Afghanistan allowed western researchers
access only in the early 1960s. In the brief window between then
and 1978, only three other western scholars did extensive fieldwork
in music. Hiromi Lorraine Sakata was the first, doing her M.A.
research (accompanied by Tom Sakata, for the University of Washington)
in Central Afghanistan in 1966-67 before I arrived. She returned
for doctoral work, eventually publishing Music in the Mind: The
Concepts of Music and Musician in Afghanistan in 1983 (2d printing:
Smithsonian, 2003), and the husband-wife team of John Baily and
Veronica Doubleday, who focused on the music of the city of Herat
in the mid-1970s, resulting in Music of Afghanistan: Professional
Musicians in the City of Herat (Cambridge University Press, 1988)
and Three Women of Herat (University of Texas Press, 1990) respectively.
But as of September 1967, virtually nothing useful had been
written about the musics of Afghanistan in any western language
(or locally), and only a handful of sparsely- or dubiously-annotated
recordings had appeared. The many European travelers' accounts
from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries occasionally
mentioned music, sometimes informatively, but usually disparagingly.
I might have benefited from Sakata's fieldwork knowledge, but
in the days before e-mail, I had no way of contacting her; we
did not meet until 1971. So I had no idea of what types of musical
instruments, genres, contexts, and social roles existed anywhere
In short, I was doing classic terra incognita research. It
was normal, even desirable, in 1960s ethnomusicology for a graduate
student to cover entirely new ground, planting the flag for science,
to use an imperialist metaphor that was not totally inapt. Afghanistan
was ideal: music was still local and isolated.
Roads were terrible through the 1960s, allowing for the survival
of local or microregional styles. Media exposure to even local,
let alone world commercial music, was very limited. The one radio
station in the country, Radio
Afghanistan, had only extended its broadcast range nationwide
in the 1950s. The main competition in my region, the North, were
the single, state-controlled stations of the Soviet republics-Turkmenistan,
Uzbekistan, Tajikistan--and possibly neighboring Iran. A few
open-reel tape recorders allowed minor circulation of other musics,
mostly the songs of the Hindi films that were the mainstay of
the few local cinemas. My fieldnotes from the remote town of
Andkhoi foreshadowed the impact of audiocassettes in the early
1970s: "I asked Mowlanqul about taped music blasted over PA systems
from teahouses. He said the practice started twelve years ago.
Someone brought a recorder from Kabul and everyone was amazed,
so everybody got them and it became commonplace. The tapes we
hear in the hotel are 4-5 years old, showing exactly zero stylistic
change since then, and he says twelve years ago it was the same."
At Radio Afghanistan, they asked me to do a program explaining the
Beatles, whom people had vaguely heard about but did not
understand. Having the only copy in the country of Sergeant
Pepper made me an authority, and I overcame my worries about
contaminating the music culture I wanted to study; listeners
were willing to join the transnational music world without
my help. By the time of my last visit, in 1972, young bands
of Filipinos, some of whom worked for Americans, were playing
rock at the new restaurants like the Marco Polo. This was an "emerging" and "developing," peaceful,
stable nation-state operating democratically under a constitutional
monarchy and tiptoeing onto the world scene. Foreigners spread
across the countryside: French, German, and American Peace
Corps units, east German, Czech, Polish, and Dutch technical
advisors, UN and USAID colonies, and an Englishman telling
Radio Afghanistan how to do standard modern programming. One
day, I met John Donne, the advisor, in the radio archives.
He was searching for a march so the station could have a proper
Afghan musicians, and even most officials, were curious, sometimes
bemused, and helpful. Traditions of hospitality remained intact
and the government saw to it that foreigners were as secure as
possible. The Acknowledgements section of the book lists just
some of the people who made it possible for me to gather the
material on this site and to try to understand the many cultures
of Afghanistan, but there are many more people who explained
things and shared my love for the folk musics of the country.
The Fate of Music
In 1973, the King, Zahir Shah, was deposed by his brother-in-law
and rival Daud, who was then assassinated and replaced by a small
communist clique. When fierce backlash pushed that group to the
edge of annihilation, the geriatric Soviet leadership decided
to invade rather than cut its losses, plunging Afghanistan into
22 years of resistance, civil war among the militias that ousted
the Soviet army, supported by various foreign powers, the rule
of the authoritarian Taliban, and an American invention in 2001
that placed a new western-supported leadership into power, with
an uncertain future. Through all this time of dark upheaval,
nearly a majority of the population fled to refugee camps in
neighboring Iran and Afghanistan.
Music-making, so strongly tied to celebration, fell to the
most marginal status. John Baily continued to document its survival,
most vividly in his well-received ethnographic film Amir: The
Life of an Afghan Refugee Musician. The film, set in Peshawar,
Pakistan, recounts how he reconnected with a musician-friend
from the faraway Afghan city of Herat. Baily also saliently summarized
the crushing of Afghan music under the heel of the Taliban in
the period 1996-2001 (Baily 2001), and at the end of 2002, he
visited Kabul to help with the reconstruction of Afghan musical
life under the Karzai government.
Baily’s film A Kabul Music Diary (2003) and a film by Simon Broughton for BBC, Breaking the Silence: Music in Afghanistan (2002), document the early phases of music reconstruction in Afghanistan. More recently, Hiromi Lorraine Sakata, the third early major scholar of Afghan music, has helped to arrange for the digitization of the Radio Afghanistan music archive. It was thought to have been destroyed by the Taliban, but it turned out that the staff managed to save this main treasurehouse of Afghan musical heritage from pre-war times.
In 2006, a young Turkmen named Noor Mohammad Quyash from the city of Shiberghan contacted me about this website and I asked him to send an update on music there. His initial report is attached as a pdf file, describing the recent revival of celebrations in the town of Qizil Ayaq, where I had done substantial collecting under the aegis of the local spiritual and temporal leader, the Qizil Ayaq Khalifa, in 1968. It would be wonderful to receive more communications like this as the always fluid political, social, and cultural situation of Afghan music evolves.
Information about Qizil Ayak Village