What You Need to Know about the Afghanistan Music Unit

Not that long ago, traditional Afghan music was almost non-existent in Afghanistan. Civil conflict and poverty had caused many musicians to flee the country, while those who remained were generally unable to play as music was widely banned. In recent years, however, Afghanistan has rediscovered its rich musical heritage and revived traditional instruments, musical styles, and songs.

While Afghanistan’s musical renaissance has been largely spearheaded by local artists and organizations—including the Afghanistan National Institute of Music, the country’s leading institute for music education founded by the dynamic musicologist Dr. Ahmad Sarmast—a number of institutions outside the country have also played an important role in helping preserve Afghan musical traditions during the last few tumultuous decades. Perhaps the best-known of these is the Afghanistan Music Unit, housed in the music department at Goldsmiths, University of London. This research center was founded by ethnomusicology professor and Afghan music specialist Dr. John Baily.

 

What is the Afghanistan Music Unit?

Founded in 2002, the Afghanistan Music Unit (AMU) is dedicated to the study of music in contemporary, post-conflict Afghanistan, and to supporting the revival of traditional Afghan music. Under the direction of its founder, Professor John Baily, AMU conducts extensive research into Afghan music and music history, supports musicians returning to Afghanistan after years of exile, and offers concerts, workshops, and other educational resources about Afghan music to diverse audiences in its home city of London and around the world.

 

 

About the founder of the Afghanistan Music Unit

One of the world’s leading experts on traditional Afghan music, Dr. John Baily has been researching, promoting, and performing Afghan music for more than 30 years. Baily’s strong commitment to the music of Afghanistan began in 1973, when he and his wife, Veronica Doubleday—an accomplished Dari folk singer and expert on women’s music in Afghanistan—spent two years in the western Afghan city of Herat conducting ethnomusicological research. Since that time, Baily’s research has taken him around the world: he has conducted musical investigations in Afghan communities in countries such as Iran and the United States, worked with Afghan musicians worldwide, and helped establish a traditional music school in Kabul. An accomplished rabab player as well as a dedicated researcher, Baily also gives concerts and workshops on traditional Afghan music, organizes Afghan music festivals, and is a co-founder of Ensemble Bakhtar, a UK-based Afghan music collective. Baily’s contributions to the preservation of Afghanistan’s traditional music have been officially recognized by the Afghan Ministry of Culture, and have earned widespread praise from Afghan citizens.

 

The history of the Afghanistan Music Unit and its work

2002—The Afghanistan Music Unit was founded by Dr. John Baily to research and document the state of music during a new era for Afghanistan, and to provide assistance in helping the practice of traditional music recover from an extended period of extreme censorship. To launch AMU, Baily made a month-long investigative visit to Kabul; video footage of this research trip was made into the documentary film A Kabul Music Diary.

2003—Through a commission from the Aga Khan Music Initiative in Central Asia (AKMICA), Baily helped establish a Culture Bearers’ Programme in support of traditional Kabuli art music. The program saw four master musicians teaching this musical style to 35 students. The initiative proved so successful that a second AKMICA school was later established in Herat; the Kabul school continues to operate under the leadership of director Mirwaiss Sidiqi.

2004—Supported by the British Institute of Persian Studies, Baily and Doubleday made a research trip to eastern Iran, at the time home to many exiled musicians from Herat. In addition, the area supported a strong traditional music culture very similar to that of Herat. Baily and Doubleday also lectured on Herati music at Tehran University as part of their trip.

2006—Baily and AMU began a period of research, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s Diasporas, Migration & Identities Programme, into the presence of Afghan music in London and the role this music plays in connecting London with Kabul and the Afghan diaspora. Key outputs from this research period include a chapter in the book Understanding Afghans, the documentary feature Scenes of Afghan Music: London, Kabul, Hamburg, Dublin, and a concert of Afghan music performed at Goldsmiths.

2008—Baily retired from teaching and administrative duties at Goldsmiths with the goal of focusing full-time on AMU. Funded by a Leverhulme Emeritus Fellowship, Baily began conducting extensive research on music in Afghanistan and the Afghan diaspora during the years 1985 to 2009. Afghan music in Australia was a particular focus area for this project.

 

 

What’s next for the Afghanistan Music Unit?

As part of their mission to make Afghan music more accessible to a wider audience, Baily and Doubleday have plans to digitize their archive—a remarkable collection of audio recordings, super 8 films, still photos, and comprehensive field notes assembled during their early research years in Herat and their many subsequent travels throughout the Afghan diaspora. Baily also hopes to create an online learning module for the study of his primary instrument, the Afghan rabab.

