Sufi Music from the shrines of Afghanistan, Guildhall, Bath

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The Independent Culture

This Asian Music Circuit presentation provided a fitting climax to Bath Festival's World Music Weekend. All of human life was here: ecstasy and joy mingled with pain and suffering. The group of five Afghan musicians providing the evening's entertainment were reunited after the upheaval of the war only with great difficulty; Ghulam Haidar, who plays the Herati dutar (a long-necked lute), had been locked in a container by the Taliban and tortured, then forced to flee the country and break rocks for a living in Pakistan. If the wooden rubat (a short-necked lute) played by Ghulam Husain looked strikingly new and green, it was because nearly all the old instruments in Afghanistan have been destroyed. The musicians quarter of Kabul where the members of the group used to live and work no longer exists.

But if the memory of recent events was never far from one's mind, the distant past seemed closer still. Doubts about the advisability of music-making in an Islamic context go back as far as the Koran (as do ways of circumventing them), and much of this concert's repertoire was centuries-old, as were the hereditary callings of most of the musicians. Although the programme included instrumental music, the majority of pieces were based on ancient texts sung by vocalist Wahid Shaidal, and accompanied by the two lutenists, together with the father and son team of Ustad Asef Mahmud and Yusuf Mahmud on tablas, who together led the group.

As one would expect, the music has close ties to Northern India and Iran, with the specifically Sufi elements occurring in praise-songs to the Prophet's son-in-law Ali (whose mausoleum at Mazar-e-Sharif is the greatest shrine for musicians), and in settings of mystical poetry by Rumi and others. Sitting on Persian rugs which covered the floor of the stage in Bath's most imperial venue, the Guildhall, the traditionally-dressed musicians played for an hour and a half to an increasingly rapturous reception. Whatever the precise technical aspects may have been (and it's evidently a characteristic of Afghan music that the modes, beats and time-cycles wander a bit), one was aware throughout of more universal attributes: ebb and flow, tension and release, figure and ground. Bruce Wannel's programme notes and translations contained a stream of wonderful images. "I was not even a drop, and now you have made me an ocean!", went one line.

For the last few pieces, the Afghans were joined by two Iranians, Ahmad Anusha on nai (an end-blown reed flute) and Husain Zahawi on daff (a flat frame-drum). At the end, as everyone in the audience stood up and cheered while the clearly moved musicians embraced and kissed each other, it was all terribly moving.