A Look at the Fascinating World of Traditional Afghan Dance

Attan, the national dance of Afghanistan, is a fascinating art form rich in history and ritual, but it is not a performance that many people outside Afghanistan ever get the chance to experience. Read on to learn more about this beautiful and captivating cultural tradition.

What are the origins of Attan?

Attan originated as a traditional folk dance of Afghanistan’s Pashtun tribes, which make up the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan. Some experts identify the dance as an ancient pagan ceremony dating back to as long ago as 2000 BCE. At this time, the dance had no particular organized form; rather, it was simply made up of random steps and movements performed to the fast beating of drums. As the centuries went on, the dance form evolved into a Muslim ritual performed mainly by soldiers as a way of getting closer to God before leaving for battle or departing on other missions. Today, Attan is an organized and cohesive dance form that is an integral part of Afghan culture. People perform the dance at all kinds of festive occasions and social gatherings, such as weddings, family parties, and new year’s celebrations.

What does the dance look like?

The basic form of Attan is a group dance performed in a circle; the dancers follow each other round and round in the circle, starting with slow steps that gradually speed up as the dance goes on. Other movements include spins and turns and hand clapping. The dance is intensely physical and can be exhausting, continuing for hours and generally ending only when no dancer is left on the floor. Many Afghans report that it is not uncommon for dancers to faint during a long Attan performance. There is no limit to the number of people that can be part of the circle: sometimes an Attan performance will have just a handful of dancers, and sometimes there will be hundreds of participants in the same circle.

What do the dancers wear?

It is common for Attan dancers to wear traditional regalia when participating in the dance. For men, this often means the thick wool hat known as the pakol and the wool vest called the waskata. During more formal occasions like a marriage, suits and ties are often worn. Women do not usually perform Attan publicly, but on private occasions, they typically participate in the dance wearing brightly colored dresses, often adorned with tiny mirrors that symbolize light.

What music accompanies the dance?

Because Attan is a highly rhythmic dance form, percussion instruments play a very important role in controlling the movements of the dancers. The drum most often used in Attan performances is called a dhol: a double-headed barrel drum with a low, deep, and very resonant sound. Other instruments which can be used to accompany Attan are the tabla, a single-headed hand drum traditionally made of clay with a top of goat or calf skin; a kind of flute known as the zurna or surnai flute; and the 18-string, lute-style instrument called the rabab.

What are the different types and styles of Attan?

Attan has evolved over the centuries into many different styles and types, each one usually associated with a particular Pashtun tribe, region, or ceremonial event. A sampling of these Attan styles includes:

Kabuli Attan—Male and female dancers perform the Kabuli Attan to the beat of a drummer. The form of the dance is a repeated sequence of two to five steps followed by a clap while facing the center; the hips and arms tilt to the left and right, and the wrists perform circular twisting motions.

Wardaki or Wardag Attan—This form of Attan does not include clapping, but involves plenty of twists, turns, and wild spins. The male performers of Wardaki Attan often sport outrageous mustaches and grease their hair to highlight it as they spin around. Wardaki Attan is often started by the leading men singing a song while slowly moving in the circle; as the pace of the dance picks up, the singing stops.

Kochyano Attan—This form of Attan is associated with the nomadic Kuchi people, and its depth and complexity has been attributed to their far-ranging lifestyle, which brings them into contact with many different cultural influences. Women often perform Kochyano Attan for occasions like childbirth or new year’s celebrations; men often perform it with their long hair hanging loose. This form of Attan involves lots of spinning and squatting movements, and handkerchiefs are frequently used as props to accompany arm movements.

Khattak Attan—This martial style of Attan can be traced back to the period of the Moghul Empire, when soldiers performed it while carrying their weapons. Khattak dancers today display extraordinary physical fitness, performing the five-step spinning routine of the dance while holding as many as three swords at once, either crossed behind the back or held out to the side.

Spotlight on the Role of Music in Afghan Culture

Positioned at the crossroads between the Indian subcontinent, central Asia, and Iran, Afghanistan has always been something of a meeting and mingling place for different cultures. Almost every aspect of Afghanistan’s own cultural heritage, from the country’s cuisine to its architecture, reflects this long-standing influence of different traditions, and its music is no exception. Read on to learn more about the role of music in Afghanistan, including a history of the country’s musical development and a look at some traditional Afghan instruments.

