Afghanistan lies at the crossroads of Asia – which is one of the reasons why it is much more famous for its conflicts than its music. For those able to look beyond the crossfire, the country’s music is a treasure house. This is the first collection to bring the popular, classical and folk traditions of Afghanistan together on one disc. Some of the featured musicians are living inside the country; others are abroad. The result of twenty-five years of war, is that much of the musical life happens in exile – although the artists maintain a huge following at home. Since the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001, many of the biggest stars have returned to give concerts, while others have returned to live.
Broadly speaking, Afghanistan is where three cultural worlds collide. It is where the Persian Empire meets those of India and Central Asia. Yet Afghan music, while absorbing elements from all three, has an identity all its own.
Of course, it is the Taliban who have the most notorious reputation when it comes to music. Their radical interpretation of Islamic law meant that music was totally banned in the parts of the country they controlled between 1996 and 2001. It was the most severe ban on music there has ever been – musicians hid their instruments, many had them destroyed and a large number left the country. The Taliban closed down Afghan TV, and Radio Afghanistan, which had been responsible for the creation of Afghan popular music since it began broadcasting in the 1940s, was renamed Radio Sharia and broadcast a strictly limited diet of chants (tarana) and unaccompanied songs in praise of the Taliban. In Dari and Pashtu, the main languages of Afghanistan, the word ‘music’ actually refers to musical instruments, which is why a ban on music didn’t include unaccompanied songs and why one of the main singers at Radio Sharia found himself in charge of ‘songs without music’.
Music has been caught in the crossfire in over thirty years of conflict in Afghanistan. In 1978, a coup overthrew President Daud and a communist government came to power, which was propped up by the Soviet invasion of 1979. Musicians fared quite well during this period as long as they towed the line. The mujahideen fought a jihad against the ‘ungodly’, communist occupation, and the Soviet army withdrew in 1990. The mujihideen took over in 1992, but there was fighting between different factions and virtual civil war. Kharabat, the musicians’ quarter of Kabul, was pretty much destroyed in the shelling. Restrictions on music were also imposed with the banning of female singers and a clamp-down on radio and TV. It was in 1996 that the Taliban reached Kabul and imposed their fundamentalist ban. Since their fall in 2001, the restrictions on music have gradually eased.