War, Exile and the Music of Afghanistan by John Baily - book review: Where making music is a matter of life and death

A vivid picture of what has been happening since the communist government was worn down by the jihadis, and mujahideen rule gave way to that of the Taliban

Without the heroic efforts of the British husband-and-wife ethnomusicological team of John Baily and Veronica Doubleday, we would know very little about the music of Afghanistan. Since their two-year sojourn in Herat in the 1970s, they have produced a steady stream of CDs, books, and articles, tracking the lives of musicians first within Afghan borders, then further afield when making music in that war-torn land became a seriously dangerous thing to do.

Moreover, they have immersed themselves deeply enough in Afghan music to win shauqi status as respected amateur performers: she as a singer, he as a player of the dutar and the boat-shaped rubab lute, with its guttural-ethereal sound-palette.

This book is Baily's summing-up of what they have learned so far, and it comes accompanied by a DVD containing four films he has made of Afghan musicians at work, both in their native country and later in exile in Pakistan and California.

He grounds his narrative in history, with the music-loving Afghan emirs who presided over the development of a truly Afghan musical style in the 19th century. Influences fed in from north India and Iran, resulting in the refined instrumental amalgam that can still be heard in the diaspora today. Meanwhile, the ghazal was becoming the dominant Afghan vocal genre: poems about a love at once human and divine, set melismatically to music. Established in 1940, Radio Kabul took over the torch of patronage and in the 1960s – when the country was enjoying a brief period of quasi-democracy – musicians were riding high.

With its complementary DVD, this book gives a vivid picture of what has been happening since the communist government was worn down by the jihadis, and mujahideen rule gave way to that of the Taliban, who burned instruments and persecuted their owners. Baily's film of exiled musicians in Peshawar is very moving: we accompany its central figure, a rubab player named Amir Jan Herati, as he records, plays at weddings and takes us to his infant daughter's grave, where he weeps for all he has lost. As Baily points out, the Taliban evolved their own form of music – rough chants called tarana – which didn't contravene their pathological prohibitions.

This book ends on a relatively upbeat note. But when a Kabuli woman can be lynched in the street for an imaginary offence with the police looking on – as happened recently – the misogyny which has always disfigured Afghan music lives viciously on.

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