Human Rights for Musicians – Researching ‘Can You Stop The Birds Singing?’

30 January 2009



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John Baily
Professor at Goldsmiths,
University of London, UK


When in 2000 Marie Korpe first asked me to write a report on music censorship in Afghanistan, I was not keen. I had been in Pakistan recently, and applied to the Afghan Consulate for a visa, a request which was refused. I realised the photo I had submitted was wrong, I was clean-shaven and sporting a loud check golfing jacket. Writing for Freemuse was not going to help me with the next visa request. But I changed my mind some weeks later when I was in Switzerland to introduce a group of exiled musicians at a series of concerts, describing what they did as “the music you cannot hear in Afghanistan today.” And at one concert I received from a Herati living in Switzerland news of how two of my former music teachers in Herat had recently been arrested and savagely beaten. So I agreed to work with Freemuse.

No systematic research was involved in writing this report. I based it in part on my knowledge of music in Afghanistan acquired from twoand- a-half years of field research in the 1970s, mainly in Herat. This formed the base-line against which to measure the effects of the outlawing of music and musicians. I had visited Herat again in 1994, in the Coalition period, when music making was severely constrained, though not banned entirely. There were John Simpson’s remarkable BBC television reports from Kabul, Kate Clark’s BBC radio reports, especially concerning the clandestine popularity of the film Titanic.

I had first hand testimony from two Afghan friends, one in San Diego, the other in Dublin. The first had been in Herat at the time of a public burning of musical instruments, and his evidence was corroborated after the publication of my report by a cutting he sent me from the local Herati newspaper. There was Ahmad Rashid’s book Taliban, Islam, Oil and the New Great Game in Central Asia, which reproduced some of the Taliban edicts, including those concerning music, and I had a number of newspaper cuttings, some from English languages papers in Pakistan, provided by a UN contact in Islamabad. On the basis of this “rag-bag of old research, newspaper clippings, academic sources personal contacts and others,” I wrote my report, illustrated with a CD of recordings, including two Taliban taranas. In my report I was keen to explain why for many Afghans the Taliban at least provided security after a period of extreme chaos and lawlessness. I was also interested to draw parallels between Taliban attitudes to music and those of George Fox, the founder of The Society of Friends (The Quakers).

When “Can you stop the birds singing?” was launched in the spring of 2001 I had every expectation that the Taliban would remain in power in Kabul for the foreseeable future, with dire consequences for the music culture of Afghanistan. The unexpected change in the political horizon that took place at the end of 2001 meant, amongst other things, that a lot more information became available about the censorship of music under Taliban rule, and the continuing censorship of music in many parts of the country. I made periodic visits to Kabul after 2002 and have updated my account in “Music and Censorship in Afghanistan, 1973-2003”, in Laudan Nooshin’s forthcoming Music and the Play of Power: Music, Politics and Ideology in the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia (Ashgate). Today, the situation remains fluid, there is plenty of musical activity in the major cities like Kabul, Kandahar, Herat and Mazar, but in many rural areas one suspects that music is tightly controlled by local “warlords”.

Several matters remain unclear and require further research. For example, according to Taliban edict 13 “To prevent the playing of music drum. The prohibition of this should be announced. If anybody does this then the religious elders can decide about it” (the English is the Taliban’s own). I had assumed this referred to the frame drum (daireh), very much an instrument of women’s domestic music in Afghanistan, but now I think it referred to the dohol, a double-headed barrel drum used to play rhythms for the Atan dance, a virtuosic and high energy outdoor group performance strongly associated with the Pashtun peoples. When I visited the frame drum seller in Kabul’s old city in 2002 I was told that the frame drum had been banned by the Taliban. A year later, in the same shop, I was assured that this drum had not been banned, because, according to tradition, Prophet Mohammad is said to have sanctioned its use on a festive occasion.

I would also like to know more about the Taliban taranas, their socalled “chants”, which to my ears sound very like traditional Pashtun folk songs, performed without musical instruments, and using religious texts. No doubt there is a “musical” aesthetic which can be applied to this singing, and it is known that certain professional singers of popular music were made to record such songs for the radio. Radio Afghanistan has retained the archive of sound recordings made during Taliban times, and no doubt these contain many lessons for the researcher of music censorship.

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  Click to go to Introduction
Click to go to Part I
Click to go to Part II
Click to go to Appendices
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