Music In Afghanistan A Sensitive Subject

Dec 29, 2011
Originally published on December 30, 2011 7:21 pm

Afghanistan sits at a crossroads between central Asia, Iran and the Indian subcontinent, and the country's music reflects that. Kabul hosted two international music festivals this fall — one traditional, the other a rock concert — but music is still a sensitive issue. International donors, including the U.S., have helped refurbish a conservatory in Kabul, but some of the students say they still face disapproval from extremist elements, even at the university.

Just over one-year-old, the Afghan National Institute of Music is something of a revival of musical traditions that have been battered by years of war, and sometimes, religious prohibition. Students at the Institute practice Western instruments as well as traditional ones, like the tabla (drums well known in Indian classical music) or the rubab (a sort of cross between a banjo and a sitar with sympathetic strings that drone along with the melody and a resonating chamber that is covered with skin and sometimes filled with egg shells).

But Afghanistan also has a long tradition of controversy about music, with rural religious leaders often labeling it an un-Islamic foreign vice enjoyed by city-dwellers. That's sometimes still the case today according to one student.

Charshambay is a willow-thin tabla student from northern Afghanistan. He says that some of his religion teachers at Kabul University have tried to convince him that music is forbidden, and he's even been told not to practice his tabla in the dormitory. He doesn't care. For him, the music is a gift from god. Something else does worry him though.

"I'm worried about losing our culture," says Charshambay. He says many unique traditions from Afghanistan's different regions are being lost in the melting pot of globalization — that's a fear shared by ethnomusicologists.

John Baily is head of the Afghan Music Unit at the University of London. He says some modern instruments have crowded out traditional ones, and that many Afghan weddings now feature one-man bands with lots of electronic help.

But Baily, an accomplished rubab player himself, is encouraged by the Afghan National Institute, and he recently visited Kabul and put on a concert along with some other Afghan masters. He still finds the issue of music in Afghanistan to be a touchy one, as musicians are still considered somewhat irreputable, and those who support it most publically link music to religion, like some of Afghanistan's Sufi orders.

"Those who support music strongly here actually see it from a religious point of view," says Baily. "From their point of view — and you hear this a lot in Afghanistan — music is 'ghazairoo,' food for the soul, and I think that's such a wonderful idea."

Musicians from the Afghan National Institute have also been turning Afghan instruments toward Western music, most recently in "Bolero" by Maurice Ravel.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Afghanistan is also struggling with change. It's a country that's becoming more open to the outside world, even as a war drags on. This is a country that had a rich musical tradition, also a country where the Taliban once banned music. This past fall, Kabul hosted two international music festivals; one of them, traditional, the other, a rock concert. But music remains a sensitive issue.

International donors, including the United States, has helped to refurbish a conservatory in Kabul. But some of the students say they still face disapproval from extremist elements, even at the music institute itself.

Here's NPR's Quil Lawrence.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: The Afghan National Institute of Music is just over one year old.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LAWRENCE: It's something of a revival of musical traditions that have been battered by years of war and sometimes religious prohibition.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LAWRENCE: Students here practice Western instruments as well as traditional ones like the tabla, drums well known in Indian classical music. Or the Rubab, a sort of cross between a banjo and a sitar, with sympathetic strings that drone along with the melody and a resonating chamber that is covered with skin and sometimes filled with egg shells.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LAWRENCE: But Afghanistan has a long tradition of controversy about music - with rural religious leaders often labeling it an un-Islamic, foreign vice enjoyed by city-dwellers. That's sometimes still the case today according to one student. Charshambay, is a willow-thin tabla student from northern Afghanistan. He says that some of his religion teachers at Kabul University have tried to convince him that music is forbidden.

CHARSHAMBAY: (Foreign language spoken)

LAWRENCE: Charshambay says he's even been told not to practice his tabla in the dormitory, but he doesn't care. For him, he says, music is a gift from god. Something else concerns him though.

CHARSHAMBAY: (Foreign language spoken)

LAWRENCE: I'm worried about losing our culture, says Charshambay. He says many unique traditions from Afghanistan's different regions are being lost in the melting pot of globalization. That's a fear shared by ethnomusicologists.

JOHN BAILY: Of course, all the modern communications have completely changed things and the isolations that existed in the past in which allowed different regional styles to thrive, that is diminishing.

LAWRENCE: John Baily is head of the Afghan Music Unit at the University of London. He says some modern instruments have crowded out traditional ones - many Afghan weddings now feature one man bands with lots of electronic help - it sounds like this.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LAWRENCE: But Baily, an accomplished Rumbab player himself, is encouraged by the Afghan National Institute. And he recently visited Kabul and gave a concert along with some Afghan masters. That sounded like this.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LAWRENCE: Baily says he still finds the issue of music sensitive in Afghanistan. Musicians are still considered somewhat irreputable, and those who support it most publicly link music to religion, like some of Afghanistan's Sufi Muslim orders, that use singing and sometimes dancing as a form of prayer and meditation.

BAILY: Those who support music strongly here, actually see it from a religious point of view. From their point of view, and you hear this a lot in Afghanistan, music is ghazairoo - food for the soul, or nourishment for the soul - and I think that's such a wonderful idea.

LAWRENCE: Musicians from the Afghan National Institute have also been turning Afghan instruments toward western music, most recently "Bolero" by Maurice Ravel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LAWRENCE: Quil Lawrence, NPR News, Kabul.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.