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Context and Culture

War and Exile Through the Musicians’ Eye: Professor John Baily’s account of four decades of Afghan music (book review)

Fabrizio Foschini 9 min

 “Music is essential for the very survival of man’s humanity.” In the opening lines of his book ‘War, Exile and the Music of Afghanistan’, John Baily motivates his research with this quote from fellow ethnomusicologist John Blacking. For the author, who spent more than four decades researching and performing the music of Afghanistan alongside Afghan musicians inside and outside the country, the Afghans’ strong sense of humanity is on full display. His latest book on the topic of Afghan music tries to take stocks of this humanity that survived tumultuous times and constitutes a vital part of Afghan culture.

An Afghan ensemble performing at the Lycee Istiqlal in Kabul on February 23, 2011. Photo: Fabrizio FoschiniAn Afghan ensemble performing at the Lycee Istiqlal in Kabul on February 23, 2011. Photo: Fabrizio Foschini

Books on Afghan music are rare, especially compared to the number of publications on Afghan society and history. The main stories about Afghan music tend to be written by non-specialists and focus mainly on its prohibition during Taleban rule. So far, no major studies have captured how Afghan musical traditions have changed throughout the decades of conflict and exile, nor fully reflect how much Afghan diaspora communities look to music for their identity and mental balance, as John Baily puts it:

…music seems to have been about normalization, reassurance, ticking over, keeping things going through difficult times in anticipation of going home.  

The book: Documenting “the sound that transmits a culture”

‘War, Exile and the Music of Afghanistan’ – Book Cover

‘War, Exile and the Music of Afghanistan’ (Ashgate, 2015; now also published in paperback by Routledge) is structured along a chronology of historical events. The first five chapters each refer to a distinct period of contemporary Afghan history, the major political features of which are briefly presented before moving to an exploration of music inside the country and later among the Afghan diaspora. Chapter six focuses more specifically on “The Global Circulation of Afghanistan’s Music” but it also respects the chronological order and is based on the fieldwork the author conducted among Afghan diaspora communities in the early 2000s after his first return to post-Taleban Kabul. A final chapter allows Baily to compare the various approaches to music that the diaspora communities developed and to make some interesting observations on the nexus between Afghan identity and music.

The book starts with a concise yet detailed history of the development of Afghan court music, following the patronage of a series of Afghan kings and rulers from the 1870s onwards and introducing instruments, places and concepts still particular to Afghan music to this day. All the while, the book makes sure that the readers unfamiliar with the political history of the country become acquainted with its major events.

For those already acquainted, it is very interesting to read about Afghanistan’s succession of political leaders from kings to presidents through a different lens. Political shifts between modernity and social conservatism are analysed mainly for their significance on Afghan music, rather than according to the conventional patterns of state formation and fission that have obsessed scores of political scientists. The music-oriented historical sections continue throughout the book, and relate Afghanistan’s musical history till recent days. However, it is the narratives of John Baily’s fieldwork with musicians which constitute the most interesting parts of the book.

After studying Afghan music in Kabul and Herat between 1973 and 1977,(1) John Baily (together with his wife Veronica Doubleday, also a scholar of Afghan music and an established singer) continued to research Afghan music wherever he could get in touch with musicians who had left the war-torn country. He took extensive notes from his fieldwork and often filmed what he witnessed. In the text, the author embarks on a worldwide journey following the footsteps of this particular branch of the Afghan diaspora. The journey takes him not only to the 1980s Peshawar, but also to Islamabad, Mashhad, Tehran, Fremont (California’s Little Kabul), London, Sidney, Melbourne, Hamburg and Dublin – wherever Afghan refugee communities, big or small, make music.

Starting from the very subtitle The Ethnographer’s Tale, Baily refers to his book as a personalised account of his encounters with the world of Afghan music over a period of 40 years. His personal identity inside the Afghan musical scene was recognised as that of a shauqi, an amateur enthusiast musician (contrasted in popular usage – and not altogether unfavorably – with that of the professional performers, called kesbi or sazenda). As such, he offers a unique insight into the lives, styles, thoughts and practices of the musicians who made up that world. It is fascinating to discover how Afghan musicians managed to save their music and carry it – not always fully intact, but alive – with them from one place of exile to another and, in some cases, back to Afghanistan.

