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.

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.