Coming under Sogdian, Bactrian, Greek, Parthian, Persian, Arab, Seljuk, Mongolian, Samanid and Ghaznavid rule, the mountainous region is an unlikely host to a plethora of cultures and languages – Pashto, Baluchi, Tajik, Dari, Koroshi, Sarawani, Moghol, Turkmen and Uzbek. For the rest of the world, the people using those linguistic codes are usually referred to as Afghans.
This month marks seven years since the Western invasion of Afghanistan which initially succeeded in ousting the Taliban after 5 years of brutal – and hysterically anti-musical – fundamentalist rule. This conflict is proving today as inconclusive as the three Anglo-Afghan wars of the 19th and early 20th century. But the musical traditions of this country – forever an obligatory crossroads for east-west trade and north-south power plays – have survived it all – the violent destruction and the pervasive cultural influences from Iran, Turkey and India.
These recordings, captured at a time when travel was still relatively safe in Afghanistan, document the extraordinary eclecticism of local troubadours. I lack any particular ethnomusicological expertise, but this particular LP struck me with its raw originality and rough passions captured in Central Asia’s poetry. Local artists’ evident obsession with Persian imagery and the relative ease of versification yield songs of nightingales, flowers and love. Not quite the Afghanistan we know from our TV screens…
This first piece is performed on dambura (or dombra or dhamboura), a long-necked, slender lute plucked with fingernails and popular further north in the Turkic nations of the former Soviet Union. Female voices (by Alladad and Painda Gul) call out, eliciting a lone or a chorus response. Irregular clapping, coughing and the fragile flow of the track have almost Syd Barrett-ish quality.
This fast, rocking piece is performed by Zahir Jan on rebab, with the meter bolstered by a metallic, percussive clank. Rebab (or rubab) is a short-necked, carved lute with sympathetic strings and a u-shaped scroll. Musa Jan’s voice performance lays out an affective narrative with an even number of verses.
This is probably a wedding song. Compared to the Spartan simplicity of the previous settings, the use of hand-pumped harmonium (‘armoniya’) extends the textural possibilities of the composition. The song takes off and breaks off several times, with rebab (Yar Mohammad) and the popular in Kabul tabla (Baz Mohammad) interbreeding with zerbaghali. This clay goblet drum, operated here by Shahzad, is a crossbreed between Persian Tonbak and a table, from which it borrowed an black spot on its membrane. The playing technique, on the other hand, is a hybrid between tabla and darbouka fingering. Indian influence is also evident in the phrasing adopted by the lead (female) singer. The harmonium improvises during transitions between stanzas, making hasty commentaries and echoing the closing fragments of the singer’s melody.
This is a somewhat confused piece for dambura (dhamboura) the lute, a female vocal ensemble of Alladad and Painda Gul and some dusty coughing. One could almost mistake this mood for a nomadic song from Northern Africa. A mildly polyphonic (or simply disjointed?) group ploughs on with a singularly monothematic dambura as the sole accompaniment. The track is cut off sharply.
Song from Nangarhar
Plaintive solo male voice with a hard Pakhtu accent ensures that no confusion with northern Indian music is possible. Two harmoniums are used – one sustains the leading melody, the other interjects improvised accelerations between the fragments of the text. Rebab and tabla maintain the modal and metrical order, respectively.
Sorna and Dhol
A very different male dance track scored for a high-pitched oboe sorna (played by Saydo) and cylindrical drum dhol, played by Baydo. The notes sprouting from sorna are strident but airborne like Afghan kites. The wooden stick punctures the drum with a seemingly unsteady beat, wrapped up with ubiquitous rattle injected by a twig which squeezes in-between-beats. The duo is performed by Jats – Afghanistan’s gypsies who traditionally perform the roles of jesters, wedding musicians, entertainers and sex professionals. Their instruments must not be touched by non-Jats.
A vibrato vocal piece performed by a woman (Habibullah).
Without any proof, I suspect that this is piece is an example of Tajik music. It is performed by Khan Mohammed on dotar – a lute of Persian origin, Ghausuddin on zerbaghali and Mohammad Rahim on tas (a copper bowl covered with skin membrane). The trio cuts a spirited dance with a pointed beat and an effusive lyrical content. As in Northern Indian music, the rhythm accelerates in between the various elements of the story.
Baba Moqim brings daira, a large Persian frame drum, apparently sanctioned by the Qur’an. Were it not for the theatrical impersonations by the singer, the parched membrane drum could twist the complex rhythm into a shamanic event.
Song from Norhtern Herat
Mullah Haqdad sings and accompanies himself on dotar. His initial vocal introduction is forceful and dramatic, almost “Ottoman”, blotting out the symmetric dotar accompaniment. He quiets down in the following section, allowing for some free exploration on the dotar.
Mohammad Akbar plays tula – a mid-sized recorder. The repertoire smells of rosy, springtime optimism of Persian design. Despite such fleeting comparisons, the composition betrays none of the structural rhythmic/non-rhythmic alternance that defines much of Persian music.
Ghichak and Zerbaghali
The duo of Abdul Qadir on zerbaghali and Mohammad Nazar on ghichak is passionate, intense and lost in its devoted repetition of the main vocal line. Ghichak (or richak) is a two-string bowed fiddle, similar to Indian sarangi. This excellent song is one of the highlights of the collection.
Ensemble of Northern Afghanistan
The zerbaghali maestro Mohammad Rahim returns here with a different line-up, composed of Khaistamir on dambura and Sazid Murad on tas. The trio develops a metronomic tempo that could be likened to some early industrial bands owing to its tinny metallic accent and adjoined cluster percussive effect. I bet Brian Jones of Muslimgauze was familiar with this classic. A rather young male voice recounts his story and a listener can barely escape the insistent reflection… What happened to these artists in the years that separate us from the date of this recording?
To my knowledge, Lyrichord published two more LPs devoted to Afghan music in the late 1960s and early 1970s:
FOLK MUSIC OF AFGHANISTAN Vol. 1 (1966-67)
FOLK MUSIC OF AFGHANISTAN Vol. 2 (1967)
MUSIC FROM KABUL (1972)
MUSIC FROM THE CROSSROADS OF ASIA (1973)
The first positions two were recorded by Tom and Hiromi Lorraine Sakata. The third collection was collected by Verna Gillis. The fourth position, issued by Nonesuch, contains radio recordings documented by Peter Ten Hoopen.
On a very irregular basis, Sonic Asymmetry will devote some space to similarly salient monuments to non-Western musical cultures.