Can an Afghanistan Songbird Be Forever Outlawed?

It’s been 12 years since US troops entered Afghanistan. With combat operations slated to end in 2014, US and Afghan leaders are scrambling to reach agreement on the details of the impending troop drawdown. In Kabul, residents wait nervously, wondering if Afghanistan’s capital city can regain its once vibrant, cosmopolitan spirit after generations of war, oppression, and occupation.

Contrary to cavalier, post-9/11 quips about bombing Afghanistan “back to the stone age”, Kabul was once a thriving city. Scrolling through a Facebook album of photos taken in Afghanistan in the ’50s and ’60s, you get a sense of the openness, optimism, and even hipness of Afghanistan after World War II.

But nearly a half-century of war between numerous parties and prolonged rule by a successive series of rulers—all sharing a lust for power and a healthy contempt for the people—have left Afghanistan a fractured land where citizens are offered a series of unenviable choices: dictators or warlords, security or a restricted “freedom”, corruption or chaos. Through it all, there has been music—sometimes uniting, sometimes dividing, but always serving as a point of organization for the Afghan people.

Trade across Afghanistan’s rocky landscape brought influences from Europe, Persia, Arabia, and India, leaving Afghanistan with music that is simultaneously rural and cosmopolitan. Afghanistan developed strong improvisational art music traditions, which rival those of neighboring India or Persia.

While rooted in classical and folk traditions, contemporary Afghan music has been influenced by another factor, as well: the radio. Beginning as Radio Kabul in the ’20s, by the mid-’40s, Radio Afghanistan was broadcasting throughout much of the country. With programming in a host of local languages, it became the popular center of Afghan culture. Not only did the station feature venerated artists, but musicians from all over the country found their way to the station’s Kabul studio to perform live on the air.

However, while the much of the world was basking in post-WWII prosperity, dark clouds were forming to Afghanistan’s east. The independence and subsequent partitioning of India along religious and tribal lines created great discomfort in Afghanistan. As tensions along the border with the newly formed Pakistan increased, Afghanistan found itself compelled to move closer to the Soviet Union—a relationship that would eventually consume the State.

Still, the music went on. In the ’60s, Radio Afghanistan began recording Afghan artists. And by the ’70s, Afghans had developed a passion for cassette tapes. It was the beginning of the golden age of Afghan music and the rise of the Afghan pop stars. These artists stood in stark contrast to those who came before. Where previously musicians had come from the lower classes of society, many of the new pop stars were from wealthy families. While the old guard were exclusively professional musicians, many of the new stars had worked or trained in other fields. And where the older musicians sought to uphold and celebrate their traditions, the new pop-stars brought in new sounds from abroad. Nowhere is this more evident than in the deliciously lo-fi sounds of Ahmad Zahir.

A pop star in every sense of the word, Zahir’s good looks, cool demeanor, and crooning voice earned him the moniker “The Afghan Elvis”. His more than 30 albums, which featured everything from musical settings of Farsi poetry to covers of American pop hits, were well known throughout the country.

Unfortunately, change was on the way. In 1973, allegations of the corruption and growing concern over income inequality led to the overthrow of King Mohammed Zahir Shah, who had ruled Afghanistan for 50 years. Coup leader Mohammed Daoud Khan declared himself president. But tensions between Daoud the Marxist People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) had been evident from the start, and in 1978, the PDPA overthrew and executed Daoud in what became known as the Saur Revolution.

Threatened internally and externally, the Afghan government invited Soviet tanks and troops into the country. Caught somewhere between the warring factions was Zahir himself, who died under mysterious circumstances in June of 1979. Soviet leaders eventually overthrow the Afghan government and, by the end of 1979, Afghanistan was under Soviet control.

