Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Context and Culture

The Muhammad Omar everybody should listen to

9 min

In this Pashto Mashto blog, Fabrizio Foschini goes for a stroll in Kabul’s musical scene, according to his own, rather personal experience of it.

I have always been a lazy student. When, on some Fridays, my ustad wakes me up shouting over the phone ‘Ahmad where the hell are you? Come, and today don’t bring your rubab! Or bring it along, goz deh (fart yourself)! But do come immediately!’ my reaction is pure delight, strange as it may sound(*), I know that when he says don’t bring your rubab, whether it’s at his house or ‘office’ in Kharabat, there will be some sort of small concert going on, and that is even more exciting than a lesson.

Last Friday I received such a call and left the office late, with the electoral results still swirling round my head. I reached the house, where the mahfil (concert) had probably been going on since late morning, at around half past three. There they were, in a small room heated by cigarettes and smokers alike: two of my ustad’s best disciples on the rubab lute and another on the tabla, following attentively the inputs given by another master musician – the son of late Ustad Shaida – who was singing and accompanying himself on the harmonium. Women of the family could sometimes be perceived behind the curtain separating the room from another, enjoying the music even though it must have been the most available commodity in their house for decades.

Though I had missed most of it, I had arrived at a good time. The singer delighted us with an extended version of Nazi Jan from the celebrated Ustad Sarahang, which he lengthened to more than half an hour by inserting excerpts of Urdu ghazals from old Indian or Pakistani movies (I at least recognized ‘Tu meri zindagi hai, tu meri har khushi hai’ from ‘Aashiqi’) and often improvised she’r suited to the moment and the behaviour of the host.

My ustad in fact, eminently busy in entertaining the guest by way of jokes, mock dancing and fruit proffering – which he literally thrusted at them to defy their attempts at polite refusals – seldom played himself. He took over the rubab just to gift us a couple of his thrilling shakl, and then let his students carry on the ragas(**). The early winter sunset ignited the performance of Rag Pilu, and its having been one of my first lessons made easier for me to follow the different parts of its naghma, first toppling over you a barrage of thunder-like low notes, then rising in pitch like birds flying higher than the storm. The duet between the two rubabs was especially mesmerizing towards the end of the long instrumental piece, when, by turns, one would get into a syncopated palta, while the other kept the drone by repeating the dorud, until the sudden end marked by the tabla’s stomp. It goes without saying that my ustad, an exuberant man as well as a possessive teacher, could not help slapping his students when they made mistakes in easy passages or encouraging them loudly when they displayed some virtuosity.

As for the guests, several sets of them had evidently been taking turns inside the room. When I joined the concert, a couple were busy taking pictures of themselves with my ustad. Southerners, one could have remarked by their turbans, their beards, and their accent when speaking Dari, but I actually got it first by the jokes my ustad was making with and at them. After that, three Panjshiris came in and were greeted by my ustadwith a salvo of abuses in imitation of their dialect. The music, anyway, did not change according to the provenance of the guests. There are three things in the world, according to the ustad, at least when it comes to vocal music: Klassik, Ghazal and Thumri (he would put the Khyal within or without the Klassik depending on his mood).  Nor did my ustad’s attitude change when, the six of us stuffed in his car on our way home after the concert, he lectured us while passing a residential complex under construction: ‘Here comes another. In the whole area you won’t find a single house of Kabulis left, all the neighbours come from the atraf (countryside), all of them are badmashes.’

But that is only my ustad’s grumpiness coping with uncontrolled urban-growth. Music would ideally unite Afghanistan even when everything else was pointing towards division (which thankfully is not yet the case). Afghans can appreciate most of the different music styles of the country, and the regional specificities about them have not been tainted by the kind of ethno-political exploitation, absurd though dangerous, we sometimes witness in other fields, from language issues to tea drinking.

Of course, different backgrounds often mean different tastes. But the good point about Afghan music is that it is actually quite hard to discard any particular style, for they are all good (although I would point to some exceptions  – some of the new pop and rap hits, especially when passable voices are laboriously transformed into a synthetic babble; and Taleban music of course, because it  resembles a great deal what military music usually is: poorly conceived or dumb on purpose).

So, a chance taxi ride through Kabul can end up being accompanied by – irrespective of the identity of the cabdriver – a highly danceable Qataghani or Atan, a Beit from Hazarajat accompanied by machine-gun bursts of dambura, a rubab-stomped Pashtun Keliwali, a ghichak-whined Madda or Falak from Badakhshan, some ancient melodies on the comparatively new Herati dutar and, most of the times of course, urbanite singers coping with trying to create their own style, without plagiarizing the unattainable – I’m talking of Ahmad Zahir, of course.

