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.

Spotlight on One of Afghanistan’s Strongest Champions

On September 10, 2017, Afghanistan said goodbye to one of its fiercest and most loyal international champions, Nancy Hatch Dupree, who died in Kabul at the age of 89. The American historian, educator, and writer spent more than half her life working to preserve Afghanistan’s rich cultural heritage. Her dedication to showcasing the country’s history and culture on the world stage eventually earned her the nickname of “Grandmother of Afghanistan” from many Afghans.

In celebration and in memory of Dupree’s remarkable legacy and her contributions to Afghanistan, read on for an overview of her incredible life and work.

An unusual upbringing

Nancy Hatch Dupree

Nancy Hatch Dupree | US Embassy Kabul | Flickr

By the time Nancy Hatch Dupree first arrived in Afghanistan in 1962, she had already lived a very unconventional life for a woman of her time and circumstances. Born in 1927 in Cooperstown, New York, Dupree grew up in India in what is now the state of Kerala. Both her parents were closely involved with Indian culture: her father was one of the earliest pioneers of rural development programs, and her mother was a student of Indian theater and dance.

She later attended high school in Mexico, where her father was helping to open UNESCO, and pursued studies in Chinese history at Columbia University—her first experience of living for any length of time in a modern American city. At Columbia, Dupree met her first husband, a member of the US Foreign Service. It was through one of his diplomatic postings that Dupree arrived in Kabul in 1962 and quickly became captivated with the country and its culture.

An impressive body of work

Nancy Hatch Dupree is the author of five books and over 100 articles about Afghanistan, making her one of the world’s most prolific and respected authors on the subject. Her writing on Afghanistan began during her early days in the country. Having visited the Buddhas at Bamiyan (a remarkable historic site destroyed in 2001), she was frustrated at not being able to find detailed information about the monuments. To rectify this, she became determined to write a guidebook herself, and it was in the course of researching her first work that she met Louis Dupree, the leading archaeological authority in Afghanistan. He would later become her second husband and lifelong collaborator.

In the following years, while accompanying Louis Dupree on his work around Afghanistan, Nancy Hatch Dupree continued to write guidebooks, which are today recognized as witty and iconic works capturing a pivotal moment in Afghanistan’s history. One of these books became the inspiration for Homebody/Kabul, an ambitious play by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner that has served as the first introduction to Afghan history and culture for many Western theatergoers.

A passion for preservation

Nancy Hatch Dupree

Nancy Hatch Dupree | Estonian Foreign Ministry | Flickr

The communist coup of the late 1970s put an end to the Duprees’ time in Afghanistan; they were deported from the country and spent the following years in exile until Louis Dupree’s death from cancer in 1989. Determined to continue the groundbreaking preservation efforts he had championed, Nancy Hatch Dupree became more committed than ever to conserving Afghanistan’s cultural legacy in the face of destructive civil conflict.

In the 1990s, when war threatened Kabul, she was part of a small group that leapt into action to prevent the looting and destruction of some of the most important artifacts in the National Museum of Afghanistan, including its priceless gold collection. Dupree helped find secret hiding places for these artifacts (including the vault of Afghanistan’s central bank), and continued to travel back and forth to Kabul from outside Afghanistan even during periods of extreme instability. Thanks to these efforts, many important cultural artifacts were saved from being lost forever. They now help provide a vital link between Afghanistan’s past and future.

An enduring legacy

In addition to the work and contributions described above, perhaps the most enduring part of Nancy Hatch Dupree’s legacy is the Afghanistan Center at Kabul University (ACKU). The world’s largest working archive of material on Afghan history and society, ACKU has a collection of more than 100,000 items that were gathered by Dupree over the course of her many years of working to preserve Afghan culture.

While Dupree initially assembled much of the material while living outside Afghanistan, she was able to return to Kabul with her collection in the early 2000s and make plans for its future. Dupree saw her treasure trove of books, newspapers, magazines, photos, and documents as a vital tool that could assist in Afghanistan’s reconstruction and serve as a resource for understanding the past, in order to prevent future violence and instability. Consequently, one of her most pressing goals was to find a permanent home for the archive. To achieve this goal, she founded the Society for the Preservation of Afghanistan’s Cultural Heritage, which eventually helped create the purpose-built ACKU. Today, the Center stands as a vital hub of ideas and knowledge for Afghan and international scholars alike.

