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Music in exile

Afghan musicians who fled their country in troubling times have spread their art far and wide

Music in exile

As the repatriation of the Afghan refugees has gathered pace, the plight of the Afghan musicians has again come under the spotlight. As they are under pressure to go back, one wonders, whether it is a good or a bad option for them.

Most of their lives they have lived in Pakistan, learning and then practicing their art in the areas that fall in Pakistani territory. They do not know what lies in store for them in their own land where they are almost like aliens.

The Afghan musicians, like the Afghan people, have had a very stressful time since the Soviet invasion about 35 years ago. They initially fled to Pakistan when the fighting intensified, and were welcomed too — as Pakistan was part of the coalition that wanted the Soviets to leave Afghanistan. Camps were set up with generous helpings from the various countries and international aid agencies, and there was no bar for these refugees to be confined to those camps, unlike in Iran, where a similar situation also arose.

A few years later, with the Taliban takeover and a total ban on music, its practice becoming a cognizable offence, these musicians again set up their residences, baithaks and offices in Peshawar. Videos and other tapes were strung on roundabouts to symbolise the execution and death of music, as indeed the other arts, in that frantic purist regime in Kabul and Kandahar.

When the Mutahidda Majlis-e-Amal took over in 2002, the government of the then North Western Frontier Province (now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) discouraged music and forced the musicians to quit practicing it. In those five years as the drive to cleanse society of evil enforced by the provincial government got underway, armed holy warriors raided the balakhanas in Dabgari Bazaar in a crusade to rid society of obscenity and vulgarity.

A few years later, with the Taliban takeover and a total ban on music, its practice becoming a cognizable offence, these musicians again set up their residences, baithaks and offices in Peshawar.

Even in Islamabad, shops selling CDs were either blown up or the owners threatened that if they did not stop doing business in music and CDs, their outlets would be attacked. The film DVDs and music CDs were heaped and a huge bonfire lit with people invited to see the triumph of effectively putting an end to evil.

The musicians in Dabgari Bazaar, Peshawar, have been residents of that area for years. They gave refuge to the Afghan musicians during the ultra puritanical regime of the Taliban, and became the centre of the entire Afghan music industry.

Ironically, Afghan music with its musicians moved out of its natural habitat and lived in exile for years, feeding the hunger for music back in Afghanistan through cassettes and other forms of recordings, which could be transported across the border from its base in Peshawar.

With Karzai in power, these musicians started to go back to Afghanistan. Most of them went back to Kabul to practice their art. The victory of Awami National Party and Pakistan People’s Party in the NWFP provided relief to musicians and artistes in the province — as music had been under siege earlier.

The music culture of Afghanistan was dominated by the Persian traditional music as well as the Afghan folk music until a century ago the Amir of Kabul, Sher Ali Khan, invited Indian Muslim musicians to his court in Kabul. He gave them lands in Kabul — the section of the old Kabul now known as Kharabaat (entertainment quarters) — and transported them back and forth on elephants. These transplanted Indian musicians gained a prominent status among the Afghan musicians, and from that time the Indian classical music became established as the elite classical tradition of Afghanistan.

Now with the strengthening of the drive to send the refugees back, they are once again in a dilemma. Many of these musicians have travelled outside of the subcontinent, migrated to Europe and the United States, and have been practicing their art from the capitals of the world. Some have become famous and travel internationally, visiting Pakistan as their families and extended families are here. They occasionally go to Afghanistan for visits but rarely for music performances. In the West, they have joined an ever-growing group of expat musicians from all over the world, particularly the Muslim countries, like Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Iraq, who have either fled poverty or persecution in their own lands. Those who migrated have prospered but those who could or did not have been tossed from one side of the border to the other.

Their presence in Pakistan has yielded positive results in terms of music. rabab, the music instrument associated with the Pashtuns, has evolved from folk track playing to solo classical performances. Folk music is monotonous yet these artistes use different sliding and pull-off techniques to maintain their listeners interest, or while playing the same melody they keep adding new lyrics to it or they stand and dance with the rabab. The folk artistes now also use pull-off as fading element in their melodies.

Playing of classical music on rabab by Pakistans’s Tanveer Hussain Tafu and Afghanistan’s Homayun Sakhi’s is changing the instrument’s playing style. The tuning of the instrument is not fixed yet, and because of its low range it is very difficult to fix its tuning. But Tafu has used alternative tuning, different than the tuning of folk rabab.

The classical rabab players now play raags on it, while maintaining the aesthetics of the raag and they have learned the art of shifting from one raag to the other.

While Homayun Sakhi has introduced a new playing technique in rabab, that is the use of chords. Using this technique, he has played complete melodic line. This new technique and the alternate tuning method is the result of their exposure to North Indian and Western Music.

Sarwat Ali

The author is a culture critic based in Lahore

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