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Hot Tamale Louie

Hot Tamale Louie tells the story of Zarif Khan, an immigrant from Afghanistan to the United States at the turn of the 20th Century.

About Hot Tamale Louie

A multimedia production combining music from multiple genres and locales, Hot Tamale Louie was inspired by a long-form article in The New Yorker by Kathryn Schulz. “Citizen Khan” tells of Zarif Khan, who as a teenager left his home near the Khyber Pass in Afghanistan and eventually settled in the Wyoming town of Sheldon in 1907. He took over the tamale business–a popular fast food of the day–and eventually created a successful restaurant that stood for decades as a meeting place in the small town. 

After reading the article, composer and musician John Rapson recognized that this early 20th century story of immigration foretold today’s political conversation about what it means to be an American. Indicative of how changing our relationship is to what it means to belong, Khan earned citizenship only to have it stripped because of his ethnicity, and then regained it when laws changed yet again.

Rapson worked with Nielo Gaglione, a French-born mandole player, and folk musician Dave Moore to create a thirteen-section musical suite evoking different aspects of Khan’s life. Gaglione’s music evoked Khan’s Afghani roots, while Moore provided a pastiche of the frontier American West. Rapson also enlisted Paul Kalina, a University of Iowa theater professor and actor, to perform two monologues: one, a history of the tamale; the other a select history of American immigration law. 

Hot Tamale Louie was performed several times, including twice at the University of Iowa in the springs of 2016 and 2017, at the 2018 Iowa City Jazz Festival, and also in Sheridan, WY, where members of Khan’s family still live.


“Over and over we forget what being American means,” Kathryn Schulz writes in a 2016 New Yorker essay about Zarif Khan, an immigrant to the U.S. in 1907 from the mountains of Afghanistan who built a tamale empire in Wyoming — yes, a tamale empire. Freely based on Schulz’s essay, UI jazz professor John Rapson’s new multimedia suite Hot Tamale Louie will be performed at the Iowa City Jazz Festival on June 29 at 9 p.m. on the main stage. It’s a stunning reminder of what being an American means in all its weirdness, stupidity and glory…

Sometime between chemo and radiation, John Rapson was struck by inspiration. It came in the form of a New Yorker article. The long piece, “Citizen Khan” by Kathryn Schulz, is as meandering and rich as its subject: Zarif Khan. After reading the article last June, Rapson, a jazz professor in the School of Music, immediately knew that he’d found the subject for a new piece. Not only would it include jazz compositions, but it would be a vehicle for connecting the music of two of Rapson’s friends, one a troubadour of western ballads, and the other a player of the mandole, a North African instrument…