Musicians Struggling To
Classical Heritage After Taliban
Radio Free Europe /
Decades of war and the Taliban's five-year ban
on music took their toll on Afghan classical music.
Musicians have been trying to resuscitate the art
since the end of Taliban rule. But they face serious
economic and artistic challenges -- including the
threat of possible attack by Taliban fighters if they
perform in provincial areas. Through interviews and
field recordings, RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz
has documented attempts to revive Afghan music since
the collapse of the Taliban regime nearly four years
Kabul, 11 November 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Three warring
Afghan militia factions in Wardak Province put their
disputes aside long enough in early 2002 to celebrate
a feast together in the district of Chak.
Hundreds gathered to hear the first performance
there of Afghanistan's national dance, the "Atan-i-Mili,"
since the Taliban silenced music five years earlier.
But only one elderly musician was found to play a
double-sided Afghan drum called a dhol. There were no
others to play the complex rhythmical counterpoints of
the dance. And there was no one to play the
traditional melody on the raspy, flute-like surnai. It
was a sparse sound testifying to the state of music in
southern Afghanistan immediately after Taliban rule.
Instead, militia fighters fired their AK-47s to the
drumbeat in the way Western DJs use old records to
perform "scratch" rhythms.
Within two years, after many Afghan musicians
returned from lives as refugees in neighboring
Pakistan and Iran, the sound of a full group playing
the Atan-i-Mili would be common in Afghanistan again.
Life today remains difficult and dangerous for
Afghan musicians. An ethnic Turkmen singer named
Quarab Nazar was gunned down recently along with six
of his backing group after performing at a wedding
party in northern Jowzjan Province. Police say the
attackers were Taliban fighters. The Taliban also is
blamed for other recent attacks against musicians in
the south and east of the country.
Still, classical Afghan musicians want to breath
life back into their heritage after decades of war and
Afghan music is an oral tradition. Students can
trace the lineage of their knowledge through their
teachers directly to the ancient masters. Folk
melodies and the poetry of the ancient Afghan royal
courts merged with elements of northern India's
classical music in the 1860s when Afghan ruler Amir
Sher Ali Khan brought Hindustani masters to Kabul as
court musicians. So Hindustani and Afghan music are
cousins, but with their own unique characteristics.
As an oral tradition, young Afghan musicians are
meant to take tutelage for years under a single master
-- an "ustad," whose pupils become their legacy.
Those oral traditions were uprooted along with the
millions of Afghans displaced by war and factional
fighting during the 1980s and '90s. Ustads and their
students were separated as they joined the throngs of
refugees fleeing to Pakistan or Iran. Musicians who
remained in Afghanistan faced repression by some
mujahedin factions as early as 1992. The Taliban
broadened the restrictions into a total ban against
performing or listening to music.
One classical master who stayed in Afghanistan
through all those years is Attiqullah Sangin. Now in
his late 50s, he has played an Afghan lute -- called a
rabab -- since he was 12 years old.
Considered the national instrument of Afghanistan,
the rabab was the lute of the ancient royal courts.
Its neck and body are carved from a single piece of
hollowed wood. A tiny ivory or camel bone bridge rests
on the face of the instrument, which is covered with
the skin of a goat.
As a teenager, Sangin studied under Afghanistan's
most famous 20th-century rabab virtuoso -- Ustad
Mohammad Omar. Ustad Omar died in 1980 without
witnessing the havoc wreaked against Afghan music.
Sangin now is among a handful of musicians who carried
direct knowledge from the revered rabab master through
those turbulent times. He says the Taliban era was the
most difficult as an artist.
"They would certainly punish me if they found out I
was practicing or even listening to recordings,"
Sangin said. "Most of our musicians and singers went
to Pakistan and Iran during those years. Fewer people
remained here in Afghanistan. So we were not thinking
much about music anymore. The Taliban had stopped
music -- even in the context of [improvisational
Sangin watched the Taliban's "morality and virtue"
police lock musicians into metal cargo containers
because of their musical training. He says the Taliban
would not hesitate to kill a musician caught
performing or practicing an instrument.
"It was very hard for me. Music is like fire. If
you just keep blowing air onto it, it will be fresh.
Otherwise, it will soon die out," Sangin said. "During
the whole five years, I left my rabab hanging from an
arch. I couldn't play it [publicly] because I was
afraid. My entire house had been destroyed [in earlier
fighting]. We were staying in another house that we
had rented. So it was impossible to practice [in that
building without the risk of being punished]."
Still, Sangin says his need to play music was so
strong that he sometimes risked death in order to
practice in secluded places.
"Secretly I used to play. You know, one can't just
practice rabab in only five minutes," Sangin said. "It
is an instrument that requires a lot of practice -- at
least an hour or so at a time. Anyway, I was
practicing sometimes. But only in secrecy so that I
would not get into any trouble."
