Afghan music: Concerto for shattered instruments, broken lives and new dreams

Outlawed Afghan music is flourishing once more, finds Michael Church

Sunday 10 March 2002 01:00 GMT

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Those inclined to regard Afghanistan's society as "medieval" should get along to the Royal Albert Hall on Thursday, where the inaugural London Concert for Afghanistan may temper their prejudice. This happy event, whose proceeds will go to a raft of charities including Médecins sans Frontières, will serve as a reminder of the sophisticated musical culture which President Rabbani and the Taliban sought to erase. On the platform will be Afghan musicians who will not have met for 15 years. And among them will be two British ethnomusicologists who have done more than anyone to help keep Afghanistan's musical flame alive.

John Baily and Veronica Doubleday went to live in Herat in 1973. Baily's purpose was to research the remarkable development of the dutar lute, which had progressed from two strings to 14 in a mere 25 years; he took lessons in both this and the rubab. Meanwhile Doubleday's purpose was to chart women's music: she learned to sing and play the daireh tambourine-drum, and after a year had become a member of a local women's band.

But the most significant thing they did during their two-year sojourn was to record. Their equipment was basic – they didn't even have a stereo mike – but the quality of their recordings was so good that Unesco put out a CD of them (Musicians of Heart), which has just been re-released. In 1985 Baily made a film called Amir, which portrayed a refugee Afghan musician's life in Peshawar, and in 1994 he went back to Herat, by which time music had become heavily censored: no music at weddings or country fairs, and no professional women musicians at all (the women's band was now in prison).

Last month, after years of campaigning, Baily and Doubleday had the satisfaction of seeing London University's Goldsmiths College, where they teach, launch its Afghan Music Unit. And there they've embarked on a grand scheme of restitution: later this year, all being well, they will take back to Herat 30 hours of the music they recorded in happier days, and distribute it in cassette form.

"Music was once the glue that held Afghanistan's fissiparous society together," says Baily. "We hope it may become so again." His other great service to Afghan music has been through a report – Can You Stop The Birds Singing? – which is posted on the freemuse website, and which charts the damage which Afghan music suffered under progressive systems of censorship. Here you can follow in detail how musical life was physically eroded (instruments burnt, players beaten), and how it vestigially survived, in mangled form, under the Taliban. Here too you can learn about Afghan music in its heyday, both in its Indian-influenced classical styles, and in its multifarious regional forms. And here you will gather how important radio has been in shoring up Afghanistan's musical culture. Radio Kabul's requirements led to the creation of new styles of popular song in the Fifties, and it acted as a conservatory of music, providing permanent posts for musicians and composers. Ferida Mahwash, who will sing at the Albert Hall this week, was one of the women singers whom Radio Kabul helped achieve fame in less sexually-oppressive times.

Mahwash also figures in Breaking the Silence – Music in Afghanistan, on BBC4 tomorrow evening. This remarkable film by Simon Broughton, which opens with the ruined Kabul Theatre's first public concert in a decade, brings the story bang up to date. Broughton's primary focus is on Afghanistan's instruments – he shows them in close-up being both made and played – but his film is full of poignant personal histories. Naghma recalls how the Communists and the Mujahedin fought over her voice, how she was shot at on stage, and how her sister was poisoned in a botched attempt to poison her. A male singer grimly recalls how the Taliban blackmailed him into singing for them, while his companion remembers how they got out some subversive lyrics in a language the Taliban didn't understand. We watch a butcher at work – and then discover that his massive hands were originally employed in plucking a lute; as the film ends, he triumphantly goes back to his real vocation. "Destroying an instrument is like injuring a child," says a tanbur player, cradling a Taliban-shattered hulk in his arms.

Afghan Muslims have yet to sort out their tangled attitudes to music – there are still plenty of hard-liners who regard it as the work of the devil. Moreover, women musicians have a long way to go before they are back where they were in the Seventies: at present they're still kept off the television screen. We see a wedding party, where the men dance to the band while the woman lurk unseen behind a curtain. But this week, at least, we should celebrate.

'Breaking the Silence', BBC4, Monday, 10.30pm. The CD 'Afghanistan: Female Musicians of Herat', is released by Unesco. London Concert for Afghanistan, Royal Albert Hall, London SW7 (020 7589 8212) Thursday, 7.30pm

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