Given the family connections that usually define becoming a musician in Afghanistan, the ethnographer’s tale becomes the story of a number of Afghan families who throughout the decades have tried to maintain art at its best, alongside the struggle to survive. The book can thus be read as both an ethnographic account replete with recollections of fieldwork and a “choral” history recounted through an anthology of oral sources.

Each of the ten field trips that Baily writes about in his book provides a vivid setting for the book’s main characters. Some of these character-musicians – hamkaran (colleagues, as Baily aptly refers to them) – reappear from visit to visit, others are seen only once, but all, whether great stars of the Afghan music scene or obscure hereditary musicians of provincial background, are given a full and fair portrayal.

This aspect of the book is particularly charming, especially to those who have been closely in touch with Afghan musicians (or any musicians, for that matter). To this music lover, some descriptions of the musicians’ personalities and behaviour sounded immediately familiar: the primadonna manners of singers and (some) rubab players (music can be food for the soul, as the Sufis would have it, but it also provides an avenue for competition and personal self-affirmation) versus the meeker and more generous attitude of tabla players. This is all compounded by music’s ability to bridge the social and educational gap between well-off, cosmopolitan shauqi musicians and the streetwise and uncouth sazenda, who might cater to popular tastes but who may also privately cultivate a passion for the theoretical knowledge systematised in Hindi or Iranian classical music.

The portraits offer the author the chance to draw a larger sketch of a world that has been in perpetual transition through conflict and displacement. The diaspora’s art is shaped by their places and conditions of exile and by the influences of nearby musical scenes, chiefly those of Peshawar and Mashhad. For readers acquainted with Afghan music, it is enjoyable to recognise throughout John Baily’s narrative the occasions that gave birth to some of the most important recordings of Afghan music available to this day.

The book also tracks the development and diffusion of instruments, techniques and technologies, from the role of Radio Kabul/Radio Afghanistan as a centre for the enhancement and propagation of Afghan music in the monarchial period to the informal cassette and CD industry that emerged among Afghans communities worldwide.

The incredible richness of detail – the book is filled with interview excerpts, names of musicians, dates and venues of performances – is proof of the careful annotation of Baily’s experiences in his diaries. It is also a reflection of the role he played inside the Afghan music scene – a true shauqi, who generously channeled economic and political resources to help preserve the art of those whose passion he shared without competing for the stage with the real performers. This lends a flavour to the book that transcends just that of an ethnographer’s tale, and in doing so has become the first record of the story of the standard-bearers of Afghanistan’s musical tradition – a record that John Baily, after his first visit to post-Taleban Kabul, had recommended to establish. His personal recollections of 40 years of Afghan music, dictated to himself in his diaries, videos and memories, are as much his ethnographer’s tale as that of the Afghan musicians.

The movies: a treasure of images and sounds

The book comes with a DVD featuring four films that Baily shot at different stages and places during the decades of the musicians’ exile (2). Compressed in a single DVD, the sound and video quality is sometimes compromised, but the content more than compensates.

The first film, Amir, explores the lives of Afghan musicians in Peshawar during the 1980s through an intimate portrait of a Herati musician that John Baily used to know from pre-war Herat. Thanks to the protagonist, the movie has a few intense, personal moments showing the distress visited upon Afghan refugees. Amir’s attachment to his land is most tangible when he comments on the provenance of the marble of the tomb of the Pashtun poet Rahman Baba – carved in Afghanistan and “sent to Peshawar by lorry” by order of the Afghan king – only to burst into tears afterwards, confessing that visiting the shrines of famous saints and Sufi mystics is the only consolation for him as he waits to return to Herat, a city known as the “dust of the saints” for the number of shrines it holds.

The longing for the lost homeland and the casual, spontaneous pride that Afghans take in their country is gently made apparent in the last sequence where, with his musician colleagues resting in the background in a dreamy haze induced by the Ramadan fast and the heat of Peshawar, Amir plays the popular anthem Da Zmung Zeba Watan (Our Beautiful Homeland) solo on the rubab. After introducing it with a beautiful shakl (3), he plays it in a soft, even stuttering way at first, then increasingly determined and fast – all along ignoring requests to play something else.

