Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Context and Culture

Guest Blog: The Recovery of Afghanistan’s Regional Music

John Baily 3 min

For some years, the Afghan music scene has been dominated by a new fast dance style which uses keyboards and other western instruments and developed in the Afghan diaspora at a time when music in Afghanistan itself was under extreme pressure. It looked like the new pop music was flourishing at the expense of the wide variety of regional music in Afghanistan. Not so, says our guest blogger, Professor John Baily* of the Afghanistan Music Unit at Goldsmiths, University of London and himself a keen rubab player.

At the end of October, the National Folkloric Music Seminar and Festival** was held over two days in the beautiful surroundings of the Queen’s Palace, Bagh-e Babur, Kabul. On each morning, Afghan scholars, intellectuals and academics presented short papers on various traditions of regional music, in Pashto, Dari, and in one case, English. Some were illustrated by live performance of short examples. Discussion sessions and a number of resolutions were passed in the early afternoon sessions and then it was time for the Festival itself. Into the early evenings of both days, no less than twenty groups from many different parts of Afghanistan performed their local regional music.

The Seminar and Festival showed that local traditions are not, as many people supposed, moribund, but after so many years of armed conflict following the PDPA coup of 1978, had simply gone ‘underground’. Despite the current political uncertainties, these traditions have now come out of hiding, and we see the reappearance of the wonderful musical traditions of Afghanistan.

There is nothing wrong with the kind of pop music, which, after 2001, fed back into Afghanistan from the diaspora. Good examples of it can be found in the brilliant documentary film ‘Afghan Star’, made about the third ‘Setareh Afghanistan’ competition, which was organised by Tolo TV in imitation of western television shows like ‘Pop Idol’. Many countries enjoy a multiplicity of musical genres, often broadly categorised as art, popular and folk, not to mention the music brought by migrant communities which often become modified by contact with the music of mainstream society. But in Afghanistan, it looked like the rise of pop was coming at the expense of different Afghan musical traditions.

There were various reactions to this trend. In 2003 the Aga Khan Trust for Culture established a Tradition Bearers’ Programme for the teaching of Kabuli art music, notably ghazal singing and associated instrumental practices. This programme, coordinated by Mirwais Sidiqi, has developed into a significant music school in Kabul, with a branch in Herat. Another initiative is Dr Ahmad Sarmast’s newly established Afghanistan National Institute of Music which is essentially a vocational music school that teaches western, Indian and Afghan music, including Afghan instruments such as the rubab, tula and ghaichak. Now it also seems that the regional musicians in different parts of the country are feeling confident enough to come out from under the shadow of ultra-orthodox disapproval and repression, to make their contribution to the gradually strengthening life of music in Afghanistan. Moreover, not only has traditional regional music reappeared, but we see the emergence of an Afghan musicology, with local experts studying and writing about their local traditions.

One could connect all this with a renewed sense of national identity. While distinct in themselves, the regional musical styles have many elements in common, comparable to different dialects of a single language. Collectively, they are an important part of that intangible notion of what it is to be a person from Afghanistan, despite differences of language and ethnicity. The Seminar and Festival signaled the operation of deep processes of national cohesion.


*John first came to Afghanistan in 1973 carrying out ethnomusicological research and learning the dutar and rubab in Herat with Ustad Gada Mohammad and Ustad Rahim Khushnawaz. His wife, Veronica Doubleday, studied women’s songs and the daireh (frame drum) there and later wrote the marvellous book ‘Three Women of Herat: a Memoir of Life, Love and Friendship in Afghanistan’. After the 1978 coup, John began a series of research trips investigating music in the Afghan diaspora in Pakistan, Iran and USA. He directed the award-winning film ‘Amir: An Afghan refugee musician’s life in Peshawar, Pakistan’ and wrote on the censorship of Afghan music, including “Can you stop the birds singing?” published in May 2001 by Freemuse.

John is now Emeritus Professor of Ethnomusicology at Goldsmiths, London University and heads its Afghanistan Music Unit which was set up to document the state of music in post-Taleban Afghanistan and offer practical assistance in re-establishing traditional music after a long period of extreme censorship.

** The organisation of this double event brought together a number of institutions, notably the Ministry of Information and Culture, Aga Khan Music Initiatives, the Afghanistan National Institute of Music, the Foundation for Culture and Civil Society and Kabul University.


Music Rubab