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British Ethnomusicologist: 'It Isn't Actually Correct To Say Taliban Have Banned Music'

"I hadn't severe the prohibition against music in Peshawar is today," says John Baily.
"I hadn't severe the prohibition against music in Peshawar is today," says John Baily.
Renowned British ethnomusicologist John Baily speaks to RFE/RL correspondent Abubakar Siddique about the Taliban's campaign against music and musicians in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

RFE/RL: Why are the Taliban against music, and why do they threaten musicians?

John Baily:
Well, I can't really explain why they're so against music. As you know, within the Islamic tradition there has been for many centuries a strand of thought -- but it's only one strand -- that regarded music as being an unnecessary distraction from the serious matters of life. And some think that could lead to licentious behavior and other such "bad things." So this, in my opinion, is just a strong exaggeration of that tendency which we have seen for a long time.

And, of course, the Taliban aren't the only people who have been against music. I myself have a Christian Quaker background from the Society of Friends -- 300 years ago, the Quakers in this country, England, were very much against music in just the same sort of way. So I'm very keen that we don't just understand this as being an attitude that comes from just one particular direction -- an antimusic attitude we can find in many parts of the world and connected with various different religions as well as Islam.

You know, the Taliban like to invoke the hadith, that, you know, the person who listens to music will, on the day of judgment, have molten lead poured into their ears and you can read the rest of it for yourself. But there is one interesting point here to make, and that is how the Taliban actually define music, and it isn't actually correct to say that the Taliban have banned music. They have banned musical instruments and any kind of music-making that involves musical instruments, quite possibly with one exception, and that exception is the frame drum -- the duff -- because there are hadiths in which the Prophet Muhammad appreciates or allows the frame drum to be used in connection with celebrations of weddings and so on.

So the Taliban were not against all forms of music, and they certainly permitted religious singing without musical instruments. And, a point I made in my book on the censorship of music in Afghanistan, if you listen to the so-called Taliban chants, the Taliban taranas, they are in fact extremely musical. So we could look at this in another way. This isn't just the banning of music, but it is a competition between different kinds of music, and we can do our kind of music because it doesn't involve musical instruments, but you can't do your kind of music because musical instruments are instruments of Satan.

RFE/RL: So this is, in a way, a political strategy to silence opponents in society and to get rid of what might be an alternative view?

I think there is an aspect of that. I mean, to be frank with you, I'm not very up to date with the latest statements coming from the Taliban on the subject of music. And I'm very well aware that the Taliban of today are not the same people of 10 years ago when these practices were so severely restricted within Afghanistan. And maybe attitudes, to some extent, have changed.

RFE/RL: The practice appears to be essentially the same. The difference being that in Afghanistan they had near-complete control while in power, whereas in Pakistan their control is contested. While they don't obviously control the cities, they are against music, they have been threatening musicians, they have been systematically destroying many shops selling music or movies. And it's for the same reasons that you have been describing earlier, that it leads you to commit sin.

Well, you know, I haven't been in Pakistan for a while, so I can't say from direct experience. But for example, in the year 2000, eight years ago when I was in Peshawar, then a very large number of professional musicians from Kabul were all in exile in Peshawar. And their names were all written up outside a large house down in university row, they weren't pretending that they weren't there at all. It always struck me as very significant that no bombing had taken place against that building because just one car bomb outside would have destroyed that whole musical establishment there.

Now, I know, from having talked to somebody quite recently in Peshawar, all of those musicians have gone back to Afghanistan. And I hadn't realized, really, how severe the prohibition against music in Peshawar is today. I wonder myself, and you can tell me, what kind of music is there on local radio? Or on local television? Is there music with musical instruments on the radio?

RFE/RL: There absolutely is. There is music on the state radio. Unlike Afghanistan in the '90s, the Taliban don't have that absolute control, but they are doing their best. For instance, they have set up FM radios, mostly in areas where they have influence or control, the most extreme case being in Swat, where the mullahs talk and they have the Taliban chants. And the Taliban chants, and the DVDs, have interestingly become an industry in itself because they have replaced, in some regions, the shops that were selling music earlier. Now they exclusively deal in Taliban chants and propaganda DVDs, in some cases very violent stuff, like the beheading of people.

