Soviet Union invaded in the late 1970s and fled to Germany, where he was born. Then with help from a Maine church group, they came to Portland when Habibzai was only a few months old. He grew up around downtown Portland and the waterfront while his family ran The Afghan Restaurant, which was on Exchange Street for many years and later on Congress Street.

Habibzai became enamored of flamenco playing when he was about 14. He had mainly been a drummer up to that point, because he loved rhythm. He was in several bands with friends and kept many of their instruments at his house. So he’d often pick up a guitar and have a friend show him a few things.

He began listening to world music, which he liked, and quickly realized that flamenco was the combination of various musics from around the world he liked best.

When he got to Johns Hopkins, he discovered that there were lots of opportunities for flamenco guitarists to play. He was working so much as a musician, he decided he didn’t necessarily need a music degree. He ended up transferring to George Mason University and majoring in marketing. He performed full-time for several years, but about four years ago began working for an IT service management company, while still performing as much as he can.

“It’s a super-rhythmic music,” he said about flamenco. “So, for a drummer who always wanted to play guitar, it’s perfect.”


WHEN: 7 p.m. Saturday
WHERE: St. Lawrence Arts, 76 Congress St., Portland
HOW MUCH: $15 to $25
WHAT ELSE: The flamenco music ensemble features guitarist Behzad Habibzai, who grew up in Portland is now based in the Washington, D.C., area.

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