Music is back with a bang in Afghanistan. After being banned by the Taliban between 1996 and 2001 for being sinful, it’s flourishing again and helping the spirits of many battle-scarred Afghans to soar.
The Central Asian country has an ancient tradition of song, built on the rich culture of poetry. The Afghan music icons started blending the classical music with the western music, grabbing the attention of urban youth as early as the 1970s.
From Ahmad Zahir – popularly known as the king of Afghan music – who sampled the melody of Elvis Presley’s It’s Now or Never, to Farhad Darya and the band Stars, experimenting with Rock and Roll techniques, elements of Afghan music started to blend with the musical sounds sweeping the world.
Even though the western styles have made inroads into the Afghan music, traditional music continues to flourish. Traditional instruments like tabla, harmonium, robab, daira and dilroba continued to rule and the familiar notes they produce dominate the musical atmosphere from Badakshan in the north to Kandahar in the south.
Teens in the urban regions may have turned to new music, to pop, rock and roll. They might hum Ahmad Zahir’s pop lyrics, based on the poems of Persian poets Hafez and Rumi, but music accompanied by the beats of tabla, notes produced by the elegant, lute-like robab remain a favourite staple.
At places, away from the cities, where access to television is limited, people still turn to the familiar sounds of Honarmanday-e-Mahali, the local singers who performed at weddings and other social gatherings.
Unlike the amateurs on the national radio — Zahir Howaida, Mahwash, Haidar Salim, Ehsan Aman, Salma Jahani, Hangama, and Sarban among them — these local singers followed the common regional practice of ustad, master, transferring his knowledge to students.
Located on the crossroads between many trade routes, Afghan traditional music has a long history of its own and had over the years already incorporated elements of Persian, Hindi, and Central Asian techniques to produce ever more diverse regional varieties.
As such, no wonder even the Taliban rule became an era of discovery, in terms of culture and music. Those who could practice in secret and survive the onslaught of the terror continued to have a firm grasp of the country’s traditional music and those who could make it outside the country took the Afghan music to an altogether different level. Afghan music reached far and wide.
And the children, born into war were suddenly exposed to everything from the electronic music of Prodigy and the “Hard-Knock Life” of Jay-Z, to the shock rock of Marilyn Manson.
With their parents they would hear the pervasive sounds of Ahmad Zahir’s ruminations on an illusive dark-eyed love, while with their friends they would listen to Thom Yorke’s anti-hero anthems.