Spotlight on How AFCECO Cares for Afghanistan’s Orphans

In times of war, children are often the ones who end up paying the highest price. Sadly, this tough history lesson is one that Afghanistan is all too familiar with: decades of civil conflict have deprived multiple generations of Afghan children of parents, relatives, and role models, making for a challenging and uncertain future for both the children and the country itself.

Fortunately, over the past 10 to 15 years, more and more groups have stepped into the breach to provide support, care, and education for Afghanistan’s war orphans. One of these organizations is the Afghan Child Education and Care Organization (AFCECO), a Kabul-based, Afghan nonprofit dedicated to helping orphaned refugees and other vulnerable Afghan children. Read on to learn more about AFCECO’s mission, its activities, and what you can do to help.

What is AFCECO?

AFCECO_LogoAFCECO is a nonprofit organization, officially registered since 2008 with the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, with a mission to serve some of Afghanistan’s estimated 1.6 million orphans. To fulfil this mission, AFCECO operates orphanages all around the country. However, rather than the cold and institutional environment that the word “orphanage” might suggest, AFCECO homes are inclusive and caring, welcoming children from all regions and walks of life, and teaching equality and respect alongside other practical skills like reading and writing. Ultimately, the goal of AFCECO is to support Afghanistan’s next generation and ensure that these children have the skills and opportunities they need to play an active part in building a brighter future for themselves and their country.

How did AFCECO get started?

For AFCECO’s founding director Andeisha Farid, the question of helping children affected and displaced by war is a very personal one: she herself was born during Afghanistan’s war years and raised in refugee camps, and eventually found escape from her difficult circumstances through education. With a strong belief in the power of children to change the course of their country, Farid founded her first orphanage—or “parwarishga,” which means “foster haven”—in 2004. Her work soon came to the attention of CharityHelp International, an organization that assisted Farid in financing her projects through child sponsorships. Thanks to this support, Farid was able to grow AFCECO to its current status: a collection of nine orphanages around Afghanistan that serve hundreds of children and also provide valuable employment for widows and university students.

What are AFCECO’s values?

As mentioned above, one of AFCECO’s core goals is to help the next generation of Afghan citizens grow into resilient, thoughtful, and productive members of society. To achieve this, AFCECO concentrates on teaching children critical values, including: respect for each other’s differences, including differences of circumstance, ideas, or religion; respect for freedom of thought; listening and tolerance; the importance of justice and democracy; respect for the environment; an appreciation for teamwork and common goals; and a sense of integrity, honesty, and caring.

What programs does AFCECO offer?

Within the framework of its orphanages, AFCECO offers a number of different programs and extracurricular activities to help supplement the basic education that the children receive at local public schools. These include a music program, which sees talented young musicians honing their craft under the instruction of dedicated professionals at the Afghanistan National Institute of Music. There’s also an athletics program, which helps improve children’s physical fitness (a top priority for AFCECO) and gives them the chance to learn about teamwork and competition through participation in nationwide sports tournaments. In addition, healthcare clinics ensure the health and well-being of the residents of each orphanage, and an e-coaching program pairs students with online volunteer educational coaches for additional support and tutoring.

What partners does AFCECO work with?

One of the biggest partners that has helped make AFCECO’s work possible is CharityHelp International (CHI), a global organization that harnesses the power of online connectivity to foster, promote, and sustain close, long-term relationships between individual donors all around the world and organizations in emerging nations that are in need of support. This helps provide many charitable organizations with ongoing, sustainable development financing for their activities. For AFCECO, CHI has furnished the organization’s Child Sponsorship Program with much-needed communications technology and development and administrative support. In addition, CHI is helping AFCECO with a new initiative, the Support and Networking Program, which offers vital resources and mentorship to Afghan business and social entrepreneurs.

What can I do to help AFCECO?

One of the most important ways that concerned supporters can help AFCECO’s work and mission is by making a donation to the organization. AFCECO accepts international donations in a number of different areas: through the sustainability fund, which allows donors to become “sustaining sponsors” by contributing to the ongoing, fixed costs of operating an orphanage; through the child sponsorship program, where donors can make regular contributions to support the basic needs of a child living at one of AFCECO’s orphanages; and through one-time donations in any amount which help AFCECO cover a variety of necessary costs and expenditures.