Freemuse report on censorship of music in Afghanistan


John Baily
“Can you stop the birds singing?” – The censorship
of music in Afghanistan

Freemuse, Copenhagen, April 2001, ISSN 1601-2127

Dr. John Baily is a reader in Ethnomusicology at Goldsmiths College, London, and one of the worlds’ leading experts on Afghan music.

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The hard copy comes with a CD containing ten examples of some of the genres of music and religious singing mentioned in the report.

Here you can listen to three excerpts from this CD (RealAudio):



Click to listen
Music from Kabul
Vocal with ´armonia, delruba and tabla. Illustrates the art music Ghazal style very well, with complex rhythmic fluctuations and tempo changes.
Recorded off air, Radio Afghanistan, 1973.

Click to listen
Local song
Performed in the radio style by a woman radio singer with ´armonia, rubab, dutar and tabla. The mode is Bairami and the metre Gedeh.
Ramazan concert, 1977.

Click to listen
Taliban chant
Two singers, heavy delay and reverberation.
The mode is like Pari, the metre Dadra.
The melody has two parts. The text talks about Taliban commitment to Islam, about Taliban readiness for sacrifice for their country, and addresses several Taliban who have died for the cause.
About 1998.

About the CD, John Baily writes:

“The CD that supports the report is simply intended to provide examples of some of the genres of music and of religious singing that are mentioned in the text. Some basic information about each item is provided, but the names of the performers are not given (in some cases are not even known). For most items the melodic mode (rag) and metric cycle (tal) are identified, even though these concepts may be alien to the performers themselves. Details of Afghan music theory can by found in Baily (1988).
The first four examples were recorded off air from Radio Afghanistan in Kabul in 1973, using a low-budget radio/cassette unit of the kind available to many Afghans at the time, and therefore represent exactly the kind of music widely listened to the radio audience in Afghanistan. Several items stem from my fieldwork, while the two Taliban examples come from audio cassettes from Pakistan, and represent exactly what the careful car driver puts on when approaching a road check point.”


The people of Afghanistan under Taliban rule are subjected to an extreme form of music censorship. The only musical activity permitted is the singing of certain types of religious song and Taliban “chants”.
The report traces the gradual imposition of music censorship since 1978, when the communist government of Nur Ahmad Taraki came to power in a violent coup d’etat. During 14 years of communist rule, music in Afghanistan was heavily controlled by the Ministry for Information and Culture, while in the refugee camps in Pakistan and Iran all music was prohibited in order to maintain a continual state of mourning. The roots of the Taliban ban on music lie in the way these camps were run.
In the Rabbani period (1992-1996) music was again heavily censored. In the provincial city of Herat, which the author visited for seven weeks in 1994, professional musicians had to apply for a licence, which specified the kinds of material they could perform, songs in praise of the Mujahideen and songs with texts drawn from the mystical Sufi poetry of the region. This cut out a large amount of other music, such as love songs and music for dancing. The licences also stipulated that musicians must play without amplification. Music could be performed by male musicians at private parties indoors, but Herat’s women professional musicians were forbidden to perform. While in theory male musicians could perform at wedding parties or Spring country fairs, experience had shown that often in such cases the agents of the Office for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, religious police, had arrived to break up the party and confiscate the instruments, which were usually returned to the musicians some days later when a fine or bribe had been paid.
There was very little music on local radio or television in Herat. Broadcasting time was anyway severely curtailed, to about two hours per day. If a song was broadcast on television one did not see the performers on screen but a vase of flowers. Names of performers were not announced on radio or television. Instrument maker had re-opened their businesses, and the audio cassette business continued, with a number of shops in the bazaars of Herat selling music cassettes, some of locally recorded Herat musicians.
When the Taliban took control of Kabul in 1996 a number of edicts were published against music. For example:

“To prevent music… In shops, hotels, vehicles and rickshaws cassettes and music are prohibited… If any music cassette found in a shop, the shopkeeper should be imprisoned and the shop locked. If five people guarantee, the shop should be opened, the criminal released later. If cassette found in the vehicle, the vehicle and the driver will be imprisoned. If five people guarantee, the vehicle will be released and the criminal released later.
To prevent music and dances in wedding parties. In the case of violation the head of the family will be arrested and punished.
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.”