Musicians themselves are very much aware of this attitude and often take either an overt stance in favour of the, let’s call it “richness of diversity”, or they put the concept more into practice in their songs. This of course can happen at different levels, in the musical structure or merely in the text. For example I have just listened (in a taxi of course) to a nice Qataghani praising the virtues of the girls from Laghman as well as of those from Bamian (which of course is also an easy rhyme), while earlier in the summer, I listened to a musician from Badakhshan (actually the son of celebrated Faiz-e Mangal, who was killed during the war) inserting poetry from the famous Pashtun tale of Adam Khan and Durkhana into his typical repertoire of Guragli, an epic of Turkmen origin spread across the North. It was a successful attempt to show off his skills and delight his Kabuli audience. Altogether, I have  never met a single Afghan, as proud of his/her particular origin as one could be, who was willing to vilify music from other regions or communities.

But then of course, somebody did a lot to vilify music on a whole, in a not so remote past. For those who have forgotten the efforts of the previous government to get rid of this richest part of Afghan life, click here for some suggested reading. The subject is still sensitive enough. I recently went to an evening performance by another worthy exponent of the Kabuli, urban-classical style, although professing himself only a shawqi, an amateur, non-professional musician (this is partly explained by his being a car-dealer by day). The concert lasted more than three hours – practically without pause, apart from around fifteen minutes which was fully employed by the tabla-nawaz to display an incredible solo – and at the end of it some of my Afghan friends had become quite intoxicated by music: they were ready to die, they kept swearing, before allowing the Taleban to deprive them of music again.

Depriving listeners of their music is already bad enough, but depriving professional musicians of their source of income, and of their main reason for living, should be counted as human rights abuse.  Even in areas not directly controlled by the Taleban, wartime has been tough on musicians, at least economically.  If comparatively luckier than those who saw their instruments burned by the zealots of amr bil-ma’ruf, musicians from Badakhshan for example did not earn a single afghani for years; they almost forgot what it meant to play for an audience, given the prevalence of funerals and the austere form assumed by weddings during jihad and under the authority of mujahedin commanders who were rarely music-friendly. Hazara musicians remember the 1980s as bad as Taleban times with some of the Iranian revolution inspired mujahedin crossing back into Afghanistan to wage jihad against communists, music and musicians.

Even now the situation cannot be said to have improved decisively. Even though the political restrictions have fallen, artists still face many economic restraints and lack of facilities. Something is moving though, and several projects aimed at preserving the musical heritage while creating new spaces and opportunities for musicians and would-be musicians are taking place. Apart from the beneficial activities of the Agha Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC), which has been engaged since 2003 in providing support for the training of Kabul musicians and is even trying to reach out to those in the provinces, an Institut-e Melli-ye Musiqi (National Institute of Music) has been recently set up and inaugurated by Dr. Ahmad Sarmast, an Afghan ethnomusicologist who came back from Australia with that objective. With support ranging from the World Bank to the German Association of Musicians (which provided tons of foreign instruments, local ones where purchased from traditional instrument-makers), the institution already provides lessons to 150 students from Kabul.

Although extremely helpful, these projects seem to be unable to reach out to everybody, even in Kucha-e Kharabat(***). This crowded, narrow alley which climbs from the Old City to the Bala Hissar ideally represents the beating musical heart not just of Kabul, but the whole of Afghanistan. This is partly due to the noble origin – musically speaking – of its inhabitants; Indian master musicians were settled there by Sher Ali Shah in 1869 so that he could have entertainment close at hand. And it is also due to the part that many ustads from the area had in giving form and content to Radio Kabul/Radio Afghanistan in the decades after World War II; as has been pointed out, this represented one of the biggest contributions to the cultural unification of Afghanistan, or, one could say, to the reciprocal appreciation of each other among different areas of the country. Even today, many musicians and their disciples live or linger in the area, and even those who have moved out like my ustad rent an “office” (usually a 3×2 room finely furnished with carpets) there to impart lessons to their students and to continue being recognized as part of the musicians’ community.

