Afghanistan – The Rough Guide to World Music | Songlines
Wednesday, September 26, 2018

The Rough Guide to World Music: Afghanistan

By Simon Broughton , Veronica Doubleday

Despite continued fighting, there is new musical life in the country and new interest abroad. Simon Broughton and Veronica Doubleday report


Mahwash and Ensemble Kaboul (Pascal Lafay)

(Note that this Rough Guide to World Music article has not been updated since it was originally published. To keep up-to-date with the best new music from around the world, subscribe to Songlines magazine.) 

The fall of the Taliban regime in 2001 brought a rebirth of music in Afghanistan. Among the two or three million exiles who have since returned to the country are many musicians, and, despite continued fighting in the south of the country, there is new musical life in the country and new interest abroad. Simon Broughton and Veronica Doubleday report.

The ruins of the musicians’ district of Kharabat in Kabul are like a symbol of Afghanistan’s musical life. Those who knew it in its heyday speak of a vibrant place with musicians vying for trade. But it was reduced to rubble during fighting between rival mujahideen factions after the departure of the occupying Soviet forces in 1992. Islamist elements then imposed a ban on female singers and increasing restrictions on music, leading many musicians to leave the country. As the Taliban took control of Afghanistan, reaching Kabul in 1996, music was completely outlawed and instruments were destroyed. Musicians faced a stark choice: shut up or get out. Television (which broadcast a lot of music) was totally banned for its idolatrous images, and the only music permitted on radio was religious chants (nat) or unaccompanied songs in praise of the Taliban (tarana). These forms did not use instruments, so were not officially regarded as “music”.

After 9/11, coalition troops brought a swift end to the Taliban regime. Within 48 hours, television was back on air and Radio Afghanistan assembled a team of musicians and began broadcasting to a population hungry for music. Cassettes and CDs flooded in from the exile community in Peshawar in neighbouring Pakistan. Musicians, too, started returning and before long a rubab player and a maker of rubabs (the Afghan national instrument) had settled back in the ruins of Kharabat. The arrival of commercial radio and TV stations, notably Arman FM and Tolo TV, completely transformed the scene by broadcasting Western music and promoting contests, such as Afghan Star, which generated a new interest in Afghan popular music. Although hampered by political constraints on music broadcasting, Radio Afghanistan saw its role as uniting the country, where the cultures of Persia, Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent meet.

The Pashtuns, to the south and east, are the dominant and largest group. Broadly speaking, their music is highly dramatic, with exciting climaxes and pauses, and a strong rhythmic emphasis. Speakers of Afghan Persian (Dari) inhabit the west, centre and northeast. Much of their music is nostalgic and romantic. In the north, Turkic speakers – mainly Uzbeks – form a third cultural group. Rather flamboyant, their music includes epics and coquettish dance pieces. These various regional styles have fed into a melting pot, contributing to two more widely disseminated types of music: classical art music and popular genres which are sometimes now quite Westernized in their instrumentation. But Afghanistan is also a heartland of Sufism, where music and Islam meet in praise of God.

Sufi Music

Rather ironically, given the conflicts in the country over music and religion, Afghanistan is crucial in the story of Sufi music – the mystical music of Islam that helps devotees get closer to God. Many of the great Sufi saints originated in the region. Moinuddin Chishti (1142–1236), the most revered Sufi saint in the Indian subcontinent, was born in western Afghanistan, while the celebrated mystic Jalaluddin Rumi (1207–73), who established the Mevlevi brotherhood of “whirling dervishes”, was born near Balkh in the north.

Sufism remains a strong presence in modern Afghanistan. The Naqshbandi Sufis, followers of Baha’uddin Naqshband (d. 1390) from Bukhara in present-day Uzbekistan, are active in Kabul and elsewhere. Rather than using musical instruments, they create impressive trance-like states as they bend and sway, rhythmically chanting invocations to God in incredibly powerful and heartfelt vocal performances. Regular ceremonies are held on Fridays, notably at the shrine of Tamim-e-Ansarnear the Shohada-e Saleheencemetery and the grave of Ahmad Zahir in Kabul. One meeting-place for Chishti Sufis is Shur Bazaar, close to Kharabat, where musicians sing devotional music, including Pakistani-style qawwali and ghazals with harmoniums and tablas.

Both brotherhoods have suffered persecution. The Naqshbandis were persecuted by the Soviets in their campaign against Islam, while Chishti practices were outlawed by the Taliban, because they use musical instruments. Now a visit to a Sufi ceremony is one of the most powerful musical experiences on offer in Afghanistan.