Spotlight on the First National Park in Afghanistan

Although natural conservation hasn’t been a top priority for Afghanistan over the last few decades, now that the country is enjoying greater stability and prosperity, that has begun to change. The Afghan government is becoming increasingly aware of the importance of safeguarding the country’s natural heritage. With the support of a variety of international NGOs, it has taken some significant steps in recent years to protect and preserve key natural areas.

A major victory came in 2009, when Afghanistan celebrated the creation of its first ever national park. The Band-e-Amir lakes in the central Afghan province of Bamiyan have long been recognized as an area of natural beauty. Now that they have been designated as a national park, it will be easier for the country to manage sustainable tourism more effectively, preserve and protect at-risk species, and work to reverse environmental damage already done in the area.

Visitors agree that Band-e-Amir is so breathtaking that it has to be seen to be believed, but you can still get a feel for the park with these five facts:

 

  1. Band-e-Amir is one of the world’s most spectacular travertine systems.

Located in a desert area high up in the Hindu Kush mountain range, the six stunning, sapphire-blue lakes of Band-e-Amir were formed by mineral-rich water gradually seeping out of faults and cracks in the surrounding mountains. Over time, the water deposited layer upon layer of travertine, or hardened mineral, at different points on the lake bed. These layers eventually grew into the massive natural dams that now contain the lake water.

Interestingly, local lore gives an alternative explanation for how these mineral dams came into existence. Legend says that the dams that hold the lakes in place were thrown into their positions by the prophet Muhammad’s son-in-law, Hazrat Ali. The high mineral content of the water is also responsible for the incredible colors of the lakes, which can range from light turquoise to a deep, icy blue.

Band-e-Amir Lakes | Image by Johannes Zielcke | Flickr

  1. The dams of Band-e-Amir’s lakes all have names.

All of the five dams that contain Band-e-Amir’s six lakes have names. There is the Groom’s Dam, the Mint Dam, the Dam of the Slaves, and the somewhat puzzlingly named Dam of Cheese. The most famous and most visited dam, however, is Band-i-Haibat, or the Dam of Awe. This dam is 1,500 feet wide and two miles long, and its waters are believed to have healing properties (that is, if you can withstand their icy temperatures!).

 

  1. Band-e-Amir has long been a popular tourist destination.

These beautiful lakes have been a popular destination for travelers ever since the 1950s. The area experienced a peak in visitor numbers during the 1970s. Naturally, tourism was virtually non-existent during the conflicts of the 1980s and 90s. However, more and more people, domestic and foreign tourists alike, have been visiting Band-e-Amir in recent years. People are drawn to the region not only by the lakes, but also by nearby tourist magnets like the valley of Bamiyan.

The national park designation proved to be a significant boost for tourism. At present, the park can receive as many as 5,000 visitors a day in the high season. While there are some facilities currently in place for tourists, including restrooms and recreational paddle boats that can be rented for use on the lakes, the Afghan government hopes to establish more extensive amenities in the future, including guesthouses and shops.

Band-e-Amir

Band-e-Amir | Image by Afghanistan Matters| Flickr

  1. Band-e-Amir is home to plenty of wildlife.

Although habitat destruction and poaching have certainly taken their toll on the flora and fauna of Band-e-Amir, the park is still home to an impressive array of wildlife. More than 150 species of birds have been recorded – including the Afghan snow finch, which is thought to be the only bird found exclusively in Afghanistan – leading to the designation of Band-e-Amir as an Important Bird Area by BirdLife International.

Additionally, wild goats known as Ibex and wild sheep known as urials as well as wolves, foxes, and fish are all common sights within the park. But perhaps most remarkable is the fact that Band-e-Amir is home to more species of wildcat than the whole of sub-Saharan Africa, including some extremely rare examples. In 2015, a sensor-activated camera captured a photograph of a Persian leopard, which was long believed to be extinct in the region.

 

  1. The Wildlife Conservation Society is supporting Afghanistan in managing the park.

The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) has played an important role in helping Afghanistan successfully implement and manage its first-ever national park. WCS staff members have provided support with tasks like delineating the boundaries of the park, conducting preliminary wildlife surveys, developing a park management plan, and hiring and training local rangers.

As for the rangers themselves, a big part of their responsibilities involves working with local communities and the provincial government to mitigate the impact of park residents on the fragile natural habitat. For example, 500 fuel-efficient stoves have been distributed to families living in and near the park area, which greatly reduces their need to chop down park trees for firewood.