Kharabat has always been a land of wonders to me, where the mosque shares a wall with the Hindu dharamsal, and the musicians stop to pay homage to the door of the late Ustad Muhammad Omar’s house – one of the greatest rubab maestros – where many of them first got close to music; but as many other wonderlands it has had its share of sorrows. The area was mercilessly damaged in 1992-1994, when its position near the battle-line and its contested moral reputation made it a favourite target for the different factions vying for control of Kabul. Part of the musicians’ community had to relocate, mainly to Peshawar, where they were joined by many others after the Taleban captured Kabul and cut their few remaining occasions to get income. Since then, most have returned and many of the traditional balconied houses have been refurbished, others rebuilt anew (with the contribution of the Historic Cities Programme of AKTC), but the plight of the musicians, facing economic insecurity and unemployment is not at an end. At the engagement ceremony of a local music disciple this summer, talks soon turned sour about the way the musician community of the neighbourhood is being neglected by the government in favour of the more internationally-connected ustads. The separation between internationally prized names who often live abroad and the professional musicians of the city is more a matter of opportunity than something based on theoretical differences and boundaries among them are quite blurred. The main musical style performed in Kharabat is the typical Kabuli urban art music, especially in its light classical forms of Ghazal singing and instrumental solo pieces called naghma-e kashal; the same has been circulated and acknowledged internationally thanks to the efforts of the Afghan musicians of the diaspora.

The recently concluded Chishti Musical Festival in Kabul, with its parade of ministers and groups flown in from several, more or less, neighbouring countries, however great the music performed, may appear to have been an artificial event arranged for the jet-set, both local and foreign, and somewhat removed from the reality of music and musicians in Afghanistan.  But the music of the festival has not been summoned from some kind of lost past. The sufi tradition of sama’, which for the Chishtiyya brotherhood is indissolubly linked to music, is actually much alive in Kabul up to this day.

Unknown to many, the Astan-e Sayyidna Mawlawi Yar Muhammad Chishti Kabuli Niazi, popularly known as Khanaqah-e Sharif, hides in a small alley near Jada-ye Maiwand, and, most likely has for a few centuries had open and free concerts every Thusday night. Different styles can be listened to in the khanaqah, from something close to Qawwali to instrumental or vocal performances by ustads from Kharabat and occasional guests from India or Pakistan. As always, wherever they be, Chishti brothers are more concerned with feeding needy people than engaging in theoretical speculations, and given that they consider music ‘food for the soul’, they are probably not very fastidious about its recipe, provided the result is tasty.

The concert at my ustad’s place ended among hearty compliments and wishes like khana-etan abad bosha (may your house prosper) or the more appropriate mahfil-etan garm bosha (may your concert be hot), but just then the moment I had feared suddenly came. With the guests idly smoking their last cigarette, my ustad decided to give them proof of his outstanding capacities, specifically by showing how he had been able to bestow music, classical music, even on a khareji (I sometimes figure out that in myustad’s mind kharejis rank immediately above rocks and plants when it comes to musical predispositions, and feel partially guilty for that). I pretended I was checking the tuning of the rubab for some long seconds, thinking of a way out of the impasse. And I sought it by playing the astai of Rag Ahir Beiru, then by trying to follow decently into its antara – until myustad took pity on me and the rest of us, embraced his rubab, and transformed the very basic accompaniment for tabla I was sweating over into that jewel of composition we owe to my ustad’s ustad: the great, only Muhammad Omar.


(*) My Ustad being always too busy in creating new classical melodies or baroque terms of abuse, could never get a hold of my name, and rather gifted me a new one, the simplest he could think of.  To further distinguish among the several Ahmads, he also calls me daraz – the long one.

(**) The shakl (shape) corresponds to the alap of Indian classical music: a long introductory non-rhythmic piece that explores all the notes constituting a rag to give the audience a taste of its character, before the percussion also joins the music and the different melodic sections begin. These are subdivided into astaiantarabuksanchaydorud and several paltas, which are a sort of standardized conclusive refrains (for a detailed exposition of these structures and their different categorization see John Baily, ‘The naghma-ye kashal of Afghanistan’, in the British Journal of Ethnomusicology vol. 6, 1997 – and of course more articles from the same author). As these musical concepts and their names imply, Afghan classical music shares much of the formal outlook of her North Indian sister, from the notes’ names to the ragas system.

(***) Kharabat has been a common term of usage for centuries, from Persia to Hindustan, to signify an area where some sort of crooks’ business takes place. Literally meaning ‘ruins’ (and with the same etymological root meaning moral debauchery), it was sometimes situated in abandoned suburbs of the cities and would feature illicit pleasures such as the sale of alcohol or drugs and prostitution: all things often associated, rightly or wrongly, with the performance of music, not just in the Islamic World.


Kabul Music