I haven't seen those, but I mean, with the -- we go back to the earlier point, that in a way this is a sort of a competition between two musical systems. And as you just said, they are making big business out of it. No doubt there are lots of people making lots of money out of this recording industry and so on, selling these kinds of cassettes and CDs, and so on. Sure.

RFE/RL: But do you think that in a country as complex and as diverse as Pakistan, that in a way -- as musical as Pakistan is -- do you think it's really possible in the 21st century to get rid of all music?

No, I think it is absolutely impossible. I would regard this as a kind of temporary blip at the moment and I'm sure ... I mean, I was very surprised when I heard, actually, about Haroom Bacha having to leave, and I wondered whether there were some particular circumstances here, to do with his own background or whatever -- I take it he's from an educated background, he's not from a hereditary musician family, is that correct?

RFE/RL: Absolutely, absolutely.

And so there may have been particular reasons why they wanted to get rid of him, but from talking to people very recently, I've realized that the problem is much more widespread than that. It just so happens that he ... he must be a very good singer, I've never heard him, but there has been a lot of publicity about his exile off to New York and the recent concert there.

RFE/RL: Do you think there are other societies today that are under the same threats, the same circumstances, or is this unique only to the Taliban today?

Music censorship, in one way or another, is really quite common in many parts of the world. But censorship of music usually is to do with specific songs, or particular singers, particularly if they have a political slant. So, for example, during the era in South America, in Latin America, in the era of the dictatorships, then singers who sang songs about democracy or political ideas that didn't fit in with the dictatorship -- those people were severely persecuted, murdered, imprisoned, had to flee. Chile is a very good example. You know, an awful lot of Chile's younger musicians were in Paris during the time of the dictatorship.

In a way, this gives me some hope -- this isn't particular to that part of the world, it just happens to be a very extreme form of it. Usually, as I said, when music is censored, it's a particular kind of music. South Africa during the apartheid era would be another very good point, where white singers who sang songs against the apartheid regime were very severely hassled by the authorities. Their houses were bombed, their concerts had tear gas thrown at them and so on -- an absolute disruption.

So, you know, I wouldn't say it's universal, but it is a widespread phenomenon. But the case of the Taliban's attitude is just very extreme. Of course, it has to be seen that it does have exactly the opposite effect in that music involving musical instruments in itself becomes a political statement, which perhaps it wasn't in the past. And there's no doubt that in Afghanistan during the Taliban period, there was plenty of underground music-making going on.

RFE/RL: How would you define Pashtun music? How different it is from the music of South Asia, from Central Asia, and what's peculiar about this music?

Well that's a very difficult question to answer in two minutes. Well, Pashtun music, in my opinion, particularly likes to use that wonderful instrument known as the rubab. Usually with drum accompaniment from dholak. They use the harmonium a lot and a spiked type of fiddle called sarinda. So that's the basic instrumentarium.

And Pashtun music, of some kinds anyway, is very upbeat. It's very lively music. It's very rhythmic. It's a music actually that appeals to the Western ear because of its liveliness and also, it doesn't use notes which to a Western ear would sound out of tune. So that the musical scales, the ragas if you like, of Pashtun music are mostly around -- they're like the Western major scale. There's a long tradition of the tappa -- short verse song, usually on the theme of unrequited love. Songs very often written, actually, by women. You have the dastan -- the long, kind of epic songs about the exploits of this, that or the other particular kind of person.

In my opinion, it's a very rich musical culture, and the Taliban have inherited that. If you listen to their chants, as I have, I can identify, this is in pahadi. This has got the two-part structural verse and refrain. It's very nicely sung, sometimes with a group of three or four people. I mean, apart from the actual lyrics, it's a very interesting music. And the lyrics, of course, are also interesting, but the lyrics are about a very restricted number of topics as far as I understand. I'm not an expert on this, but the lyrics are partly about extolling the virtues of the Taliban ideology and also commemorating the deaths of the many Taliban who have died in fighting and who are regarded as martyrs by those who are left behind.

Those are the subject matters. But the actual musical content is very like, in my opinion, Pashtun music performed without musical instruments.

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