After the Taliban: Music in Afghanistan

Wednesday 16th December 2015

The Taliban’s acts of cultural vandalism and the war in Afghanistan had a devastating effect on Afghan culture. As well as imprisoning musicians, film makers and artists, they also burned films, CDs books and paintings. Traditional Afghan music, which was once an integral part of Afghan people’s lives, suffered greatly; musical instruments were banned and professional musicians had to flee abroad to make a living.

As young people moved away during the decades of war, they were removed from Afghanistan’s traditional music and instead became familiar with Western styles. Although in some areas of the countryside, traditional music still thrives, in towns and cities, music is unrecognisable from that heard before the Taliban’s rule.

Religious singing, such as ritual chanting was permitted by the Taliban, although instruments were banned. A result of this long- term ban on instruments, people lost interest in traditional instrumental music and it is now hard to find the traditional instruments, which were so popular before the occupation. The “Rubab” is one of a few traditional instruments used nowadays.

Kabul born Homayun Sakhi, one of the greatest performers of the Afghan rubab/ BBC Music Magazine

Kabul born Homayun Sakhi, one of the greatest performers of the Afghan rubab/ BBC Music Magazine

According to enthnomusicologist, John Baily, the Taliban is against any form of entertainment outside the sphere of religion. They claim that Muhammad said that those who listen to music will have molten lead poured into their ears on the day of judgement. Music is recognised as something that can provide transcendental experience, the Taliban therefore see music as a threat to their control of people’s spiritual lives. Non- religious music, is also viewed by the Taliban as an unnecessary distraction from serious matters and it is believed that it leads to immoral behaviour. Not suprisingly, these extreme views and severe constrictions dramatically changed and limited the music scene in Afghanistan.

Since 2001 however, the music scene has developed. Afghan Star, the Afghan equivalent of Pop Idol, is in it’s 11th season this winter and remains incredibly popular. According to judge Tahmina Arsalan, the show helps ease minds in a turbulent, war-torn country and unites people through a love of music. The show has however generated controversy among Afghanistan’s conservative circles, and been dubbed “Satan’s Star” by critics. There are other barriers to a professional music career in Afghanistan; there are no record companies or royalty structures, making it difficult for singers to earn a living. Furthermore, the show receives daily threats from the Taliban.

Afghan Star, season 11

Afghan Star, season 11

Musical education is still frowned upon in some areas, however since the fall of the Taliban, opportunities to study music are increasing. Former presenter at Classc FM, Emma Ayres, now teaches the cello at the Afghanistan National Institute of Music (ANIM). According to the mission statement, “graduates will have the skills, creative vision, and confidence to contribute to the artistic, social, and cultural life of Afghanistan, and to the rebuilding and revival of Afghan music traditions.” The government supported Revival of Afghan Music Project not only seeks to revive Afghan music, it also aims to rebuild a traumatised and shattered country, through the healing powers of music. Despite threats, since 2001, the music industry and education in both classical western music and traditional Afghan music have developed; long may it continue!

Girls at the Afghanistan National Institute of Music/ ABC

Girls at the Afghanistan National Institute of Music/ ABC