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

6 Things You Might Not Know about Bamiyan

In a country bursting with historic landmarks and cultural riches, the Bamiyan Valley stands out as one of Afghanistan’s most important and impressive heritage sites. Despite its relatively remote location in Central Afghanistan, the city of Bamiyan and the surrounding area is known today as a vibrant hub of Afghan culture and creativity from both past and present. Read on for a look at some fascinating facts you might not know about this amazing site.

1. Bamiyan is the former home of the Buddhas of Bamiyan.

Bamiyan Afghanistan
Image courtesy Carlos Ugarte | Flickr

Bamiyan’s original claim to fame is the historic Buddhas of Bamiyan—two monumental Buddha statues that were carved directly into the sandstone cliffs of the valley roughly 1,500 years ago. An awe-inspiring example of Afghanistan’s ancient Buddhist heritage, which had all but disappeared from the country by the 10th century, the giant sculptures were unfortunately destroyed in 2001 as a result of Afghanistan’s internal conflict. However, in response to this cultural tragedy, scholars and experts around the world have been working ever since to preserve the other significant archaeological material in the area, and to one day perhaps rebuild the Buddhas.

2. The world’s first oil paintings can be found at Bamiyan.

If you think that oil painting was first developed during the European Renaissance, it’s time to think again. In addition to the Buddha statues, the Bamiyan Valley boasts an incredible system of more than 1,000 caves that were once used as Buddhist monasteries, chapels, and sanctuaries. Inside these caves, the remains of striking wall paintings created using the world’s first oil paints can be found, along with other decorative features and small carved figures.

3. Bamiyan was an important stopping point on the Silk Road.

Although the location of Bamiyan seems somewhat isolated and remote today, the area was once a globalized and cosmopolitan center along the fabled Silk Road trading route. Linking ancient Rome with China and India, the Silk Road saw not only goods but also philosophies, religions, and ideas passed back and forth between East and West. Afghanistan, particularly Bamiyan, was at the very heart of the route. In addition, Alexander the Great himself is recorded as having passed through Bamiyan, while Mani, the mystic and philosopher who founded the Manicheans, is believed to have lived and studied there.

4. Bamiyan is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The cultural landscape and archaeological remains of the Bamiyan Valley constitute one of the two UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Afghanistan (the other is the famous Minaret of Jam).

Bamiyan was added to the World Heritage list in 2003 in recognition of its outstanding universal cultural value, particularly as an example of Afghanistan’s Buddhist heritage, and of Western Buddhism in general. At the same time, the site was also included on the List of World Heritage in Danger, which identifies and monitors important cultural heritage sites whose ongoing existence may be threatened by factors such as environmental damage or security risks. (In recent years, Afghanistan has been working closely with the Japanese government to fulfill the conditions necessary for removing Bamiyan from the Danger list.)

5. Bamiyan is a member of the UNESCO Creative Cities Network.

In 2004 UNESCO launched its Creative Cities Network (UCCN), an initiative developed to foster cooperation and support among global cities that prioritize creativity as part of their sustainable urban development efforts. In 2015 Bamiyan became the first urban center from Afghanistan—and all of Central Asia—to join the network.

This membership is not only a reflection of Bamiyan’s rich cultural past but also of the investments the area is making in the present-day areas of crafts and folk art (one of the seven categories of creativity covered by the UCCN). For example, Afghanistan’s Department of Rural Rehabilitation and Development has conducted local carpet weaving projects that employ some of the region’s most vulnerable people.

7. Bamiyan has been suggested as the site of the Garden of Eden.

For centuries, people have speculated about which real-world places might have been the site of the Garden of Eden, and interestingly enough, Bamiyan has been proposed as a possibility. In 1799, Captain Francis Wilford, a somewhat eccentric scholar, suggested in the journal Asiatic Researches that because four rivers flow out of the Bamiyan Valley, the site could be the location of the biblical garden.

Whether or not you believe this claim, there seems to be little question that Bamiyan is beautiful enough to be considered an earthly paradise. Poised just below the spectacular ranges of the Hindu Kush, the Bamiyan Valley is lush and fertile, full of orchards, pastures, and flowers, and its isolated location (by present-day standards) has helped protect it from much of the conflict that has troubled other parts of Afghanistan. It’s therefore perhaps not surprising to learn that Bamiyan can be translated as “land of shining light.”

