A Look at Afghanistan’s Rich Tradition of Dance

It is easy to forget that, after decades of war and conflict that have battered Afghanistan’s landscape, part of the country’s rebuilding efforts is a return to normalcy. The people of Afghanistan are not only struggling to rebuild their physical infrastructure, housing, and farms, they are also attempting to rebuild culturally as well. An entire generation of Afghans has had little opportunity to discover and explore their rich heritage and ancient customs. To preserve a sense of national identity, parents are again teaching their children the importance of culture. One aspect of Afghan heritage that has been obscured during the long conflict is dance.

Dance has been an integral part of Afghan life for centuries—it is an art form practiced by all of the ethnic groups in the country. The largest of these groups include the Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hazaras, and Uzbeks. Traditional dances can vary in style, music, and costume across different ethnic groups and geographic regions.

Traditional Attitudes Toward Dance

Traditionally, women do not participate in dances, unless the dance is being conducted within a private home or as part of a family celebration with other women. In traditional Afghan culture, it is considered unacceptable for a woman to perform as a dancer in public, so professional dancers were traditionally men until recently. Influences from nearby India have begun to change the perception of women as dancers, and within the Kabul region, it is becoming more acceptable for women to perform.

The Atan

Considered by many to be the national dance of Afghanistan, the Atan is a circle dance that includes ten or more people. Accompanied by drums, the dancers form a circle and begin a slow turn around the dance floor. As the drum beat builds, the dancers move more quickly, snapping, singing, and clapping as they whirl around the circle. This dance can last for hours, and is characterized by the quick spinning and movements of the body. Men may carry handkerchiefs, scarves, swords, or guns to use during the dance. On rare occasions, the dance may be performed by a mixed group of men and women, during which the dance is accompanied by singing. The men sing love songs, which are answered by the women. The actions of the dancers help to define the dialogue, making this a fun, energetic dance for all.

Herati Atan

Another form of the Atan dance is known as the Herati Atan. Performed by groups of men, this processional style dance is performed with a leader, who guides the dancers through the motions while being accompanied by several musical instruments. The men line up and face each other, performing mimicking actions to the beat of the music. Dancers make small, concentric circles, while clapping their hands over their heads and waving scarves. The leaders instruct the dancers in the number of claps, the direction to turn, or the speed of the dance. The dance is fascinating to watch, as the dancers move in and out, resembling the opening and closing of a flower.

Shalangi

The shalangi dance is primarily a dance of two women, although on some occasions, two men may perform it. The dancers start in opposite corners of the room, facing each other. As the music begins to play, they begin to move toward each other, clapping in a rhythmic beat over their heads. They approach each other, using a shuffling step, “squaring off” in the center of the dance floor. During the dance, the two women may mimic each other’s movements, but may also make alternate movements in an attempt to confuse the other dancer. Other dance techniques, such as facial movements, the use of scarves, or the accompaniment of lyrics make this a fun dance to observe.

Logari

The traditional dance of Logar, a province south of Kabul, is generally performed by skilled performers. The musicians try to “trick” the performers by suddenly stopping during the dance, forcing the dancers to freeze in position until the music starts again. The pause may last as long as a minute in a good-natured attempt to defeat the dancers. This “stop dance” can be exciting and noisy, as the musicians play quickly and loudly, and the dancers call out to each other and the musicians as they banter back and forth.

Ozbaki

Ozbaki dance styles are predominantly performed by people in the northern regions of Afghanistan. With a focus on footwork, the dancers move in a series of motions that mimic running, stepping, and hopping. As the music shifts in tempo, from fast to slow, the dancers move in time, shifting their bodies left and right. Dancers generally keep their hands at their sides, to call the audience’s attention to their quick steps and footwork instead. Musicians playing along with these dances are talented and inventive, often changing the style of music quickly to keep the dance interesting.

The Afghan people’s celebration of their cultural roots is an important part of the rebuilding process, as well as a way to strengthen their heritage. As people celebrate holidays and mark the seasons and events with dance, communities share these rituals with younger generations.

