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Taliban Has Failed To Kill Pashtun Musical Spirit

Pashtun singer Irfan Khan
The leaders of the world,
The possessors of the atomic power,
We all share this world,
Don't bring violence to it,
Why break the silence in it?
Please don't break the silence in it

-- From the album "Brekhna" (Lightning) by Irfan Khan

Since 2001, Taliban militants operating in the Pashtun-dominated tribal areas along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province have destroyed as many as 800 music shops, according to some estimates.

In addition, Talibs have kidnapped and killed several musicians and singers, and banned all forms of musical expressions in the territories under their control.

Their objectives are simple: to kill the collective consciousness of the Pashtun people, eradicate centuries-old aesthetic values, create space for jihadist religious propaganda, and break the people of the region from their rich socio-cultural heritage.

The aggressive campaign still continues. On November 26, unidentified militants kidnapped Musharraf Bengash, a Pashtun singer from the Mir Ali area in North Waziristan. Later, a jirga negotiated his release. Bengash sings mainly of rural themes, with his music embodying a nationalistic zeal.

The Taliban’s anti-music campaign has actually given rise to a new form of Pashtun music that has been dubbed The Music of Resistance.

The spirit of resistance through art has existed in the region since the British colonial times when Pashtun poets wrote poetry advocating independence from a foreign yoke and the establishment of a peaceful society based on their own values, traditions, and cultural heritage. This theme continued through the days of jihad in Afghanistan.

Now, changes in the cultural scene are occurring at all levels. Traditionally, men and women from artists’ families adopted music as a career; but now, members of the highly educated and socially stable families, wearing western dress and holding their brand new guitars, are dominating the scene.

WATCH: Haroon Bacha and others perform Pashto music at the U.S. Library of Congress in February 2010. (RFE/RL video)

Technology has been instrumental in the recent revival of the Pashtun music culture. New music channels in local languages and FM radio broadcasts across the frontier regions are giving a boost to modern Pashto music.

In addition, satellite TV channels have opened gateways for new artists to reach out to millions of Pashtuns living abroad. Pashtun performers are increasingly playing concerts in cities across the Middle East, Asia, and Europe, resulting in a resurgence of cultural consciousness and value for their own language among Pashtuns worldwide.

Moreover, the emergence of social network sites like Facebook, YouTube, and launching of Pashto music sites on the Internet have popularized Pashto music with the younger generation in Pashtun regions who, after the closure of local music shops by the Taliban, are glued to computers to satisfy their musical thirst.

Modern-day Pashtun singers not only sing of the tragedies of their war-torn region but also on concepts of peace, women rights, democracy, and development.

Bakhtyar Khattak, 30, is a popular Pashto singer with an MBA who runs a private music studio in Nowshera, a town in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. His unique brand of traditional Pashto songs mixed with modern music styles has gained him notoriety among young Pashtuns since he entered the music scene in 2003.

"As a singer, I can understand my role as a change maker,” Khattak recently told me. "In my view, the Taliban discouraged music because they knew singers were the real opposition to their extremist ideology."

The poets who write for these singers utilize similes and metaphors that symbolize the current political and economic issues in the region and connect them to issues on the global scene.

In one of his songs, Pashto singer Hashmat Sahar refers to Pakistani interference in Afghanistan affairs through lyrics directed at Pakistan's military establishment: "You were fanning the flames of war and violence in Kabul, but you could not realize that if not stopped, fire also spread to other places! Look, Waziristan is engulfed in the flames of war."

Now, modern Pashtun vocalists like Haroon Bacha (see above video; Bacha is also a broadcaster for Radio Mashaal), Rahim Shah, Irfan Khan, Sitara Younus, Humayun Khan, Karan Khan, Bakhtyar Khattak, and Nazia Iqbal are recognized for their sweet romantic and nationalistic melodies and modern music compositions.

Shamalia, a 26-year-old social worker based in Swat Valley, told me that the days are gone when people played Indian songs in wedding ceremonies and birthday parties. All hope is not lost, however. "The modern Pashtun music is not only rich in content -- it is also very fast and refreshing," she says. "I don't know about the taste of my elders, but for me modern Pashtun music represents my aspirations and I enjoy it a lot."

-- Shaheen Buneri, Radio Mashaal