Spotlight on the Unique Traditional Instruments of Afghanistan

New York City might not be the first place you’d think of in connection with Afghan music, but surprisingly enough, the city’s famous Metropolitan Museum of Art is home to one of the finest collections of traditional Afghan instruments in the world. Comprised of 29 different instruments, the collection was donated to the Met in 2015 by Mark Slobin, a former professor of music and American studies at Wesleyan University.

Slobin gathered the instruments between 1967 and 1972. During this five-year period, he traveled repeatedly to northern Afghanistan in order to conduct extensive research into Afghan music, culture, language, and general society. This fieldwork, along with the instruments themselves, would eventually prove to be more valuable than anyone anticipated.

Just a few short years later, the Soviet invasion of 1979 initiated a decades-long period of civil conflict in Afghanistan. During these challenging years, music became widely banned. Many musicians (and their instruments) either fled the country or were driven underground, and Afghanistan’s rich musical heritage fell into decline.

Slobin’s instrument collection—along with his in-depth research, which includes folk music recordings, films, and hundreds of music-related images—therefore stands as an important and rare glimpse into an aspect of Afghanistan’s culture that has been all but lost. As a result of Slobin’s work, the fascinating traditional Afghan instruments that visitors to the Met can see and learn about include:

The Qobuz

A type of fiddle widely used in northern Afghanistan, the qobuz is an ancient instrument of Turkic origin. The instrument is mentioned in the first comprehensive dictionary of Turkic languages, which was compiled in the 11th century. Shaped like a deep, curved ladle, the qobuz has a belly covered with camel or goat skin and two horsehair strings; a horsehair bow is used for playing, which generates a sound rich in overtones.

Believed to be a sacred instrument traditionally owned by shamans, the qobuz was popular during the 15th and 16th centuries for musical entertainment at Afghanistan’s royal courts. The qobuz featured in the Slobin collection at the Met was custom made for the popular Afghan folk musician Baba Naim.

The Dambura

Another traditional Afghan instrument of Turkic origin is the dambura (sometimes known as the dombra or dombyra). A type of lute typically made from a single block of wood, the dambura features a long, thin neck; a deep, oblong bowl; and two playing strings.

It is played either by plucking or strumming the strings. In some regions, musicians will also bang or strike the instrument while playing in order to produce a strong percussive sound.

The Waj

More formally known as a Kafir harp, the waj is a traditional arched harp, typically with either four or five strings, used by the Kafir people of northeastern Afghanistan’s Nuristan province. Interestingly, although similar harps were historically widespread throughout Central Asia and India, the waj is not found anywhere else in Afghanistan today.

The instrument features two main components: the soundbox, made from a hollow piece of wood covered with a thick, stretched animal skin; and the stringholder, which is a curved branch positioned on top of the soundbox. Traditionally, the waj is played at social gatherings, usually as an accompaniment to epic storytelling or heroic songs.

The Nai

One of the few wind instruments used in Afghan music, the nai (or ney) is an end-blown flute of Persian origin. The instrument is little more than a hollow tube, usually made from a piece of hollow cane or a large reed, with five or six finger holes and one thumb hole (some nai also feature decorative painting or carving). Given the nai’s basic, simple design, it’s hardly surprising to learn that the instrument is one of the oldest still in use. It has been played continually for roughly 5,000 years.

The Ghichak

A very popular instrument in Afghanistan’s central and northern regions, the ghichak is a type of two-stringed fiddle that is played with a kaman (a horsehair bow). Distinct from many other traditional Afghan instruments which are made of wood or natural materials, the body of the ghichak is made from a large metal tin, which gives the instrument its characteristic sound.

Looking Ahead: The Future of Afghan Music.

Happily, although Afghanistan’s musical heritage suffered greatly during the country’s conflict years, traditional music is once again on the rise in Afghanistan. In recent years, a number of local and international organizations have launched programs aimed at reviving Afghanistan’s musical traditions and bringing back the use of traditional instruments.

For example, the Aga Khan Trust for Culture’s Master-Apprentice Music Training Program sees hundreds of students learning to play traditional instruments under the tutelage of master musicians in Kabul and Herat. Likewise, the Afghanistan National Institute of Music, founded in 2010 by musicologist Dr. Ahmad Sarmast, provides children and young teens with training in general academics and music, with a particular focus on traditional Afghan music.

