Afghanistan: The talibans have banned all music

Speech by Mr. Naim Majrouh, at the 1st Freemuse World conference in 1998

 Ladies and Gentlemen!

In the last 20 years due to war, political and social instability, disorder and lawlessness many aspects of our culture have been devastated. Museums have been looted, libraries have been burned, important and valuable books and documents destroyed or sold in the neighbouring countries. The contents of Afghan National Archives have disappeared and the music has been banned. The musicians were forced to leave the country. As a whole the rich cultural heritage of Afghanistan is in danger of disappearance and destruction and talents are being wasted.

According to the theme of this conference “Music and Censorship”, I would like to focus only on one aspect of our cultural devastation, which is the Afghan music. Here I will share with you some information and ideas about the glorious past and the present tragic situation of music in our country.

The history of music in Afghanistan is deeply rooted in the Arian civilisation of the city of Balkh in northern Afghanistan, centuries before Christ, that started from Regvida Religious Songs.

After the introduction of Islam to Afghanistan, schools of Sufism were established that mixed music with religion. Eight hundred years back Maulana Salaluddin Balkhi (Rumi) has established the Mulavia School of Sufism worshipping Allah with music and dance. He has repeatedly mentioned Rebab (one of the oldest music instruments) in his poems. Kwaja Mohenoddin Chushti of Chust of Herat in western Afghanistan has created the Chushtia school that worship Allah with music and songs which is later called Qawwali in India. The Sufi’s schools of thought were introduced to northern India under the Mongol and Afghan Khilgi, Lodi and Suri dynasties.

Classical Indian music was elevated to a height by Amir Khusran Balkhi who is considered the inventor of modern Sitar and Tabla. He has invented Rags and Tals of which one is particular for Pashtu music. According to some sources of information the Afghan Rubab was converted into Sarod by a Pashtun settler, among whose descendant is modern India’s most celebrated Sarod player, the great Amjad Ali Khan.

In the 19th century during the rule of Amir Sher Ali Khan classical music was introduced to the upper class of Afghan society. The Amir invited a group of Indian musicians to Kabul in order to promote classical Indian music and to train Afghan musicians. Their presence was viewed by many Afghan musicians as a challenge and efforts in the form of cultural re- awakening started. From this time of our history besides traditional music a cell of Indian classical music was established which was called “Kharabat”. While the concept of Kharabat is rooted in our classical literature it has a broader meaning rather than simply the name of a musical house or cell.

During the rule of King Zahir Shah (1933-1973) Radio Afghanistan was established which played a crucial role in promoting the culture of folk music. Two other main centres were created and developed namely “Logari” in the south of Kabul and the Malang Jan (national poet and composer) School in Ningarhar in the East.

The famous composers, singers and musicians of past time were Khalifa Qurban, Ustad Qasim, Ustad Gholam Housain, Ustad Natu, Ustad Nabigul, Ustad Mohammad Omar and Ustad Mirac. And the later time Ustad Durai (the founder of modern Logari music), Merman Parwin, Ustad Mahwash, Ustad Zaland, Ustad Awal Mir (the singer of the unofficial anthem), Ustad Sar Ahang (the crown of classical music), Ustad Ayoub, the Elves of Afghanistan Ahmad Zahir etc. Great composers such as Nainawas and Zakhel have composed many famous songs and trained many singers.Kabul Television (opened in 1977) played a vital role in the development of Afghan culture and music.

Unfortunately the downfall of music started after the Communist coup of 1978. The Communist regime has corrupted the music culture by implementing the Soviet style of music and dance for the sake of pleasure and not as an aspect of culture. They were organising music and national dance shows in Kabul Television performed by teenage girls and boys recruited from schools. Selected pretty girls were invited to special parties of alcoholic drink and prostitute dance for the pleasure of high-ranking officials. Family members who prevented their children from attending such parties were either arrested or killed. Female musicians were forced to prostitution as well. A number of musicians who were not singing the Communist slogans were arrested or forced to leave the country. The great composer Nainawas was executed and famous singer Ahmad Zahir arrested and apparently killed in a car accident in 1979.