Everything You Need to Know about Traditional Afghan Cuisine

Largely based on seasonal produce, dry goods such as wheat, rice, barley, and maize, and dairy products such as milk, whey, and yogurt, Afghan cuisine is often described as a fusion between Indian and Middle Eastern cookery. In this article, we look at a selection of revered Afghan dishes and their place in Afghan history.

Rice Dishes

Rice is the most important cultural component of most Afghan meals, and a great deal of time and effort is expended in creating rice dishes. Wealthy Afghan families typically consume one rice dish each day. In times gone by, royal Afghan households committed much time to the invention and preparation of elaborate rice dishes, as evidenced by the plethora available in Afghanistan today. Family gatherings such as weddings and holiday celebrations typically incorporate several rice dishes, with the reputations of Afghan cooks made and broken by their skill with rice preparation.

There are several different types of Afghan rice recipes. Challow rice, for instance, is traditionally served with qormah, casseroles, and stews. Challow is white rice that is boiled in saltwater before being drained and baked in an oven.

rice

Kabuli palaw, Afghanistan’s national dish, is cooked in the same way as challow, but it is prepared with meat and stock and infused with herbs and spices before being baked. This result is an elaborate dish comprising a variety of flavors, colors, and aromas. Caramelized sugar is often incorporated into the rice, lending the dish a rich brown color. Created for upper-class families of Kabul, Kabuli palaw is topped with carrots, almonds, and raisins before serving.

To make zamarod palaw, spinach is added before the dish is baked, resulting in a rich emerald hue. Meanwhile, narenj palaw is a sweet, elaborate dish, made with chicken, saffron, almonds, pistachios, and orange peel.

Shola is a traditional Afghan dish that calls for sticky, short-grain rice. It is prepared in both sweet and savory versions, with the latter becoming increasingly popular in recent years. Savory shola often features split peas or mashed mung beans, as well as meats such as lamb or beef. The dish is particularly popular during the Afghan wintertime, when it is often served with quroot (a type of dried curd), a glass of plain yogurt, and a fresh vegetable salad. There are many different versions of shola available across Afghanistan today, and the dish is also popular throughout the Middle East, particularly in Iran, where various other ingredients are commonly incorporated in its preparation.

Mastawa, another rice dish traditionally prepared in the winter, incorporates short-grain rice and sun-dried mutton simmered in an aromatic broth infused with onions, garlic, mint, turmeric, and cilantro. Bitter orange peel and hot peppers are added near the end of cooking to make this sticky rice dish fragrant, hearty, and spicy.

Meat Dishes

Qormah is a popular dish throughout Afghanistan, with more than 100 different variations, including:

  • Qormah e nadroo: A lamb or veal dish served in an onion-based sauce, incorporating lotus roots, cilantro, and yogurt.
  • Qormah e lawand: A traditional dish prepared with lamb, chicken, or beef, and cooked with onions, turmeric, yogurt, and cilantro.
  • Qormah e gosht: Translated as “meat qormah,” this dish is a commonly served accompaniment to the palaw rice that is popular at gatherings.
  • Qormah e alou-bokhara wa dalnakhod: A fruitier take on qormah featuring chicken or veal and prepared with onions, lentils, cardamom, and sour plums.
  • Qormah e sabzi: A fusion of lamb and sautéed spinach and greens.
  • Qormah e shalgham: A sweet and sour recipe prepared with lamb, turnips, onions, and sugar.

Mantu is a highly popular native dumpling dish. Since it is time consuming to prepare, it is often reserved for special occasions and large gatherings such as weddings. Dumplings are filled with onions and ground beef or lamb before being steamed. The dish is sometimes served in a tomato sauce topped with a mixture of yogurt, split chickpeas, and garlic. Ashak is another traditional dumpling dish. Originating in Kabul, it is made with leeks, sautéed tomatoes, ground meat, a garlic-yogurt sauce, and red kidney beans.

Kebabs are popular from Europe to the Middle East to India. In Afghanistan, they are served by restaurants as well as street vendors. Every Afghan restaurant has its own unique take on the dish. Traditionally made of lamb, kebabs are often served with naan bread, or sometimes rice, and customers often sprinkle sumac on the dish. The quality of a kebab is said to hinge on the quality of meat it was made from, with pieces of fat from the tail of the sheep often added to lamb skewers to improve the flavor.

Afghan Desserts

Believed to have originated in India, firnee is a traditional dish that is made from cornstarch, milk, and sugar and flavored with rosewater and aromatic spices like cardamom and saffron.

Haft mewa is sweet Afghan soup made from dried fruit and nuts that is traditionally eaten during the Afghan New Year celebrations, when it is often enjoyed at breakfast time.