The rabab Sangin now plays is a masterpiece of
workmanship that narrowly escaped destruction by the
Taliban. It is one of just three instruments from the
old Radio Kabul collection that was not smashed by the
Taliban. It was hidden -- literally buried beneath the
ground for years -- along with a harmonium and a dhol
that also survived.
Mohammad Rasul was a production engineer at Radio
Kabul when the Taliban destroyed the other instruments
-- including an expensive piano that had been rebuilt
by an Afghan master craftsman during the 1960s.
By keeping secret his skills and aspirations as a
classically trained tambur player, he managed to keep
his job when the Taliban transformed Radio Kabul into
the Voice of Shari'a.
"At that time, I used to record songs without
instruments -- national Islamic songs. So I worked
here [for Voice of Shari'a]," Rasul said. "I didn't
become a refugee. I didn't go anywhere. So I stayed
here. I've done my work under any regime -- any
government. It is my country. I'm not afraid of
anything except God. I have served my country and my
Rasul practices the song "Let's Go to Mazar, Mullah
Momad Jan" on his tambur in the former Radio Kabul
studios, now owned by Radio Afghanistan. The
instrument is similar in size and shape to a sitar.
But on closer examination, rather than the raised
metal frets of an Indian sitar, the tambur's frets are
fashioned from strands of animal gut tied around the
Like a sitar, there are also about dozen
"sympathetic" strings. They are tuned to the
traditional Afghan melody and vibrate without being
touched, ringing from the harmonic overtones within
the resonating chamber.
Rasul wears a metal plectrum on his right index
finger to pluck the main melody strings using a
technique similar to a sitar player.
Sangin the rabab master recalls a feeling of
disbelief when he got together with other musicians to
play for the first time after the collapse of the
"The first thing I did was to shave my beard. We
had all been forced to grow long beards under the
Taliban," Sangin said. "Then, three days after the
Taliban left Kabul, I went to the studios of Kabul
Radio. I found out that [the singer] Aziz Gaznawi was
the head of the radio. And there was Nairez and Mudeer
Rasool. Altogether, there were about five or six
people there -- [and four of us were musicians.] We
started to perform for some radio programs. It was
like dreaming. When we first sat in front of a
microphone, we thought we were still dreaming. Four
musicians playing together! We felt like we were
coming back to life again!"
Sangin says the freedom to play music has rekindled
interest in the rabab among young Afghans. But he is
concerned about the future of other classical Afghan
"Right now, the situation with musicians is very
good [compared to the time of the Taliban]. But we
don't have enough singers," Sangin said. "Those
singers we had have become old. Many of our ustads
have died. Our [traditional] music is not getting any
encouragement. Young people are mostly interested in
Western music. They are not very interested in our
He is especially concerned about the future in
Afghan music of an instrument called the dilruba -- a
bowed string instrument with a haunting, mournful
"We no longer have many masters. So many ustads
have died," Sangin said. "Some of them left [the
country and have not returned]. We only have one
master dilruba player in Afghanistan right now, and he
is old. When he dies, all that [knowledge] will be
Some of the old masters who survived by moving to
the West are returning to pass on their knowledge.
Among them is the famous tabla player Ustad Mohammad
Asef. He is in his 60s and has lived in London for the
past 14 years. Now, he has returned to his homeland to
teach music for one year at Kabul University. Younger
musicians also are returning with music they studied
in places like Peshawar, Pakistan.
But many find their houses have been destroyed. And
the income for musicians in Afghanistan often is
barely enough to pay rent.
One man from a musical family who has found success
in Kabul after returning from Pakistan is Ahmad Shah
Ayubi. He is the son of the late Ustad Mohammad Ayubi
-- a famous Afghan harmonium maker from Kabul who
rebuilt the piano at Radio Kabul that was eventually
destroyed by the Taliban.
Ahmad Shah Ayubi continues his father's trade --
building and repairing harmoniums and other
instruments at a shop he set up recently in the mostly
destroyed musician's quarter of Kabul's old city. He
says the repair business has been particularly good in
the aftermath of the Taliban.
"I have repaired maybe 500 harmoniums here [in
Kabul] and in Pakistan," Ayubi said. "I was in
Pakistan [until] two years ago. Most people took their
harmoniums with them to Pakistan [when they left
Afghanistan]. So I repaired them there. And when we
returned from Pakistan, I opened this shop here [in
Kabul.] I like my business. And most Afghan people
like music -- especially the harmonium."
Ayubi's confidence in the future is bolstered by
the presence of his oldest son at the shop. His son is
learning in the traditional way about harmoniums and
other instruments -- and he is absorbing the classical
Afghan melodies that his father plays.
(Mustafa Sediqi of RFE/RL's Afghan Service
contributed to this story from Kabul and Prague.)