Featured Image by Presidio of Monterey | Flickr

Music Returns to Afghanistan: A Look at the Future of Music

As Afghanistan continues to rebuild after decades of war, cultural institutions and traditions are making a comeback. Particularly important to the continued resurgence of Afghan culture is the re-introduction of music into everyday life. Music has a long history in Afghanistan, and many instruments used in traditional songs and melodies are unique to the country.

As the Afghan people rediscover their love of music, a new generation is being introduced to the instruments and styles of music that have been a part of the nation’s rich heritage for centuries. At the same time, people outside Afghanistan are beginning to appreciate the country’s musical history.

Traditional Instruments of Afghanistan

Rubab

The national instrument of Afghanistan, the rubab can be traced back to the 7th century. This carved, wooden double lute has a body made of a single piece of wood and a hollow, bowl-shaped chamber covered by a membrane. Traditionally made from the trunk of a mulberry tree or out of rosewood, with a covering of goat skin, these beautiful instruments are featured in many classical and traditional songs. With 21 strings, the rubab is known as “the lion of instruments” and is a favored instrument among classical Afghan musicians.

Tamboor

Another stringed instrument, the tamboor consists of a hollow wooden shell with metal strings. Large tamboors have 18 strings, with corresponding pegs and nuts made of ivory.

Tabla

A percussion instrument, the tabla is a pair of drums that are tunable and played by hand. Made of wood with a thin skin covering, the tabla may be tuned to a precision pitch.

Bayan

Another percussion instrument, the bayan is similar to the tabla, but is made of metal. Musicians can change the pitch of the bayan by altering the pressure of their hand on the skin of the drum.

Harmonium

Originally from India, this traditional instrument is played by blowing into a mouthpiece. Using a series of fingerholes and keys, the musician can alter the pitch of the sound.

Tula

A wooden flute-like instrument, the tula has six fingerholes on the front of the instrument and one thumbhole on the back. Using different air pressure and covering different holes with their fingers, the musician can play a variety of melodies.

Zirbaghali

A single-headed drum, the body of the zirbaghali is made of wood or pottery. Shaped similar to an hourglass, the drum has a wide head with a smaller base. The drum head is made of goat skin and is often painted with a black circle. The body of the drum may be covered with silver, gold and or bright strips of cloth. Often, craftsmen or the musician will add an “eye” to the base of the drum.

Doyra

The doyra is a percussion instrument that originated in Turkic cultures in Central Asia.

One of the oldest forms of instruments, the doyra is unique in that it was originally played predominantly by women, although men now play it too. Evidence suggests that musicians originally played the instrument with special sticks, but today the doyra is usually played by hand. Often, special dances or other ritual performances accompany the playing of the doyra.

Music in Afghanistan’s Future

The future of traditional music in Afghanistan is in question. In many areas, there are few musicians remaining who know how to play the traditional instruments described above. Those who remain tend to be older, less mobile, and living in more isolated areas. In addition, it’s difficult to attract new students to learn a style of music few people know, and mastering these instruments can take decades. However, maintaining the cultural knowledge of the performance of these instruments is a vital part of preserving Afghanistan’s heritage.

Another challenge for Afghanistan’s musical revival is the economy. Many schools lack the funds to provide music lessons to students, and many craftsmen cannot afford the cost of materials to make instruments. Little government funding is available to rebuild performance halls or to provide grants for traditional musicians. However, as Afghans rebuild their economy, support for traditional music is growing.

For instance, in 2010, Dr. Ahmad Sarmast founded the Afghanistan National Institute of Music, which is dedicated to providing top quality musical education to promising young Afghans—particularly orphaned children, girls, children who work on the streets, and other vulnerable groups. Some of the Institute’s other goals include reviving and preserving Afghanistan’s musical heritage, and leading cultural diplomacy efforts between the country and other nations. According to its website, the Institute now has more than 100 young students who are learning to play the rubab, tamboor, tabla, zirbaghali, tula, and other traditional instruments.