The music further suffered by the attitude of Islamic extremists within the resistance. A ban on music first started by the extremist resistance groups during the Russian invasion of Afghanistan. Shouting the slogans of international Muslim brotherhood they started banning people from exercising their cultural traditions and customs. Those defending the country’s national interests were marked as nationalist infidels charged like the Communists. Afghan musicians in exile were banned from performing music and were threatened. Female singers Bakht Zamina and Khan Qarabaghai were killed in Kabul.

After the fall of Kabul the so-called Mujahideen leaders’ council decided the first official censorship on music in April 1992. On the first days when they entered Kabul while watching television in the palace they criticised the appearance of women newscasters. The council ordered the female staff to wear Islamic clothes (cover themselves). Next evening when the council members were watching a television programme the female newscaster appeared in Islamic dress with covered head and arms. Most of the council members said that she looked prettier than before. A fanatic member of the council has suggested that she should turn her back to the camera or not appear at all. As a result women and music was eliminated from Kabul Radio and Television. But later on some Mujahideen marches were mixed up with musical instruments.

Music for the people was censored but musicians were forced by the high-ranking officials to perform music at girls prostitute dancing parties for men only. In July 1994 when Gulbodin Hekmatyar entered the city of Kabul as Prime Minister of Rabani a total ban on music in radio, television, restaurants, shops etc. was ordered and cinema theatres were closed. When the Taliban religious militia took over in 1995 they did not only ban music but also executed TV sets by hanging them from electric poles in major intersections. They started searching vehicles to confiscate and destroy music cassettes.

Because the Taliban consider music to be against Islam then television, movies, videotapes and even pictures are seen to be against Islamic morals, codes and values. Although there are some groups within the Taliban’s ranks that are not against music. However for the time being all of them try their best to maintain unity and avoid division and differences in order to achieve the final goal which is total victory over the opposition.

For this very purpose they share a common position regarding the issues of music, women’s rights and education. Related to music there are some grounds and reasons for Taliban’s position. The Afghan traditional, classical as well as folkloric music was negatively affected by Indian and Pakistani movies and music cassettes made only for commercial purposes and were imported to Afghan markets. Under the Communist regime and so-called Mujahideen government, music and dance was misused for immoral and improper purposes. Thus, they brought music and national dance from a position of being an important part of tradition and culture to being instruments of improper pleasure. However in relation to music the Taliban should re-consider their position. Because there is no clear indication pro or against music in Islam.

“The Holy Prophet Mohammad (POBH) was once on a journey with a caravan of camels. A woman on a camel back was singing. The Prophet called the woman by name and asked her not to sing and said that the camels will travel faster and they will be unable to travel enough the next day. The Prophet Mohammad was in a place where a wedding was going on nearby and women were singing.He was lying down with his face covered when Abubarker Sedig (the first Khalif) came in and called on the women not to sing. The Prophet rose his head and said to Abubarker to let them sing because it is a wedding.”

(from Imam Mohammad Zekria Reni)

Culturally the Afghan music is cheerful and part of national and individual pride. When you listen to musicians in Kabul or in the countryside you will find a variety of music that reflects the culture of various regions. Their songs and melodies are full of excitement. The classical Afghan music is the return of music from India that carries religious considerations too.

Therefore music is a vital part of the Afghan culture and traditions. Without it the Afghan nation will loose its cultural identity. Traditional dance such as “Atan” performed during weddings and other ceremonies or collective work and folkloric poems “Landai” and “Char Baiti” which distinguish the Afghan culture from the rest of the world will also be lost. Because the short two-sentence poems called Landai (Shorty) made mostly by women play a major role in describing every aspect of Afghan life from war to love and from criticism to politics. During the Afghan-British war a single Landai said by a brave Afghan woman (Malalai) changed the nature of the war and turned the retreating Afghan army into a victorious one.

