A lament for the lost love of traditional Afghan music

Over iftar in Kabul, a musician recounts how decades of turbulence led to slow decline for musical artists

Shafiq Baksh, centre, performs with Ahmad Wali, left, and Zulgai Nabizada at a private event in Kabul after iftar on May 29, 2019. Hikmat Noori for The National
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Afghan musician Shafiq Baksh closes his eyes in reverence as the call to prayer wafts from the loudspeaker of a nearby mosque, marking the end of the day-long Ramadan fast.

“The azaan is a kind of music that brings us close to God," he says. ""But music in itself is a path to God.”

Baksh, 50, joins an assortment of friends, some of whom are also musicians and others who simply admire his work, in prayer and then iftar at restaurant run by one of them. They gather around a large table weighed down with a variety of traditional dishes served in “Afghan portions”, a term to denote generous quantities. Borani banjan, a fried eggplant delicacy served with yogurt, and okra cooked with tomatoes are served along with Qabili pulao, an staple dish of meat and rice, are all set out in blue handmade clay dishes from Istalif, a village outside Kabul city.

The sound of conversation and soft laughter fills the room, as Urdu songs play in the background on a small speaker. Baksh does not approve of such music, produced on western instruments such as drums and piano, and using electronic software. “There is no rhythm or structure to it, there is no poetry in the lyrics and no sweetness in the words,” he says, voicing disdain for not just western music but also new music in Afghanistan.

Baksh, who plays the harmonium and sings, comes from seven generations of masters of traditional music and says crafting songs is a labour of love that requires time and effort. "The music we create needs patience and passion. Our music is structured and follows the symmetries of art. We spend hours tuning our instruments to achieve kaifiyat – a degree of excellence," he said. "What they [new artists] create is chaotic; it is sin to us."

Afghan harmonium player Shafiq Baksh tunes his instrument before a performance. Hikmat Noori for The National
Afghan harmonium player Shafiq Baksh tunes his instrument before a performance. Hikmat Noori for The National

However, he is fully aware that Afghanistan and its people are changing. Over the past few decades, as Afghanistan moved from one conflict to another with only brief periods of respite, the nation lost a lot of its traditional culture. The massive displacement due to the wars also affected its music as people who migrated returned with different tastes and new musicians catered to them. “The audience for our music has gone down by at least 50 per cent, the other half have lost their path to the newer, western music,” he laments.

We don't have much work, and we make very little money. We can barely feed our families, let alone send our children to school.

The violence has also reduced the prospects of employment for musicians like Baksh. “We are hired in times of joy and celebration; when people die, they look for those who can wash the bodies and conduct prayers,” he says. “We are made for moments of happiness.”

The changes to Afghan society caused by conflict have been unkind to the artistic community. As people grew more conservative, music and other art forms came to be seen as vulgar, until eventually Baksh and his fellow artists were outlawed under the extremist Taliban regime.

“After the fall of Dr [Mohammad] Najibullah’s government, our Muslim brothers started boycotting our music," he says, recalling the takeover of Kabul by mujahideen forces following the civil war in the early 1990s. "The government banned music and performances were held discreetly and underground. We would carry our instruments in gunny sacks and made very little money,”

Things got worse when the Taliban seized control later that decade – all forms of entertainment, including music, were outlawed. “Being a musician was reason enough to be punished. We continued to perform secretly, but at great personal risk," Baksh says. "They would destroy our instruments and burn them on bonfires. They would beat and torture anyone who was caught playing music.”

He saw musicians being punished publicly during infamous Taliban trials conducted in stadiums. “In some cases, they would chop off the ears or nose or even hands of those caught playing music,” Baksh recalls, the memory casting a pall of sadness over the room.

Ahmad Wali, 40, has been playing the rubab, a traditional Afghan instrument, since he was 15 years old. Hikmat Noori for The National
Ahmad Wali, 40, has been playing the rubab, a traditional Afghan instrument, since he was 15 years old. Hikmat Noori for The National

Baksh and his family fled the country soon after the Taliban took over. “Forget musicians, the Taliban had no dignity for any human being. They treated everyone with disrespect and hurt those who disagreed with them. We lost so many friends and family members. Every family in Kharabat district had someone lost or disabled. And for what? For being artists,” he says, his normally soft voice slowly rising.

His family has always lived in Kharabat, a historical district in old Kabul that is home to the community traditional Afghan musicians. But nowadays, most of them are struggling to survive.

“Kharabat used to be the university of music in Afghanistan, it was the identity of art in Afghanistan. The art is still there with the people of Kharabat, but the identity of the country has changed – it's known now for its conflict,” Baksh says sadly. “We don’t have much work, and we make very little money. We can barely feed our families, let alone send our children to school.”

Successive governments in Afghanistan have done little to improve the lot of musicians, and despite the fall of Taliban in 2001, conservative views about music have not changed, he says. Many people continue to see their art as haram or immoral in Islam. It is especially hard to find work during Ramadan, when most Muslims practise abstinence from vice, but this was not always the case.

“In the old days, people would come after their iftar, prayers and Quran recitations to join the nightly concerts held in communities which would go on late, till it was time for sehri, the starting of the next day’s fast,” Baksh says, recalling his early years as a musician. In stark contrast, he and his fellow musicians now spend most of the time during Ramadan sleeping and praying.

But he remains hopeful the situation will improve, even with the prospect of the Taliban returning to power through peace talks with the United States. “If the Taliban come back, they won’t be the same Taliban; they have changed. They will come for government positions, so they will come wearing suits and ties and what not,” he says, explaining how he saw a similar change with the erstwhile mujahideen fighters, who embraced a more liberal culture following the US-led invasion in 2001.

Till then, however, Baksh puts his faith in God and hopes that his music will speak for itself in influencing a change in the society. “We must never forget that we Afghans are the people who sang the poetry of Bedil, Maulana Rumi and Hafiz – those are the roots of Afghan music and that is our identity,” he says with pride.