The Music Of Afghanistan

Afghanistan lies at the crossroads of Asia – which is one of the reasons why it is much more famous for its conflicts than its music. For those able to look beyond the crossfire, the country’s music is a treasure house. This is the first collection to bring the popular, classical and folk traditions of Afghanistan together on one disc. Some of the featured musicians are living inside the country; others are abroad. The result of twenty-five years of war, is that much of the musical life happens in exile – although the artists maintain a huge following at home. Since the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001, many of the biggest stars have returned to give concerts, while others have returned to live.  

Broadly speaking, Afghanistan is where three cultural worlds collide. It is where the Persian Empire meets those of India and Central Asia. Yet Afghan music, while absorbing elements from all three, has an identity all its own.

Of course, it is the Taliban who have the most notorious reputation when it comes to music. Their radical interpretation of Islamic law meant that music was totally banned in the parts of the country they controlled between 1996 and 2001. It was the most severe ban on music there has ever been – musicians hid their instruments, many had them destroyed and a large number left the country. The Taliban closed down Afghan TV, and Radio Afghanistan, which had been responsible for the creation of Afghan popular music since it began broadcasting in the 1940s, was renamed Radio Sharia and broadcast a strictly limited diet of chants (tarana) and unaccompanied songs in praise of the Taliban. In Dari and Pashtu, the main languages of Afghanistan, the word ‘music’ actually refers to musical instruments, which is why a ban on music didn’t include unaccompanied songs and why one of the main singers at Radio Sharia found himself in charge of ‘songs without music’.

Music has been caught in the crossfire in over thirty years of conflict in Afghanistan. In 1978, a coup overthrew President Daud and a communist government came to power, which was propped up by the Soviet invasion of 1979. Musicians fared quite well during this period as long as they towed the line. The mujahideen fought a jihad against the ‘ungodly’, communist occupation, and the Soviet army withdrew in 1990. The mujihideen took over in 1992, but there was fighting between different factions and virtual civil war. Kharabat, the musicians’ quarter of Kabul, was pretty much destroyed in the shelling. Restrictions on music were also imposed with the banning of female singers and a clamp-down on radio and TV. It was in 1996 that the Taliban reached Kabul and imposed their fundamentalist ban. Since their fall in 2001, the restrictions on music have gradually eased.

There isn’t anything in the Qu’ran which explicitly forbids music; the problems some Islamic clerics have with it come from the hadith (the sayings and actions of the Prophet according to his companions) and these are open to differing interpretations. The majority of Islamic countries have very lively music scenes – Egypt, Turkey, Morocco, for instance – but it’s the hard-line regimes of countries like Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan under the Taliban that crack down on it. And, religion aside, Afghanistan is a very conservative country when it comes to social customs, education and women’s rights. Still today, there are many who object to women singers and dancing, which is seen as something disreputable and unseemly. In Havana Marking’s feature documentary Afghan Star, one of the female contestants, Setara Hussainzada, causes consternation even amongst her twenty-something contemporaries because she moves slightly on stage.

Just as Radio Afghanistan revolutionized the popular music scene in the late 1940s and 1950s, commercial radio and television have transformed the music scene since they arrived in the mid-2000s. Radio Arman and Tolo TV have made popular music an important part of their programming and, as the documentary shows, the Afghan Star show (a sort of American Idol contest) has had an incredible impact on the music scene in Afghanistan (with an estimated eleven million viewers, one third of the population). Former contestants like Shakeb Hamdard (winner of the first Afghan Star competition), Rafi Naabzada (winner of the third competition) and Setara Hussainzada (involved in the third competition) have become well-known.

Inevitably, the rise in popular music has been at the expense of traditional styles, although these are still heard on (the much less popular) state-run radio. The national instrument of Afghanistan is the rubab, which probably originates in the Pashtun areas of the country, in the southeast. It is a chunky plucked lute with a mulberry-wood body covered by skin and three main playing strings. Many of the instruments are beautifully decorated with mother-of-pearl. It has a strong, woody, muscular sound, at its best in the folk repertoire, either solo or as part of an ensemble. Many players have also used it, with tabla accompaniment, to play classical raga music in the Indian style. The rubab was transformed in India into the sarod, one of the most important string instruments in Indian classical music. The most celebrated rubab player was Mohammad Omar (1905–1980), who also directed the National Orchestra Of Afghan Radio for many years. There are three rubab players of three different generations featured in this compilation: Ghulam Hussain, the best player currently living in Kabul, who learned from Mohammad Omar; Ustad Rahim Khushnawaz, a veteran player living in Herat, in the west of the country; and Homayun Sakhi, born in Kabul, but now living in California. Alongside the rubab,there are other plucked string instruments, such as the dutar, a long-necked lute probably of Central Asian origin and the dambura, a shorter lute played by the Hazara people in central Afghanistan.

Although for the Taliban music and religion were incompatible, Afghanistan is one of the centres of Sufism where music is used in praise of God. Several of the most celebrated Sufi saints came from what is now Afghanistan – Rumi foremost amongst them, who was born in 1207 in the city of Balkh. The female singer Mahwash draws on Sufi poetry in much of her repertoire: ‘Unlike the Mullahs,’ she says, ‘I think music is a form of worship. You can worship God with prayer, but you can also use poetry and music.’ The singer and harmonium player Ahmad Sham leads a group of musicians who play at the khanaqa (Sufi meeting place) in Kabul where they use the qawwali style of music popularized by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. For them music and religious belief are inseparable. 

Of course, there are many different regional and ethnic styles of music in Afghanistan, but whether it is sung in Pashtu, Dari, Uzbek or Hazaragi, music is seen as a unifying force in Afghanistan. For that reason alone, it deserves to be better known and heard more widely as a hope for a brighter future.