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Afghanistan: Musicians Struggling To Keep Country's Classical Traditions Alive

Afghanistan's classical music traditions have been traced back to the 1860s, when Afghan ruler Amir Sher Ali Khan invited Indian artists to become court musicians in Kabul. Over time, classical music in Afghanistan evolved into a form of its own and is now considered to be a cousin of the Hindustani traditions of northern India. But during five years of Taliban rule, these Afghan traditions were threatened with extinction. RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz speaks to one Kabul musician who managed to study the musical heritage of his country during the Taliban era and who, like many Afghan musicians today, wants to ensure that the fragile traditions take root again.

Kabul, 1 April 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Thirty-five-year-old Ghoussuddin is a stone engraver by profession. He sells chess boards and small artifacts that he carves from his dark, gritty shop in central Kabul. He says business is not very good -- certainly not enough to meet the monthly rent for his tiny space.

On the wall next to his wares is an exquisitely carved wooden lute called a "rabab." Ghoussuddin modestly calls himself an amateur on the stringed instrument. But when he picks it up and begins to play, his business concerns disappear. His face changes. He seems to become a different person.

Afghan classical music -- especially the music of the rabab -- is Ghoussuddin's passion. He plays the opening of a song called "Daz Ma Zeba Watan" -- a well-known Afghan song that literally means "It Is Our Ancestors' Country.”

The rabab is the national instrument of Afghanistan. It was played in the ancient royal courts of the land and is considered a precursor to the Indian sarod -- which, along with the sitar, is one of India's most important classical instruments.

Both the neck and the body of the rabab are made from a single piece of hollowed wood. A tiny wooden bridge rests on the face of the instrument, which is covered with the skin of a goat.

The three main strings of the rabab are plucked with a wooden plectrum to produce a melody. And like the Indian sitar, the rabab has about a dozen sympathetic strings mounted beside the melody strings. With the exception of an occasional harplike strum, the sympathetic strings are rarely touched. They vibrate on their own as a result of the harmonic tones inside the wooden body when a melody is being played.

Sitting on a carpet in the back of his shop, Ghoussuddin turns his head to the left as his right hand plucks a complex rhythm. His eyes are closed. As his head sways from side to side, he appears to work himself into a trance.

When asked about his frame of mind while playing, Ghoussuddin tells RFE/RL that the music is transcendental.

"Playing the rabab refreshes the soul. It has a magic power. It is simply intoxicating. That is why we go into a silent state of mind [when performing the music]," he says.

Afghan psychiatrist Babrak Hessari agrees that the rabab is beneficial to Afghans who hear its sound. Hessari works at a psychiatric clinic in the northern Afghan town of Jabul Saraj that is funded by the U.S.-based humanitarian aid group International Orphan Care.

Hessari told RFE/RL he uses the music of the rabab to help orphaned Afghan children cope with post-traumatic stress disorder.

"I can say that psychologically [the sound of the rabab helps] people who are under pressure. They can, for example, forget their sorrows and their grievances when they are listening to the music. It is important in Afghanistan. Psychologically, it is very important for their health because when a person has mental problems -- for example, depression or some kind of neurosis -- when they listen to the music, they will gradually treat themselves," Hessari.

Ghoussuddin says he thinks it is the intoxicating quality of traditional Afghan instruments that led the Taliban to ban music during its five-year rule. For a tradition that remains relatively overlooked by international music companies -- particularly in comparison to the popularity of classical Indian music -- the Taliban's ban was crippling.

As in India, classical Afghan music theory is an oral tradition. Students learn to vocalize rhythms and melodies by speaking musical phrases as verbal patterns. In this way, they internalize the music before trying to play a complex song on an instrument.

The Taliban's ban brought an end to such instruction in Afghanistan. The musical traditions were kept alive during the Taliban years mostly because of special music courses taught by Afghan refugees in places like Peshawar, Pakistan.

Ghoussuddin is among the generation of Afghan musicians who developed their talents in Pakistan. He says that, before the Taliban came to power, he was studying rabab for about one year under the famous Afghan musician Ustad Ghulam Hussain Khan. Khan, in turn, received his musical training from Afghanistan's most famous 20th-century rabab player, the late Ustad Mohammad Omar. Both Ghoussuddin and his teacher fled to Peshawar when the Taliban came to power.

"My teacher was there [in Pakistan]. I was in a place called Andar Sher [in Peshawar], and the [Afghan] musical courses were in [another part of Peshawar called] Takal. I used to go there to hear the one-hour lectures because I was interested in learning the rabab. And now that the Taliban are gone, my teacher has come back to [the Afghan capital], and I am continuing my lessons from [Kabul]," Ghoussuddin says.

Although Ghoussuddin is not playing professional concerts, his knowledge of the rabab supplements the income from his shop. He has two Western students who live and work in Kabul and who give him $100-$150 a month for lessons. That income helped him to keep his shop open through the winter.

Despite his business concerns, Ghoussuddin says life has been much better since the collapse of the Taliban regime.

"I am happy now that I can play my instrument freely. Nobody disturbs me. Everybody [who hears Afghan musicians play] is proud of us and wants us to improve this art form in order to strengthen our traditional culture. So we are very happy about having this freedom," Ghoussuddin says.

He says he and other musicians he knows are determined to continue studying Afghan music in the future -- regardless of any financial benefits -- because they want to preserve one of Afghanistan's unique artistic traditions.

Afghanistan's Musical Revival

Afghanistan's Musical Revival

BACK IN THE GROOVE 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...(more)


View slideshow of Afghan musicians. RealVideo