For the next decade, Afghanistan was essentially an occupied territory in a state of perpetual war. Musicians found themselves in a most uncomfortable position. While there were still plenty of performing opportunities, they all ran through the occupying regime. The Soviet takeover of Radio Afghanistan meant that musicians were finding themselves under more and more pressure to perform “revolutionary music”. The twin pressures of state censorship and the instability borne out of the conflict between Soviet leaders and the Mujahideen—Islamist fighters who partnered with tribal leaders in Afghanistan’s remote provinces to fight the Soviets—prompted many Afghan musicians to leave the country in the ’80s.

The Soviets eventually found the Mujahideen intractable and left Afghanistan. After a decade of gorilla warfare, which brought in zealous jihadis from around the world, as well as millions of dollars in military aid from the United States and training from neighboring Pakistan, the once loosely organized bands of religious militants now constituted a strong, well organized fighting force. And in 1994, after a string of rulers and coalitions failed to fill the vacuum left by the Soviets departure, one group of Islamist fighters was poised to seize power. It was the beginning of the Taliban era.

Afghan musicians had always proved adept at finding ways to preserve and advance their music regardless of the political or economic climate, but the Taliban presented a daunting challenge. While there is nothing in the Koran that specifically forbids music, hardline Islamists like the Taliban point to hadiths (a collection of words and actions attributed to Mohammed) that label music as a distraction, which threatens to lure good Muslims from what should be a singular devotion to spiritual practice.

Under Taliban rule all music was banned. When not beating women who dared to be seen in public wearing anything but a burqa, agents of the Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice roamed the streets issuing stern punishments to anyone listening to or playing music. They smashed and burned instruments. And even destroyed cassette tapes regardless of the content—an ironic move, given how important Mujahadeen fighters remembered tapes of resistance songs being during the war with the Soviets.

Radio Afghanistan, which once used music to connect the sprawling nation with local, national, and international music, turned into a tool for the dissemination of Taliban propaganda. The Taliban’s war on music (practically all amusement, for that matter) went so far as to outlaw songbirds. For the half-decade between 1996 and 2001, the Taliban terrorized the people of Afghanistan, and Kabul, which had once been called “The Paris of South Asia” became seen as hopelessly stuck in the distant past.

In November of 2001, the tanks of another superpower rolled through the streets of Kabul. Partnering with anti-Taliban Afghan forces in the north, the United States led a coalition to overthrow the Taliban for sheltering Al-Quada in response to the September 11th terrorist attacks. Almost immediately, the streets of Kabul began to echo with song—musicians came out of hiding, residents dug up hidden instruments, radios, and cassette players, and songbirds were again sold in Afghan markets.

The popular television show Afghan Star has recaptured the spirit of Afghanistan’s golden age. Once again amateur performers take center stage, hoping to get enough votes to move on to the next round. In the same way Radio Afghanistan helped Afghans overcome geographic isolation, Afghan Star has helped to bridge ethnic gaps, promoting pop music with an Afghan twist and more traditional, regional styles, as evidenced by this performance by Reza Rezai. A member of the minority Hazara ethnic group, Rezai won Afghan Idol in 2011.

The period of American occupation has been far from peaceful. The initial thrust of US force chased the Taliban out of the light, where they continue to fight from the shadows. Kidnapping, ambushes, and bombings are common, and in many parts of Afghanistan life under the Americans has been no less precarious than it had been under the Soviets, the Mujahadeen, or the Taliban. Hardline mullahs disapprove of programs like Afghan Star, and female Afghan Star contestant Lima Sahar, whose third place finish in the 2008 season landed her a recording contract, have been driven into hiding.

Ironically, one of the tools the Taliban uses to spread its message is music. While seeing musical instruments and secular songs as haram, the Taliban produce recordings of chants, celebrating their victories and promising death to those who oppose them. There are even places in Afghanistan were savvy travelers wisely download these propaganda songs to use as ring-tones while traveling through Taliban controlled areas.

How Afghanistan will look and sound after the Americans leave is anyone’s guess. We can only hope that in the 21st century, music will be used to bring joy, unity, and an appreciation of the beauty of life to the Afghan people, once again.