What role does music play in Afghan culture?

Afghan music

Image by World Bank | Flickr

The meaning of music in Afghan culture is more narrowly defined than it is in the Western musical tradition. In Afghanistan, traditional music is always secular rather than religious; it is primarily an instrumental form with only some use of the voice; and while it is sometimes performed by amateur musicians, the main performers of traditional music are professional musicians.s

It’s important to note here that what differentiates a professional from an amateur musician is not professionalism or skill, but the birthright and level of musical education that come from being born into a family of musicians. In this sense, being a professional musician is a hereditary concept in traditional Afghan culture. What this means is that many things that would be considered music by a Western audience, such as lullabies for children or folk songs, are not thought of as formal music by many Afghans.

This is not to say that folk songs and regional melodies are unimportant in Afghan culture. On the contrary, Afghanistan’s diverse regions have a rich history of folk music that has been profoundly influenced by the musical styles, genres, and instruments of their neighbors, including Iran, China, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan. For example, the folk music of western Afghanistan is very closely related to Iran’s folk traditions, while many of the folk songs in northern Afghanistan are sung in Tajiki, Uzbek, or a mixture of the two languages.

Music in Afghanistan’s recent history

Afghanistan’s long-standing musical history covers a wide spectrum from simple folk songs on one side to court musicians playing in the classical music tradition of Kabul on the other. This changed, however, in the mid-20th century. Young students who were exposed to Western music began bringing some of those instruments and styles to an Afghan audience. The period from the 1950s to the 1970s has become known as a “Golden Age” of music in Afghanistan, when a unique style mixing classical Afghan and regional folk instruments with Western instruments was developed by musicians playing for the national orchestra on Radio Afghanistan, the government radio station that served as the unifying voice of the nation during this period.

During Afghanistan’s conflict years, which began with the Soviet invasion in 1979, many musicians fled the country, and music was widely banned. Recently, however, Afghanistan has been experiencing what many are calling an “International Age” of music. Afghan artists and the general public alike now have access to international music through the Internet, satellite radio, and television. At same time, they are rediscovering their musical heritage and reviving traditions that date back to the Golden Age of music and beyond. A wonderful example of this new musical tradition is the Afghanistan National Institute of Music (ANIM), a school specializing in music training in both Afghan and Western traditions, led by an international faculty.

An inventory of traditional Afghan musical instruments

Part of ANIM’s mission has been to revive the use of and appreciation for traditional Afghan musical instruments. These include:

The rabab or rubab—The national instrument of Afghanistan, the rabab or rubab is a type of double-chambered lute carved from a single piece of wood. A membrane covers the hollow bowl of the sound-chamber, and there are over 20 strings, including melody strings, drone strings, and sympathetic strings. Traditionally, the rabab is made from mulberry or rosewood, the membrane is of goat skin, and the strings are gut strings, although nylon is now more commonly used. The origins of the rabab can be traced back to the 7th century in central Afghanistan; the instrument is featured in many folk songs and classical melodies, and is often referred to as the “lion of instruments.”

The ghichak—This two-stringed fiddle has a body made from a large metal tin, giving the instrument a distinctive sound. Played with a horsehair bow called a kaman, the ghichak is popular in Afghanistan’s central and northern regions.

The tula—This wooden flute is one of the simplest instruments in Afghanistan’s musical tradition. Its frontal plane features six finger holes, while a single thumbhole is located on the dorsal plane.

The tabla—The principal percussion instrument in traditional Afghan music as well as in classical music from northern India, the tabla are a pair of hand-played wooden drums that can be tuned to different precise pitches.

A Bright Future for Afghan Art – Spotlight on 6 Talented Artists

Afghanistan’s artistic landscape is undergoing a profound transformation. After decades of conflict, during which the majority of artistic activities were repressed or banned, Afghan artists in all disciplines are reconnecting with their craft once again. Today, thanks to renewed local interest in arts and culture as well as greater international financial support for these activities, Afghanistan is home to both an exciting contemporary art scene and a reinvigorated traditional arts and crafts practice. Read on to learn more about six artists and artisans who are changing the rules of the game and showing the world the best of Afghan art.

