Taliban Killed the Radio Stars

In Afghanistan, Any Battle Over Music Is a Battle Over National Identity

Since taking control of most of Afghanistan in 1994, the Taliban—through its ludicrously named Ministry of the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice—has arrested musicians, burned instruments, shredded tapes, smashed VCRs, and banned both public and private performances. "Those who listen to music and songs in this world," goes the Muhammad-attributed threat used to justify its censorship, "on the Day of Judgment, molten lead will be poured into their ears."

After Northern Alliance troops marched into Kabul on November 13, however, radio music and the sounds of rubabs and dutars could be heard publicly for the first time since the Taliban's draconian regulations (beards and burkas for all!) were installed in 1996. This is what normal should sound like. The nation's radio, more than any cultural bond beyond Islam itself, had helped unify the country's 32 tribes, which enjoyed their respective ethnic sounds too.

The country had (and has) its share of Western-style pop stars—most notably Ahmad Zahir, who, until his apparent 1979 assassination in Kabul on his 33rd birthday, was Afghanistan's Crosby, Presley, and Marley rolled into one. The son of a former prime minister, Zahir broke with the old guard by writing original songs rather than borrowing from the Pashtun poets. He mixed trumpet, saxophone, guitar, and organ with Afghan music's traditional lutes and drums. Besides making the secular-humanist leap of celebrating the present rather than the afterlife, he dared to criticize President Taraki's dictatorial regime in his music during the year leading up to his death.

Zahir recorded 27 albums. As with nearly all the artists mentioned here, lots of his music is available on MP3s just a Google search away. My favorite, whose title translates as The Forgotten Flower, even includes five tunes in English ("It's Now or Never," "You Are My Sunshine," etc.) in addition to the serious stuff: a heady mix of romantic ghazals, qawwali-inspired, tabla-organ-clapping party music, and heavily reverbed, sui generis pop vocalizing accompanied by mariachi-flavored trumpet player Ustad Nangalai. The music is earthy at its most festive. Even though it has the harmonies and rhythms of Indian music, it sounds funkier, rawer; the serenity and transcendence of the Carnatic (South Indian) and Hindustani (North Indian) approaches don't figure into the equation as Zahir expresses his romantic, patriotic, and community-affirming sentiments.

A Bamiyan statue to Afghan music fans, Zahir benefited from Radio Afghanistan's ability to draw the country's tribes together beginning in the 1950s until the 1979 Soviet invasion (the Taliban destroyed the station's archives after it came to power). Radio Afghanistan helped create a generation of so-called radio stars—including Zahir, Sahib Nazara, Haidar Salim, and Nashenas—in which women singers such as Ferida Mahwah and Shahlah Zaland could also flourish. These middle-class professionals marked a break from a caste-based system in which professional musicians were "barbers"—in which the same guy at the bottom of the social ladder who would circumcise your son would also provide musical accompaniment. Even worse, female singers were equated with prostitutes. Most of the radio singers migrated out of Afghanistan, along with 30 percent of the country's pre-Soviet occupation population. The more affluent ended up in expatriate communities such as Fremont, California, or Richmond, Virginia, and the less so in Pakistan or India, where they continue to record and perform. Or not.

Afghan pop and musiqui (secular instrumental music), according to UCLA ethnomusicologist Hiromi Lorraine Sakata's Music in the Mind: The Concepts of Music and Musicians in Afghanistan, have become so proscribed that wary drivers took to jamming tapes of Taliban chants recounting the jihadic victories of Islamist martyrs into tape decks as they approached checkpoints. Since Koranic declamations and religious agitprop don't count as music so far as the Taliban is concerned, a healthy market exists for these echoing paeans. "Taliban, O Taliban, you're creating facilities, you're defeating enemies," goes one of their catchy a cappella jeremiads, which are sometimes augmented with the sounds of rocket launchers and Kalashnikov fire. Sample them at freemuse.com, where you can also read University of London ethnomusicologist John Baily's important essay, " 'Can You Stop the Birds Singing?' The Censorship of Music in Afghanistan."

Baily and Sakata agree that the Taliban's puritanical aversion to music is rooted in its guilt by association with gambling, drinking, and prostitution. Religious leaders first began cracking down in Pakistan refugee camps, where music was deemed an inappropriate activity amid the ongoing mourning for Afghans lost during the country's war with the Soviet Union. Music, being nonreligious, didn't fall under Islamic law, and so it was eliminated. Also silenced was the sound of Afghanistan's national instrument, the short-necked, fretted lute called the rubab. One strain of Afghan music derives from the North Indian classical tradition, whose ragas were imported to the country during the 1860s. Until Smithsonian-Folkways releases the 1974 concert of the late rubab giant Ustad Mohammed Omar—which Sakata, who produced both the original event and forthcoming live album, calls "the most bootlegged tape in the world"—anyone interested in Afghan classical music should track down Aziz Herawi's Master of Afghani Lutes (Arhoolie) or Memories of Herat (Latitudes). Herawi, who emigrated to California, plays Hindustani-influenced versions of the Persian folk songs heard in the western Afghanistan city of Herat on the rubab, which combines plucked and resonating strings. Unlike North Indian music, the tunes shift regularly in tempo and meter. They sound stitched together, like a string of 78s.

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