What Amir and Baily did not know then was that the exile that made Afghans desperate to return to their homes was just the beginning of a series of exoduses and returns that would continue for most or the remainder of their lives, and may even outlive then.

The second movie, Across the Frontier, is also set in Peshawar, this time in the year 2000. Seen from an Afghan perspective, Peshawar is indeed just across the frontier, untouched by the Taleban’s prohibition of music. However, at this darkest hour of the Afghan conflict, the mood is gloomy. The movie depicts Afghan musicians and musical traditions surviving hard times, showing the virtuosos of Kharabat crammed in Khalil House, a Hazara wedding in one of the shiny wedding halls that would later become a fixture of the Afghan urban landscape, a group of senior performers commemorating the death of one of their peers, who had been also an expert of the poetry of Bedil, whose knowledge and interpretation in pre-war Afghanistan had reached the status of a sort of lay mysticism.

The third documentary, Tablas and Drum Machines, brings the scene to Fremont, California, and focuses on the socialisation rites and attitudes to music among the well-established Afghan community, depicting the inauguration of a music school by renowned tabla master Ustad Asif Mahmoud. The last movie, A Kabul Music Diary, brings us to Afghanistan in what is hopefully a final homecoming for many of the Afghan musicians so far seen in exile. As if closing a circle. the closing scenes of the final movie feature the same unofficial anthem as Amir plays in the first, Da Zmung Zeba Watan. This time it is performed by a young pop group in front of a mixed audience in the auditorium of Kabul University. It elicits a vigorous applause from the crowd.

A tale in search of a happy ending

When the book was first published in 2015, there were already signs of trouble ahead. Security in Afghanistan had significantly deteriorated under the influence of Taleban assaults and the appearance of yet more radical militant groups, while the unity of the new government proved fragile. With tensions inside Afghan society on the rise, many young men (and in some case whole families) were seeking a way out of the country, creating a new wave of refugees abroad. Still, Baily’s conclusions are deliberately hopeful. The last story he recounts in his book is that of the creation of ANIM, the Afghan National Institute for Music that Dr. Ahmad Sarmast managed to start in 2010, an achievement which does give reasons for optimism.

At a time when even the fragile stability achieved in the last fifteen years seems endangered, the book offers sound reflections on the future. The awareness of the hardships that Afghan musicians faced and the acknowledgement of the losses that a whole musical world has risked should sound an alarm bell for all those who cherish Afghanistan’s culture. While the support programs and research done during the last decade have reduced the risks that Afghanistan’s musical tradition can be washed away by the violence of conflict, more should be done to ensure that musicians remain free to perform within the Afghan society and are protected from social stigmas and economic constraints so they are valued for what they truly are: the custodians and crafters of an important part of Afghan culture.

The resilience and bravery with which Afghan musicians weathered the storms and carried on with both their lives and their talent provide a ray of hope from an unexpected corner in these dark times for Afghanistan. Amidst all doubts about the future of the Afghan government and society, one of the few certainties, reinforced by John Baily’s authoritative account, is that no matter in what condition Afghans will find themselves, they will seek solace in listening to their own music and there will always be musicians able to perform it .



(1) Although the book never loses its main track following Kabul-based music, which since decades set the trends for the whole country, Baily is also extremely familiar with the musicians’ scene in Herat, with its particular instruments, cultural heritage and approach to music – influenced by Iran as well, compared to the mostly Hindustani imprinting on Kabul music.

(2) These four films are:

Amir: An Afghan refugee musician’s life in Peshawar, Pakistan (filmed in 1985);

Across the Border: Afghan musicians exiled in Peshawar (filmed in 2000);

Tablas and Drum Machines: Afghan Music in California (filmed in 2000);

A Kabul Music Diary (filmed in 2002).

(3) The shakl (literally “shape”) is the Afghan counterpart to the alap of Hindustani classical music: a non-rythmic introduction to a song or music piece improvised by the musician by exploring all the range of notes included in the specific rag (mode) in which the melody is constructed.


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Fabrizio Foschini

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