Classic 80’s stadium rock, girly pop songs, magnificent rubab ragas that distracted many a hippy on their way to India, ghazals and artists selling cassettes by the crate load. Hardly images and sounds that come to mind when someone mentions Afghanistan. Whilst the mainstream media maintain a steady flow of stories of Taliban insurgence, roadside bombs, corrupt elections and the opium trade, we are hardly ever given the opportunity to find out about the culture and music of the country.
When the Rough Guide to the Music of Afghanistan was released, it instantly caught my attention. An opportunity to hear music from the different regions but also with a sprinkling of pop, rock and folk all in one place.
When I discovered Simon Broughton, the editor in Chief of Songlines magazine was the compiler I telephoned his London office to find out more. I started by asking him what sparked his passion for the music of Afghanistan.
Familiar with the music of neighbouring India and Pakistan and inspired by a John Bailey article for Songlines on the Taliban’s banning of music, Simon started exploring Afghani music. A journey which resulted in the production of Breaking the Silence, a film for the BBC documenting the return of music following the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001. He later returned to Kabul in 2002 and 2004 to produce two live concerts for Radio Kabul. Four years in the making he’s compiled and written one of the latest Rough Guide cd’s.
Whilst he states in the sleeve notes that the Taliban have the most notorious reputation when it comes to music, they weren’t the only regime to impact on culture. In particular I am reminded of Ustad Marwash’s words, one of Afghanistan’s most beloved singers. Now living in exile yet dreaming of returning home, she said in an interview with Martina Catella, “I left because women were forbidden to sing, I shall return when they are allowed to.”
Two tracks from her album Radio Kaboul are included,
Gar Konad Saheb – E Man and Mola Mamad Djan, two aspects of her repetoire the secular and the more spiritual.
Whilst Simon was on the phone I asked if he had detected a wind of change for women singers. Its naïve of me to think that once the Taliban fell things would be alright for women. There’s a long history of differing regimes, Russian Communism, The Mujhadein and the more conservative elements of religion. Things wouldn’t change over night, indeed when organising one of the concerts for Radio Kabul in 2002 he told me they were advised that it would be unsafe to have a woman singing on stage. If you have seen the documentary film Afghan Star a take on Pop Idol, you will know that even recently one of the women competitors caused a scandal, for just moving a little too much on stage and causing her headscarf to slip. An accident or a symbolic gesture Setara Hussainzada received death threats as a consequence.
Suffice to say she didn’t win Afghan Star, she came close though and thankfully she is alright and making a musical career for herself. Her poppy take on an Afghan favourite, Zim Zim Zim opens the Rough Guide compilation.
Another bright and bouncy track comes courtesy of the late Ahmad Zahir, Leila Jan, it reminds me of some of the more vintage sounding Bollywood tracks. Reminiscent of a golden age in Afghanistan when Kabul was a popular stop off on the hippy trail to India, when wine flowed and rock festivals were held. Zahir was one of the first musicians to employ western jazz sounds and was later nicknamed the Afghan Elvis. In a conversation with his disapproving politician father, Simon advises that said a somewhat prophetic statement, “when you die no –one would remember you but when I die everyone will know my name. Indeed he went on to become one of the biggest and most loved stars in Afghanistan and was tragically killed in a mysterious car crash in his early thirties.
Whilst some musicians refuse to return, others are coming back. The artists quarter of Kabul, Kharabat may never be the same but musicians such as Ahmed Rashid, nicknamed Mashinai for his ability to pick up tunes like a machine has now relinquished his job as a butcher and returned to the radio and recording. He features in the film Breaking the Silcence and a previously unreleased track, Logari Tunes, a medley of tunes from the Laogar region played on the traditional bowed instrument the Sarinda can be found on the cd. As can ‘Ba Ayadat Beyah’ from returnee Ghulam Hussain. He sought sanctuary in Pakistan during the Taliban years and the track is taken from his album, “The Sound of the Rubab”. Ghulam now teaches the traditional instrument in Kabul. Perhaps one of the defining sounds of Afghanistan, it is hoped that he will go on to inspire many more young musicians.
One of the most surprising tracks and if you like the odd one out in the pack, comes from Farad Darya, indeed Simon wanted to open the compilation with this one, Salamalek. An 80’s sounding classic rock track, more akin to Castle Donnington than a stadium in Kabul. Not his usual style but influenced through a partnership with German rock musician Peter Mafey, it sounds like a heavy soundtrack to a violent computer game but is, in reality, a heartfelt plea for peace around the world. Depending on what rocks your hi-fi this would have been a risky choice for an album opener but nonetheless has its rightful place in the compilation. Even more so, his other track Salam Afghanistan which is also included. If you’ve seen the film the Kite Runner you will have been given an idea of some of the horrendous anti humanitarian acts that took place in the football stadium under the Taliban regime. On his return to Kabul Farad Darya performed this song in the football stadium in an act of cleansing and reconcilliation.
With the inclusion of many classical folk songs played on traditional instruments from Safdar Tawakuli, Homayun Sakhi, Mehri Maftun, Ustad Rahim Khushnawaz as well as those already mentioned, I am awoken to Afghanistan’s spiritual soul. A side that perhaps struggles to be heard in the crossfire as Afghanistan has for so long been the arena for other people’s wars and conflicts.
It is fitting that the album finishes with a track from the group Ahmad Sham Sufi Qawaali Group who also feature on the accompanying bonus cd.
Listen to the GondwanaSound podcast with compiler Simon Broughton here, extracts of which were first broadcast on Sheffield Live on 17th September.
The album Rough Guide to the Music of Afghanistan is released on World Music Network