A Journey through 10 of the Most Beautiful Cities in Afghanistan

Standing for millennia at the crossroads of multiple peoples and cultures, Afghanistan has a unique cultural heritage that is as rich and diverse as it is ancient. In an area smaller than the US state of Texas, hundreds upon hundreds of spectacular monuments, remarkable archaeological sites, and stunning architectural creations are testimony to an extraordinary civilization. And there’s no better way to experience this wide array of cultural treasures than by exploring Afghanistan’s most beautiful cities, many of which are so full of history and heritage that they serve as living museums. Here are 10 you’ll want to learn more about.

 

  1. Kabul

Afghanistan’s largest city and its national capital, Kabul has existed for more than 3,500 years. It’s therefore hardly surprising that the city is home to some of the country’s most notable historic sites, including the legendary Babur’s Gardens. But don’t think that Kabul is entirely focused on the past: the city has recently embarked on a number of new architectural projects, like the Abdul Rahman Mosque, which was designed in the traditional Islamic style but was just built in 2012.

  1. Balkh

Often called “the mother of cities,” Balkh is considered by many to be one of the oldest cities in the world. Located in northern Afghanistan at the crossroads between the Middle East and eastern Asia, Balkh has a history of strong Buddhist influence, which is visible in the ruins of many Buddhist fortifications and constructions that still stand in the city today.

 

  1. Kandahar

The second-largest city in Afghanistan, Kandahar rests on the site of another city that Alexander the Great founded nearly 2,500 years ago. Today, Kandahar plays an important role in Afghanistan’s spiritual life: the city’s Friday Mosque, a deeply holy Islamic place of worship, is often called “the heart of Afghanistan.”

 

  1. Mazar-i-Sharif

Mazar-i-Sharif is home to the Blue Mosque, an absolutely stunning structure that was built in its present form more than five centuries ago. Frequently described as “an oasis for peace,” the mosque is so extraordinary that it’s not surprising to learn that it originated in a dream: according to legend, a Middle Eastern scholar dreamed that the bones of a cousin of the prophet Muhammad were resting in northwestern Afghanistan. Fascinated by this story, the sultan at the time built a shrine to honor this cousin, and the city of Mazar-i-Sharif gradually grew up around it.

 

  1. Herat

Located in western Afghanistan, Herat was one of the country’s most impressive ancient cities, and its legacy is all the more exceptional given that it has been destroyed and rebuilt several times during its history. Today, the Old City of Herat is home to a spectacular collection of medieval Islamic buildings, including the Great Mosque complex, which includes a craftsmen’s shop, where visitors can see artisans at work creating the tiles and mosaics used in the restoration and upkeep of the structure.

 

  1. Bamiyan

Another city whose development was strongly impacted by Buddhist expansion, Bamiyan is a rich archaeological mix of Persian, Greek, Turkish, Indian, and Chinese influence. At present, the city is best known as the former home of the famous Buddhas of Bamiyan—giant Buddha statues that were unfortunately destroyed in 2001. Since that time, another giant statue has been discovered, along with cave paintings from the 5th and 9th centuries.

 

  1. Bagram

Located north of Kabul, the town of Bagram may be small, but in ancient times it was an important stop for merchants traveling along the Silk Road from India. The town was originally a Persian settlement, but its development was later influenced by Greek styles of city planning and by Arab rulers; as a result, the art and architecture of the community reflect the typical Central Asian mix of styles that has been dubbed “Greco-Buddhist.”

 

  1. Samangan

This small town in northern Afghanistan was once a medieval caravan stop. Samangan is best known for its weekly market, an ancient tradition that continues to be extremely popular. The market specializes in traditional Afghan musical instruments built by local artisans.

  1. Jalalabad

This eastern city played an important role in the establishment of modern Afghanistan as it was used as a military campaign base by Ahmad Shah Durrani, the 18th-century ruler whom most regard as the founder of the contemporary Afghan state. Somewhat unusually for Afghanistan, Jalalabad boasts large green areas and surrounding water, which are an important element of the city’s unique beauty. There is also a great deal of striking architecture in Jalalabad, including the Mausoleum of King Amanullah Khan and the more modern Nangarhar University.

 

  1. Faizabad

The northeastern city of Faizabad has historically been cut off from the rest of Afghanistan due to poor road connections. As a result, the local culture is remarkably well preserved. Today, there are still two functioning bazaars in Faizabad, where residents trade diverse items from cloth and cutlery to tea and sugar.