Taliban Killed the Radio Stars

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

In Flushing, Queens, Afghan grocery stores such as New Kouchi Super Market and Kabul Halal Meat sell the sort of classical and pop music Afghan expatriates still enjoy as a way to maintain contact with their homeland. During a recent field trip I picked up a dozen or so releases recommended (and loosely translated) by various proprietors, including one called, hopefully, Afghani Top DJ 2000. Many of the radio stars play music based on the Indian ghazal tradition. Nashenas, an older performer, sings in Pashtu, Dari, Farsi, Urdu, and Hindi. His Kabul Tomorrow (produced by Dhiren K. Raichura, who has worked with numerous Asian and Middle Eastern playback singers) launches a luscious argument for the merits of ghazal's light classical sound. Nashenas intones with ritualistic sensuality while eerie keyboards replicate flutes and accordion over the bubbling tablas that lead these ensembles. Singers such as Naim Popal, who lives in Virginia, often front economic keyboard-tabla duets, while a violin provides ongoing commentary in superheavy Haidar Salim's ghazals on an album titled simply Party. Ahmad Wali, however, distills the essence of the North Indian-Persian classical connection on Sahib Nazarah.

Other musicians, including Shahlah Zaland and the relatively young Mashal, sound more Arab than Asian. Their music mixes up working-class Egyptian shaabi, Bollywood film music, Algerian rai, Western balladry, and Persian classical modes into surprisingly ambitious arrangements that probably reflect the filmi influence. Mashal may not boast the world's greatest voice, but it seems to come straight from the groin—if the laid-back grunts and other nonverbal exhortations on A Special Song Is Forever are any indication.

As Afghanistan teeters toward liberation from Taliban rule, expect its music to change in sympathy with current events. While no Velvet Revolution waits in the wings, Islam being Islam after all, voices that have been stilled by threats to families still residing there may once again create an Afghan music with tears. The resources are there.

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