Afghan classical music is known as klasik, from the English word. There are several genres: sung poetry (especially ghazals) and instrumental pieces: naghmehs and ragas. The music is predominantly urban and has close historical links with India and Pakistan. Many of the Kabuli professional “master-musicians” (known as ustad) are directly descended from musicians who came from India to play at the Afghan court in Kabul in the 1860s. They maintain cultural and personal ties with India and use Hindustani musical theories and terminology, for example raga (melodic form) and tala (rhythmic cycle).

Many of the main Afghan ragas are similar to those in India. In performance, however, Afghan ragas are slightly different from their Indian equivalents, placing more emphasis on rhythmic variation. For rhythmic accompaniment, Indian tablas have eclipsed other local drums like the zirbaghali (goblet drum), dohol(hand-played barrel drum), and daireh (frame drum). The Afghan ghazal is a close cousin of the ghazal as sung in Pakistan and North India. With its romantic and mystical texts, it is an important vehicle for Sufi sentiments. Afghanistan’s much-loved classical singer Ustad Sarahang (1923–82) was a remarkable exponent of all classical vocal styles, including ghazals, which he sang with great spiritual understanding.

The defining Afghan instrument is the rubab, a short-necked, fretted, plucked lute that was originally a folk instrument, probably from the ­mountainous Afghan-Pakistani borderlands. Here the Afghans have contributed to Indian music, since the rubab is the forerunner of the Indian sarod (see p.542). The latter has a steel belly and no frets – a design that favours the sliding microtonal effects common in Indian music. Afghans have a special feeling for the rubab, describing it as the “lion” of instruments. Its double-chambered body is carved from a single piece of mulberry wood and the lower part covered with skin. Its three main strings are played with a plectrum of wood, bone or ivory, but its rich, echoing sound comes from sympathetic strings, which vibrate and give a full, resonant quality – dreamy sometimes, or ecstatic. The most famous rubab-player was Ustad Mohammad Omar (1905–80) of the Kabuli school. Among the most celebrated contemporary players are Mohammed Rahim Khushnawaz from Herat and Ghulam Hussain, who has returned to Kharabat and now teaches rubab in the school set up by the Music Initiative of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture. Other notable players are Essa Kassemi and Daud Khan Sadozai, both resident in Germany, and Homayun Sakhi in the US.

Popular Music

Afghan popular music is based on singing. The modern style was created at the Kabul radio station in the 1950s when the country first began broadcasting in earnest. In imitation of Indian and European styles, an official radio orchestra was established. This included some Afghan folk instruments, such as the dutar and tanbur (fretted, plucked lutes) and the bowed ghichak and sarinda. Indian instruments, like harmonium, tabla drums, sitar and dilruba (bowed lute), and European instruments including the violin, clarinet and guitar, were also part of this slick, massed sound.

At Radio Afghanistan, singers and musicians composed new material and created a specific genre structured around a verse, chorus and melodically stereotyped instrumental section, which, in typical Pashtun style, usually built up to a climax and then paused precipitously before launching into the next verse. The textured orchestral backing was hitherto unknown in Afghan music, but makes it very accessible to Western ears.

Radio Afghanistan played an important role in bringing Afghans together through music and was an influence for social change. One of the first women to broadcast on air (in 1951) was Parwin, who came from an aristocratic background. Another aristocratic ground-breaker was Ahmad Zahir, showing that music could be a vaguely respectable career. Long after his death in 1979, he remains the most popular singer in Afghanistan today (see box). Perhaps the most notable singer is Mahwash, whose reedy voice and studies in classical music earned her the official title of “ustad”, despite being a woman. In 1977 she had great success with a popular song called “O Bacheh” (Oh Boy), devoting each verse to a different area of Afghanistan and singing in the corresponding regional style. Although she now lives in the US, Mahwash has maintained her place as the most respected of Afghanistan’s female singers, and returned to perform in Kabul in 2007.She has performed and recorded with many musicians living in exile, including the Geneva-based Ensemble Kaboul, formed by rubab-player Khaled Arman during the Taliban years to try and keep Afghan music alive during its time of crisis. They won a BBC Award for World Music in 2003 and are the leading group playing popular Afghan instrumental music and songs outside Afghanistan.

Weddings and Folk Music

In Afghan culture, music plays an important function in advertising and celebrating marriage, with ritual wedding songs bestowing blessings on the bride and groom. Traditionally, weddings were also a prime source of income for professional musicians.