Featured Image courtesy US Embassy Kabul Afghanistan

A Look at the National Museum of Afghanistan and Its Many Treasures

Located in Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul, the National Museum of Afghanistan was established in 1919. Originally housed in Bagh-i-Bala Palace, the museum housed weapons, miniatures, manuscripts, and works of art belonging to the Afghan royal families.

In this article, we look at the history of the museum, its collections, and the important artefacts housed there.

The original Afghan National Museum opened during the reign of King Amanullah Khan.

Originally known as a “Cabinet of Curiosities,” the collection was moved to its present location in 1931. In 1964, historian Nancy Dupree cowrote A Guide to the Kabul Museum.

During the 1990s, the site served as a military base. Curators sealed items in metal boxes and removed them for safekeeping, storing many artefacts in vaults throughout Kabul, while others were looted and found as far afield as Europe.

Between 2003 and 2006, the museum carried out extensive structural refurbishments, at a cost of around $350,000. Museum officials recovered precious objects, adding them to inventories and placing them back on display.

Since 2007, Interpol and UNESCO have helped recover more than 8,000 artefacts belonging to the National Museum of Afghanistan. In July 2012, the British Museum returned 843 artefacts, including the priceless first-century Begram Ivories.

The Begram Ivories consist of more than a thousand figures and plaques.

Dating back to the first and second centuries CE, these ivory and bone carvings are widely regarded as some of the finest examples of Kushan art. Rediscovered in the 1930s in Bagram, Afghanistan, these carved panels were likely originally attached to wooden furniture.

The carvings attest to the cosmopolitan tastes of the local elite, the skills and sophistication of local craftsmen, and the prolific ancient trade in luxury goods.

The ancient city of Kapisi, located near modern Bagram, formed the capital of the Kushan Empire, an ancient civilization that spanned northwest India to northern Afghanistan. Dominating two passes of the Hindu Kush mountains, Kapisi was a strategically important city. Early Kushans are well known for their arts, producing sculptures, paintings, and friezes between the first and fourth centuries CE.

The Begram Ivories include intricate, decorative plaques that depict male and female courtiers, musicians, and dancers. They also feature mythological creatures, such as griffins, as well as elephants, lions, birds, flowers, and architectural backdrops. Color pigments recovered during analysis reveal they were originally painted red, black, blue, and indigo.

The Bactria Exhibition

The historic region of Bactria in Central Asia encompassed what is now Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. It was home to a number of civilizations over the millennia, including the Persian Achaemenid Empire, the Greek Seleucid Empire, and the Greco-Bactrian Empire. Bactria was famous for its wealth, thousand cities, and the outstanding fertility of its lands.

Balkh, Bactria’s capital, formed the cultural and political center of the Aspa, Cyanides, and Pishdadian dynasties. Balkh was an important trade center, effectively serving as a crossroads between Western and Eastern cultures throughout the Achaemenid period and later.

Both Buddhism and Zoroastrianism were practiced in Bactria until the sacred religion of Islam began to flourish throughout the region and the majority of the population became Muslim.

Over the course of the last century, archaeological sites across the region have yielded precious artefacts, many of which are exhibited by the museum today, including examples from the Stone Age and Bronze Age as well as the Aryan, Achaemenid, Greco-Bactrian Scythian, and Kushan periods.

The museum features displays of Paleolithic and Mesolithic tools, as well as intricate examples of Bronze Age jewelry inlaid with lapis lazuli. There are also pieces dating back to Alexander the Great’s expedition across the region, with ivory pieces serving as important examples of Hellenistic (Greek) art.

The Ghazni Exhibition

The word Ghazni comes from the Persian word for jewel.

In 2013, Ghazni was named the Islamic Capital of Culture by the Islamic Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (ISESCO). Situated 150 kilometers southwest of Kabul, Ghazni formed the center of the province of Arakuzia in ancient times. Once the Islamic empire’s largest city, the city lies on the road between Kabul and Kandahar.

The National Museum of Afghanistan houses an extensive collection of marble stones recovered from Ghazni over the last decade, dating back to the 11th century CE.

UNESCO has supported the museum in its refurbishment program.

Working together with UNESCO, as well as a host of other cultural development organizations, the museum has rehabilitated its buildings and grounds, invested in its staff, and revamped displays of its priceless collections.