Azim Fakhri

Having spent most of his childhood and youth outside of Afghanistan, Azim Fakhri returned to the country in 2002 with a passionate commitment to helping develop his country and represent his generation through the arts. His works, which he creates under the name Kabul Knights, span a variety of disciplines, including painting, stenciling, sculpture, and graffiti. Often compared with artists like the controversial street artist Banksy, Fakhri creates art that is playful and political at the same time, using surprising visual substitutions—like replacing grenades with pineapples or tank guns with clarinets—to puzzle and provoke his viewers. Once of Fakhri’s most recent projects is “Street Angels,” a photo series dedicated to Afghan children, which he discussed when he was a featured speaker at the TEDx talk series in Berlin.

Akram Ati

Based in Herat and a graduate of the Fine Arts Faculty of that city’s university, Akram Ati mixes traditional subjects with non-traditional materials and techniques to create paintings that are both stunning and subtle. Instead of using conventional, store-bought paints, Ati creates his own paints from natural materials like mud, dust, stones, and brick, which he grinds down and mixes with a type of homemade glue. According to Ati, these natural paints are not only more durable and less dull than artificial paints, they also represent and reflect the true essence of Afghanistan’s character and struggles. The subjects he captures in his monochromatic works are traditional scenes of everyday life in Afghanistan, including villages and country landscapes, the national game of buzkashi, and traditional dances and celebrations.

Mohsen Hossaini

Born and based in Kabul, Mohsen Hossaini draws the inspiration for his challenging works from everyday life in modern Kabul, which he describes as being difficult for ordinary people. His paintings use dark colors like black and dark green contrasted with stark red to represent what Hossaini views as the alienation of the individual in contemporary society, and the effect that solitude and lack of relationships can have on modern Afghans. In addition to painting, Hossaini is a director and an animator; his short film “Shelter,” a paper animation, was an official selection at a number of international film festivals.

Arif Bahaduri

Arif Bahaduri’s work stands out, literally, due to its three-dimensional texture. Bahaduri works with materials like bandages and crumpled paper to bring a sense of unevenness and tactility to his pieces, which typically represent abstract images of familiar things, like homes or tombstones. According to Bahaduri, his use of bandages and plasters is a specific choice, made to represent the pain and unhealed wounds that he explores through his art. In addition to his larger works, Bahaduri is a skilled sketch artist. His sketches of street life in contemporary Afghanistan are striking snapshots of a particular political and cultural moment.

Nasser Mansouri

In contrast to the artists above, Nasser Mansouri reaches back into the past for inspiration. As an artisan affiliated with the Turquoise Mountain Institute, master woodworker Mansouri is one of many traditional arts and crafts specialists working to restore Afghanistan’s artisanal legacy and rich crafting heritage. And while Mansouri may talk about being unsure of how to describe his own practice—artist, woodworker, carver, teacher, and businessman are all terms he uses—there’s little question as to the beauty and artistic value of his work. Through extensive study of historic Afghan buildings, Mansouri replicates and recreates intricate carvings and latticework, building beautiful, interlocking designs that are put together without nails. Recently, some of Mansouri’s work was featured in the exhibit “Turquoise Mountain: Artists Transforming Afghanistan” at the Freer Sackler gallery in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC.

Abdul Matin Malekzadah

Another teacher at the Turquoise Mountain Institute (and also featured in the same Smithsonian exhibition as Nasser Mansouri), Abdul Matin Malekzadah is the newest artisan in a line of potters that stretches back hundreds of years. Malekzadah is based in the village of Istalif in central Afghanistan, which has many rich seams of clay, natural materials for glazes, and wood for firing kilns. It’s hardly surprising, therefore, that Istalif has become known as a village of potters. In recent decades, the village has been destroyed three times, but the villagers, including Malekzadah and his brothers, have always rebuilt their homes and workshops. Today, Malekzadah is proud to continue the artisanal legacy of his village, and to provide an important link between Afghanistan’s past and present.