Afghan Rubab
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Every day our television screens are filled with images of destruction and suffering from Afghanistan. The fog of war tends to obscure the actual lives and cultures of the people caught in the midst of this conflict. Many people don't realize that Afghanistan has a rich musical culture spanning many different levels of virtuosity and style.

Afghanistan is a nation that has always been at the crossroads of different cultures. The music has taken on flavors of Central Asia, Iran and India through a mixture of trade and the movement of musicians in and out of the country. One of the interesting features of Afghan music is the large number of lute-style instruments. The thick bodied, short-necked rubab is the best known of these types of lute. It is the national instrument of Afghanistan. It has sympathetic strings that resonate at the same time as the main strings to produce unique "drones" and has a deep, powerful sound. Other lutes used include the tanbur and the dutar.

There are also a wide variety of percussion instruments including the doira which is a large frame drum and tablas which are barrel shaped drums of two different sizes.

Rhythm and Metre: Poetry and Ghazal

Another fascinating aspect of Afghan musical culture is the relationship between music and poetry. The Persian tradition of Sufi poetry has had a strong influence as has traditional Pashtun poetry. The rhythms and meter of the different poems are echoed in the music. This form of music (and the poetry itself) is called ghazal and is based on Indian classical forms with an Afghan twist. Many of the ghazals are like a dialogue between the singer and the musicians and often speak of love both in a sacred and a secular sense.

The instruments used to accompany the ghazal singers are mostly of Indian origin. The main instrument is the harmonium but you'll also hear the rubab and the tabla (a type of drum) filling out the sound. This music is considered to be the more refined art music and was introduced to Afghanistan in the 1860's by Amir Sher Ali Khan who brought musicians to his court from Northern India.

Some of Afghanistan's greatest singers have been ghazalis including the renowned Ustad Muhammad Hussein Sarahang. This style of singing requires a great deal of vocal control and expressiveness and is highly prized.

Modernizing Tradition

Another strand of music in Afghanistan began developing much later. It combined the traditional Pashto songs and instruments with a modern pop sensibility. At the heart of this development was Radio Kabul. They began putting together amateur singers with ensembles and recording ancient folk songs in a new way during the 1940's.

An artist that came out of this time and became immensely popular with the Afghan people was Ahmad Zahir. He was affectionately known as the Afghan Elvis for his looks and his popularity. He was the son of a former prime minister and offered the combination of Afghan style love songs with western melodies and instruments. Even today his music remains massively popular with Afghan exiles.

There was also a new market for female singers as the radio gave women an outlet for their talent. One of the most well known is Farida Mahwash who was given the honorary title of Ustad or master by the government of Afghanistan. She was a secretary at the radio station but her powerful voice and delivery propelled her into popularity. Mahwash has experienced a comeback with a group of musicians called Ensemble Kaboul who tread the line between popular song and ghazal.

A new generation of young pop singers has come to life even under the war torn conditions of the current Afghan reality. One of the most famous is Farhad Darya. He was an exile from the country during the Soviet invasion and has continued to make a fusion of Western pop, Bollywood influences and traditional Pashto songs. Even younger stars are emerging from the background of war. The re-emergence of women into music is a positive development.

One of the biggest female names in music and on television in general is Mozhdah Jamalzadah. She's often referred to as "the Oprah of Afghanistan" for her talk show but she's also a singer. She uses her music as social commentary to discuss issues important to women. Her music combines traditional elements with modern sounds and a powerful voice.

Singing Onwards

The future of Afghanistan is uncertain but music will remain a strong part of the culture. Musicians will continue the courtly tradition of classical music and a new generation of young singers will continue to innovate and develop the music. No matter what happens the people of Afghanistan will continue to sing and play their music.