Mahwash: Voice of gold, veil of tears

Michael Church meets Mahwash, a survivor of Afghanistan's golden age
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The Independent Culture

The literal translation of Farida's stage name, Mahwash - conferred when she was designated an Afghan "musical master" - is "like the moon", but the figure facing me on the sofa is more like a golden sun, at once dignified and full of mischief. We're in a little corner of Afghanistan in Camden Town, north London, and she's just arrived to promote a CD that will confirm her as her country's quintessential voice. But Mahwash: Radio Kaboul will alsolift the curtain on a golden age that flourished briefly before first the Communists, then the Taliban, snuffed it out.

In the Sixties and Seventies, Kabul's radio station was the focus for an explosion of popular music, in which Indian and Persian influences melded with Afghan styles to create an infectiously convivial sound. "I want the world to know about the music we had, and must not lose," says Mahwash. She was a noted singer at school, but her family forced her to stop when she went to work. She got a job at Radio Kabul as a typist, was noticed as she sang at her desk and launched as a star, but soon hit the buffers. "I got married and fell pregnant, but still went on singing, which gave offence. Some members of my family were so opposed that they put poison in my food. But luckily, I got to hospital in time, had an operation, and survived. It was clear that God didn't want me to die so young."

She tells me this almost gaily, as she does the tangled tale of her sacking by the first Communist government, her reinstatement by the second, her career under censorship, and her eventual flight to Pakistan, where she no longer dared sing. "Finally, the UN offered to get me asylum, because as a female singer I was in increasing danger." Having a married daughter in California, she chose to settle there, from whence she tours the Afghan diaspora wherever festivities demand her delicately compelling voice.

The new CD emanates from Geneva - hence the French spelling of Kabul - and there I find Mahwash's backing group, Ensemble Kaboul. Led by Khaled Arman, and including his father Hossein and his flautist cousin Osman, these instrumentalists represent a further link back to the golden age. Hossein was one of Kabul radio's leading singer-composers, and Khaled started working there at 14, though his instrument then was the classical guitar. He went on to study it in Prague, and began a concert career in Paris, but was stopped in his tracks when the guitar maestro John Williams praised his Scarlatti, but asked why he didn't play his own music.

"That question sank into my soul," says Khaled. "So I asked my father to send me a rubab." He taught himself to play this ancient Afghan lute, but found that its four frets and three melody strings limited its scope. "I decided to expand its possibilities - this is the result." His customised instrument has an extra melody string and 20 frets: the tone-palette is magically perfumed. Then he produces a delruba - a sitar played with a bow. "There's only one other delruba player in Afghanistan now. I want to save it from extinction." He's releasing a solo CD of his own - Rubab Raga - on which he recreates the authentic Afghan classical sound.

When I ask Mahwash about her future, I get a reply that confirms the truth of this week's Amnesty report on post-Taliban society. The day after Hamid Karzai's government was installed, she says, Kabul TV broadcast an old clip of her singing, swathed in a veil. Halfway through, it was stopped because complaints had been received from a mullah. Will she go back? "I long to, but I just don't dare. The government is still opposed to women's liberation." Why? "A friend, also a singer, went back, but was sent a letter that said, 'If you don't get out today, tomorrow you'll be killed.' I think I'd get a similar letter, or worse." She's speaking in an even tone, but tears now stream down her cheeks.

Mahwash and Ensemble Kaboul are in Southampton on 16 Oct and Blackheath Halls on 17 Oct, then on tour. Their CD is on the Accords Croises label. 'Rubab Raga' is on Arion. The tour is in support of Afghanaid (