All musical instruments are banned, and when discovered by agents of the Office for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice are destroyed, sometimes being burnt in public along with confiscated audio and video cassettes, TV sets and VCRs (all visual representation of animate being is also prohibited).
The only forms of musical expression permitted today are the singing of certain kinds of religious poetry, and so-called Taliban “chants”, which are panegyrics to Taliban principles and commemorations of those who have died of the field of battle. These chants are themselves highly musical: the singing uses the melodic modes of Pashtun regional music, is nicely in tune, strongly rhythmic, and many items have the two-part song structure that is typical of the region. There is also heavy use of reverberation. But without musical instruments this is not “music”.
The effects of censorship of music in Afghanistan are deep and wide ranging for the Afghans, both inside and outside the country. In the past, the people of Afghanistan were great music lovers and enjoyed a rich musical life. Music was an integral part of many rites of passage, such as celebrations of birth, circumcision (male only), and most important of all, marriage. Only death was a rite of passage lacking in musical expression. The lives of professional musicians have been completely disrupted, and most have had to go into exile for their economic survival. The continuation of these rich musical traditions is also under treat.
The report makes the following recommendations.

(1) To highlight the critical situation as it exists today.

(2) To try to give musicians both inside and outside the country economic support, and in the transnational communities, to persuade aid agencies of the importance of music in the lives of refugees.

(3) To make sure that what is left from the past is adequately documented, so that something is left for the future.

(4) To support the craftsmen who make traditional Afghan musical instruments, for traditional music cannot be played without the appropriate instruments.

(5) To support practical musical education programmes in the transnational community and to persuade the relevant agencies of the importance of music coping with the traumas of refugee life.

Read more:

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The organiser of a concert where the singers appeared on stage without headscarves was fired after religious elders had complained that this was inappropriate
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Music Freedom Day 2011: An exiled DJ returns to Kabul, music is smuggled out from Burma, and Freemuse hands over an award to an imprisoned singer in Cameroon
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24 November 2010
Afghanistan: Bomb blast at Farhad Darya’s concert
A bomb blast at a concert by Afghanistan’s top singer held in Herat wounded at least 13 people on 14 September 2010, reported ABC News
30 September 2010
Afghanistan: Music stores have become a new target
A string of music stores have become a new target for militants suspected to be Taliban enforcers – even in once-stable havens such as Jalalabad
06 September 2010
Somalia: Al-Shabaab bans music like the Taliban
Somalia is starting to resemble Afghanistan under the Taliban, where hard-line Islamist militia bans music and movies and forbids the public from watching sports on TV
23 August 2010
Afghanistan: Protest singer forced into exile after receiving threats
Afghan singer Shakib Mosadeq dared sing songs of political protest, and was subsequently forced to leave his country, reported Global Post on 16 May 2010
17 May 2010
Afghanistan: Ban on women singers debated in Herat
A ‘Morality and Knowledge Association’ recently established in Herat wants to ban women’s voices from the airwaves, reported Jean MacKenzie and Rateb Muzhda from Herat
15 March 2010
Afghanistan and Pakistan: Understanding the Taliban’s campaign against music
Ethnomusicologist John Baily and Freemuse executive director Marie Korpe speak about the Taliban’s campaign against music and musicians in Afghanistan and Pakistan
23 June 2009
Afghanistan: Afghan idol: ‘My life is under threat’
Lima Sahar charmed her way into the third spot of the 2008 version of the wildly popular ‘Afghan Star’ competition. Now in exile, she fears for her life
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Afghanistan: Music programmes lead to arrest
0n 24 March 2009, Afghanistan’s attorney general office arrested the manager of Amroz TV because of the station’s broacast of certain music programmes
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Human Rights for Musicians – Impressions & Descriptions: Farhad Darya
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Human Rights for Musicians – Researching ‘Can You Stop The Birds Singing?’
Article by John Baily – professor at Goldsmiths, University of London, in UK
30 January 2009
Afghanistan: Musicians kidnapped by Taliban
Six Afghan musicians have been kidnapped by the Taliban for defying a ban on music
17 December 2008
Afghanistan: Short video about music and ‘community censorship’
In a short documentary video about music and ‘community censorship’ in Afghanistan, the 19-year-old Afghan singer Mariam says she gets verbal abuse all the time
14 July 2008
Afghanistan: New media restrictions according to Sharia law
A letter from the Ministry of Culture and Information stated that “everything which is against the Sharia laws should not be printed, broadcasted, audio/video telecasted”
21 April 2008
Afghanistan: Restrictions on music discussed in parliament
A commission for cultural and religious affairs in Afghanistan’s lower house of parliament suggested to impose new restrictions on music and dance performance
02 April 2008
Afghanistan: Singer becomes symbol in the struggle for music freedom
18-year-old Lima Sahar has placed herself in the middle of Afghanistan’s continous gender and music struggle. She could become the winner of the tv show ‘Afghan Star’
13 March 2008
Afghanistan: Singing ban is illegal, says governor
During Music Freedom Day 2008, governor Ata Mohammed Noor announced that he would try to solve the problem with the ban preventing male artists from singing at weddings
04 March 2008
Afghanistan – special report: The cage is singing
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25 February 2008
Aiab Gul Delshad
Video interview with the head of Afghanistan’s Music Union, who is a famous folk singer. He was arrested once, and imprisoned and tortured another time, because of two songs
25 February 2008
Aziz Ghaznawi
Video interview with an authority on music administration in Afghanistan. He talks about how music was censored within Radio Television Afghanistan
25 February 2008
Baktash Kamran
Video interview with the lead singer in Kamran Music Group. He speaks about his experiences with music prohibition during the Taliban period in 1996-2001
25 February 2008
Farhad Darya
Video interview with Afghanistan’s star singer who gives examples of songs which were censored in the period of communist parties in Afghanistan, starting from 1979
25 February 2008
Fazl-u-Rahman Wahdat
Video interview with a Pashto folk singer and board member of Afghanistan Music Union. He speaks about the problems which a praisal singer faces when a regime changes
25 February 2008
Ghazal Ahmadi
Video interview with an Afghan film actress who explains that she stopped learning how to play the guitar because it became too problematic for her
25 February 2008
Video interview with one of the singers who were forced to sing praisal songs for the Taliban regime. He speaks about his problems with music censorship in this period
25 February 2008
Safdar Tawakoli
Video interview with a Hazara folk singer who explains about his problems as a musician during the Mujahidin period where power in the capital of Afghanistan was fragmented
25 February 2008
Sahar Afarin
Video interview with a 21-year-old Afghan singer who explains how she has been discouraged from music due to pressure from many sides.
25 February 2008
Zhakfar Hussaini
Video interview with a music censor. He worked as a censor in Afghanistan Writers Association in Balkh in 1986-1992
25 February 2008
Afghanistan / UK: Film festival celebrates banned music
A film festival in Edingburgh entitled ‘Reel Afghanistan’ celebrates the Afghan art form which was banned by the Taliban: music
18 February 2008
Afghanistan: Female musicians put their lives in danger
A report from a music school in Kabul is a story about the kind of difficulties and dangers female musicians face in present day Afghanistan. They must work in secret
15 January 2008
Afghanistan: Broadcast of Colombian singer censored
A performance by the Colombian pop star Shakira has provoked a row between the Afghan government and the country’s independent media
20 November 2007
Afghanistan: Bomb hits music shop
A bomb exploded in a music shop in a small town in Eastern Afghanistan and hurt the shopkeeper
23 October 2007
Afghanistan: Famed exiled singer returned after 18 years
One of “Afghanistan’s living treasures”, Ustada Farida Mahwash stepped foot in Afghanistan for the first time in almost two decades to give a series of benefit concerts
23 October 2007
Afghanistan: Wedding musicians out of work because of religious ban
Musicians in the Balkh province are out of work since a new fatwa – a ban – was issued on wedding parties by a religious council in July 2007
30 August 2007
Afghanistan: Music download shop attacked, two killed
Two people were killed and several wounded by a bomb that exploded in a music download shop in Afghanistan’s south-eastern town of Khost on 22 April 2007
09 May 2007
Pakistan: Fear and persecution follows Afghan musicians
The fear and persecution which forced Afghan singers to leave their country now has followed them to their exile in Peshawar in Pakistan
04 April 2007
Pakistan: Fine for playing music in taxi, music shop attacked
The Taliban in Pakistan’s in tribal areas bordering Afghanistan are imposing a fine of 500 rupees for any one playing music in public, reports several news agencies
03 March 2007
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Video interview with Mirwaiss Sidiqi about the situation in Afghanistan in 2006 concerning music – and the Taliban’s religous ban on music
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Afghanistan: Fewer music prohibitions on religious grounds
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28 September 2006
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Afghanistan: Singing about women critised by imam
Afghan DJ Besho has been criticised by an influential cleric among Afghanistan’s religious élite: “Singing about women and guns is certainly not allowed.”
08 May 2006
Afghanistan: First female music performance in a decade
As the first female singer to take to the stage in Afghanistan in more than a decade, Tajik singer Maniza Daulat performed for 1,500 male fans in Kabul
25 January 2006

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