Marital celebrations are usually gender-segregated, but both feature dancing. Entertaining the men at a city wedding, a male singer typically used to accompany himself on the Indian portable harmonium, sitting on a decorated bandstand surrounded by three or four other musicians, but nowadays, the most popular line-up features a singer with electronic keyboards. Whatever the band, the sound of drums is integral: tabla drums or the barrel-shaped dohol are both traditional, while the modern-style bands make heavy use of synthesized beats. In a traditional band, the melodic accompanists play local types of lutes like the rubab or tanbur, but a modern line-up will achieve various melodic effects on its keyboards. Popular songs and dances are the regular fare.

The traditional rituals involve processions and displays of gifts in the bridegroom’s house (where the marriage is consummated). The bridegroom’s sisters and their friends usually lead the music and dancing, all the surrounding women clapping in time to the rhythm. In some parts of Afghanistan, professional bands entertain at women’s parties and play for the rituals. Herat still has its female bands, whereas in Kabul and some eastern areas young boys are allowed to do the work.

All over Afghanistan, in the privacy of their homes women have been used to playing, singing and dancing to the sound of the daireh or frame drum. This particular drum is sanctioned by the scriptures – authentic accounts attest that the Prophet Mohammed listened to the Arab frame-drum (called duff) with tolerance and pleasure. As the only instrument considered suitable for women, it is indispensable for their music at weddings.

Traditionally, frame drums are made by Gypsy-like specialists known by the derogatory name of “Jat”. Some of them are musicians in their own right. The men traditionally work in pairs, always outdoors, playing loud, driving music on the shawm and a dohol played with two sticks. This duo is often called sazdohol (saz simply means “instrument”) and the musicians are ritual specialists with a semi-outcast status – no outsider will touch these instruments. (Gypsies and Gypsy-related groups play this instrumental duo in a wide area stretching from China, Central Asia and North India through Iran, Iraq and Turkey to the Balkans.)

The Afghan Jat duos often work as barbers and shave the bridegroom and circumcise boys, as well as playing music for circumcision celebrations and wedding processions. In villages they sometimes accompany men’s stick dances (chub-bazi) and circle dances (atan). In the north they play at the winter game known as bozkashi – “goat-dragging” – in which a goat carcass is contested by teams of skilled horsemen. Sazdohol players also appear in the streets at religious festivals and at New Year, brashly demanding tips.

The Afghan New Year at the spring equinox is traditionally a very important time for music and festivity. Afghans love to celebrate the advent of greenery and warm weather after the bitterly cold winter by going outdoors for mass fairs called melehs. Most famous for this is the shrine of Ali in Mazar-i Sharif in the north. Its forty-day “tulip festival” with music and healing has its roots in pre-Islamic history, and in the past few years an officially staged televised music festival has been organized with local and international performers. Whether at Mazar or at other shrines or gardens, people love to sit outside playing or listening to music as they drink tea.

Tea-houses were also important male venues for music-making, especially in the north. Some areas of the northeast were never conquered by the Taliban and remained in control of the mujahideen, who enjoyed rousing ballads about their heroes and their religious struggle. On market days before the civil war, musicians would perform epics or popular songs. The singer might strum a long-necked lute like the tanbur, or weave a wayward melodic accompaniment on the ghichak spiked fiddle, the whole sound punctuated with the zirbaghali drum or the regular chinking of tiny cymbals. The ghichak is a specifically northern instrument, with a quaint recycled tin-can soundbox. Taj ­Mohammad is one of the popular traditional musicians of the region.

Since the return of public music-making in Afghanistan, the one issue that has remained ­contentious is the participation of women. With the fall of the Taliban in 2001, CDs of exiled female singers like Naghma were hugely popular in the markets of Kabul. But women singers were not heard on radio or seen on TV until 2004, when the Pashtun singer Rita Wazhma recorded for TV and also performed in concert.

May 2004 saw the biggest concert in Kabul for years with the return of the most celebrated exiled singer, Farhad Darya. His CD Salaam Afghanistan had been the biggest seller for weeks and his concert in the Kabul football stadium before 40,000 people had a symbolic value, as this was where the Taliban had conducted their public executions. Farhad Darya, like many of the Afghan musicians in exile, wasn’t returning to Afghanistan to live, but the concert marked an important step in making music part of normal life again. Tolo TV’s Afghan Star competition started in 2006 and, although it has attracted criticism from Islamic leaders, it is hugely popular and has featured many female singers.

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