Ban on music has drastic effects on weddings and other celebrations, the art of production of musical instruments and the life of the musicians and the cultural heritage. Lack of music is slowly turning the Afghan people into a dead nation, their weddings and funerals are performed in the same manner.

Censorship on music has increased the people’s desire for music – they discreetly listen to music in their private homes. In villages where there are lesser Taliban influence people openly listen to music and celebrate weddings and other ceremonies with music. Folk music in these areas is still alive in its original tradition but the situation in the cities is tragic.

A life without Afghani music is impossible, an alternative solution is found called the Taliban songs. The Taliban songs or marches are songs without musical instruments. It mostly consists of national poems describing the situation or criticising the deeds of the opposition or concern stories of Jihad (the holy war against foreign invaders and their puppets). The Taliban songs are composed based on the famous Afghan songs with traditional melodies that are sold widely in Afghanistan.

Music cassettes and videotapes are smuggled into Afghanistan from Pakistan, India and Dubai for black marketing and are available everywhere like drugs in the West. So far no reports of arrests and punishment in this regard have been received. Taliban young people discreetly listen to music cassettes and even some times watch videotapes of folk music. Radio stations such as Kabul, Herat, Kandahar, Paktia, Pul-e-Khomri, Ningarhar and Mazar-e-Sharif follow a total ban on music. These stations broadcast only the Taliban songs besides news and other programs.

In Afghanistan the ban on music is not only a cultural disaster but also the lives of thousands of artists and musicians have been threatened. Musicians living in Taliban controlled areas have to live very low profile as ordinary people or leave the country. In areas under the control of the opposition they face security problems. A large number of Afghan musicians live in Pakistan but only a limited number of professional musicians have the chance to financially support their families. They have to compose music according to the market demand or the demands of the person who pays them. Poor musicians after late night performances at weddings often have to share their income with the Pakistani police officials on night duties.

Unfortunately the Afghan music in exile is influenced by foreign culture and it is going to loose the traditional composition of the genuine melodies. Poor economy, lack of qualified composers, lack of good music instrument players and lack of a studio of their own is resulting in the Afghan music gradually loosing its original style. The classical Afghan music is slowly disappearing.

A small number of Afghan musicians who managed to get to the West have had to adopt themselves to playing keyboards due to the lack of music instrument players. An increasing number of young amateur musicians or entertainers perform music in every Afghan community in the West. A small number of them with good talents manage to keep the tradition of the music culture alive but most of them lack the skill to compose new songs. A common problem is that they steal or copy songs and tend toward the dance music with keyboards and lack respect for the Afghan music principles.

Realising the current tragic situation and for the purpose of reviving the culture of music the Afghan Information Center (AIC) is going to open a recording studio in Peshawar where a large number of Afghan musicians live in very poor conditions. The studio will rehabilitate the culture of the Afghan music with the genuine melodies played with traditional music instruments. This project called “Afghan Folk Music” will provide the musicians with financial support in exchange for music recordings. Besides that the late Professor Majrooh (founder of the AIC) started to collect popular songs during the war of liberty. AIC continued collecting those songs after his assassination in Peshawar in 1989. The center has managed to collect about 1500 hours of songs with and without musical instruments.

In order to achieve this goal in spite of financial limitations, I personally managed to purchase some digital recording equipment in USA and transfer them to Peshawar. This time again I am carrying a big load of necessary equipment to Peshawar. This would serve as a first step for our goal which is free Radio Broadcasting for Afghanistan.

We Afghans respectfully expect all concerned people of the world to pledge their support in any category or magnitude to cover the expenses that may be required to fulfil this dream and do a great service to a nation that once had a very proud place in the international community.

Thank you.

Mr. Naim Majrouh, director of the Afghan Information Center, editor in chief of Afghanistan Quarterly, USA.

1st Freemuse World Conference On Music and Censorship

The 1st Freemuse World Conference on Music and Censorship was held in Copenhagen, Denmark, in November 1998. Among the participants were musicians, reseachers, human rights activists and journalists from all over the world.

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