The museum has also implemented advocacy, project design, and funding and awareness strategies, making a great deal of progress over the last few years. As a result, the National Museum of Afghanistan has established a global reputation as one of the finest collections of Afghan and Central Asian art and archaeology

Afghan Art on the World Stage at the “Made in Afghanistan” Exhibit

When you think of Afghan art, you might call to mind some examples of delicate woodwork, exquisitely set gemstones, or intricate carpet weaving. But although Afghanistan is currently experiencing an important reconnection with these historic arts and crafts, there is more to the country’s evolving artistic and cultural landscape than these traditional forms.

Intriguingly, after decades of repression, Afghanistan is once again home to a small but vibrant contemporary art scene fueled by a community of exciting and talented artists who are committed to showing the world a different side of their homeland. And show the world they did at the recent “Made in Afghanistan” exhibition, held from November 2019 to January 2020 at Etihad Modern Art Gallery in the United Arab Emirates. Read on to learn more about the exhibit, the participating artists, and why this opportunity was important for contemporary art in Afghanistan.

What was the Made in Afghanistan exhibition all about?

Made in Afghanistan is the largest art exhibition focused entirely on Afghan artists that has ever been held in the UAE. Featuring over 50 artworks from 11 different artists working across a range of disciplines, both contemporary and traditional, Made in Afghanistan is a celebration of Afghanistan’s cultural heritage that also marks the 100th anniversary of the country’s independence. The aim of the exhibition—which included handcrafts, antiques, and agricultural products alongside a wonderful selection of modern artworks—was to introduce visitors to Afghanistan’s unique artistic and cultural scene, which is often overlooked next to stories of the country’s conflicts and challenges. The exhibition also sought to deliver a special message of peace and hope from contemporary Afghan artists.

Who organized the exhibit?

A number of different partners, both in Afghanistan and in the UAE, worked together to make Made in Afghanistan possible. These players included:

The Etihad Modern Art Gallery (EMAG)—A multi-purpose art space and café in the heart of Abu Dhabi, EMAG has been providing a vital showcase for local and international artists since it was established in 2013. With the goals of advancing Abu Dhabi’s art scene, promoting Emirati culture and arts to a wider audience, and providing emerging and established artists alike with a platform for their passion, EMAG offers a regular program of art shows and events at home and internationally in partnership with respected galleries and institutions.

Berang Arts—A co-curator of Made in Afghanistan, Berang Arts is a Kabul-based group that works to develop and support contemporary arts in Afghanistan. For the past decade, the peer-run organization has been an important resource for both new and established artists trying to negotiate the challenging balance between Afghanistan’s traditional values and their own contemporary aesthetic.

The Afghan Embassy—The Embassy of Afghanistan in Abu Dhabi, one of the world’s largest Afghan embassies, played an important supporting role in organizing the Made in Afghanistan exhibit, working with both EMAG and Berang Arts to bring the artworks for display from Afghanistan to the UAE.

Which artists participated in the exhibit?

Some of the most exciting artists currently working in Afghanistan were featured in the Made in Afghanistan exhibition, including:

Mohammad Shahab Eslami—An active member of Berang Arts and a founder of the Kabul photography group Induction, Mohammad Shahab Eslami is an experimental filmmaker and photographer. A self-taught artist, Eslami explores different genres of photography to capture the form and content of contemporary human life. Six of his pieces were shown at Made in Afghanistan.

Shamsia Hassani—A co-founder of Berang Arts, Shamsia Hassani is believed to be the first female graffiti artist in Afghanistan. Her work, which features vivid imagery that symbolizes the issues faced in modern Afghanistan, can be found on walls and buildings around Kabul.

Robaba Mohammadi—At just 19 years of age, Robaba Mohammadi has overcome tremendous obstacles in order to make a name for herself as an artist. Unable to walk or use her hands due to a condition she’s had since birth, Mohammadi found her passion for art during her lonely years of growing up without being able to attend school. Today, she paints and draws using her mouth, producing beautifully detailed portraits of Afghan streets and people. She is also a passionate advocate for the rights of people with disabilities in Afghanistan.

Why was the Made in Afghanistan exhibition important?

Made in Afghanistan offered a very valuable opportunity for these 11 young artists to show their work internationally, and in another Arab country at that. As explained by Nabila Horakhsh, a co-founder of Berang Arts and a co-curator of the exhibition, Afghan artists have few opportunities to exhibit inside Afghanistan while also struggling to access international galleries. This means that chances for their work to be seen by the public are rare. Everyone involved in the Made in Afghanistan exhibition hopes that this event will mark the beginning of a long-term relationship between Afghan and Emirati artists, with more exhibits and exchanges to come on both sides.