Afghanistan has just held its first music festival in thirty years. Held almost in secrecy and with a huge level of security, the Sound Central festival showcased local Afghan bands alongside fellow musicians from Iran, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Music, the salient form of expression and thus freedom, has until now been cruelly suppressed and enslaved by the chains of despotism as Afghanistan suffered under various forms of authoritarianism. What greater expression of freedom is there than music?



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The last half-century of Afghanistan provides us with a number of fascinating contrasts. In an almost Cromwellian manner, Afghanistan has been ruled under many different types of Government, with the noticeable exception of liberal democracy.


The writer John Baily notes that ‘Islamic cultures which are tolerant towards music are likely to be liberal in other respects, and music is a sensitive indicator of a whole set of other values and attitudes’. While all Afghan governments have censured music and carefully controlled its message and production, absolute censorship only occurred under the Islamist Government of the Taliban.

Until the removal of the Taliban in 2001, Afghanistan did not enjoy any democratic tradition or laws guaranteeing freedom of expression. When radio broadcasting began in 1940, the single radio station run by the Ministry for Information and Culture dictated what could and could not be broadcast. There were few decrees that directly pertained to music - art failed to flourish because of a strong degree of blanket censorship. It was after the coup d’état in the early 1970s that the question of music became far more central to the tribal and ideological forces that brought seemingly endless conflict and bloodshed to the Afghan state.

In 1973, Mohammed Daud overthrew King Zahir, who was both his cousin and brother-in-law. The five years of Daud’s rule before the Communist takeover in 1978 provided Afghanistan with a degree of stability at the cost of censorship of expression. While music did not suffer too badly, the free press was shut down and privately owned theatres were forced to close.

Before this period, there had been a rich ‘life of music’. As well as the strong tradition of music at weddings and other family and tribal celebrations, the state encouraged Afghan music that mixed with the contemporary Western popular style. Western popular music itself was occasionally played on Radio Afghanistan, and there were various rock bands in existence among the students in Kabul.

For many Afghans in provincial urban areas, listening to radio broadcasts from Kabul was important and helped break down tribal barriers. Afghans learnt the latest popular songs – including music from the West - that were then ‘incorporated into local repertoires’. The Government saw radio as a ''way to inform the population about its policies and development programmes. Radio music placed its listeners in that modern world of which the government aspired to be part.’

This small degree of liberalism in relation to freedom of expression was evidence of a modernising state. One of the most notable musicians was Ahmad Zahir, known as the ‘Afghan Elvis’. Zahir’s father, Dr Zahir, was the Prime Minister for a short period. Ahmad Zahir was a clear manifestation of the gradual Western influence – he played the electric organ accompanied by musicians playing trumpets, electric guitars and drum kits.

While many Afghans considered the study and performance music as a job of someone with ‘low social standing’, the religious censure of music was regarded as a ‘thing of the past’. In the late 1970s, a theologian at Herat’s Theological College wrote a commissioned formal opinion in relation to the permissibility of music. This document sanctioned music as ‘lawful’ provided it met certain conditions, such as declaring the content of the music ‘well-intentioned’ and proscribing performance in mixed parties of men and women or with alcohol. This decree was then approved and signed by Abdul Wahab Saljuki, the revered ‘alem (religious cleric) of the time.

In April 1978, a Communist Government led by Nur Mohammed Taraki staged a coup against President Daud. In response to a succession of these extremely un-Islamic Communist regimes, the seven main Mujahedeen parties launched a jihad (holy war) against the Government and its Soviet backers for the following fourteen years. Afghanistan was pushed into a brutally bloody civil war.

The new Communist state, much like its Soviet backers, supported the utilisation of music to push its secular agenda. For the new society to work, the Government realised that the very culture of the people must be homogenised; and music and its ability ‘to affect character’ was regarded as the perfect tool with which to do so.

Music performance and broadcasting underwent selective censorship, and almost all forms of expression become agitprop for the new ideological forces in Kabul. A central television station was established in Kabul, followed by local television and radio stations throughout Afghanistan. The television studios imported the most advanced equipment and produced extravagant and innovative music programmes. The Ministry for Information and Culture tightly controlled all these new media. Some singers accepted the new limitations, while others fled the country.

In 1979, Taraki obtained a fatwa (religious decree) from a sympathetic ‘alem declaring that ‘jihad against religious reactionaries who followed in the footsteps of the Akhwan ul-Muslimi [the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood organisation] had full religious sanction’.

The secular government’s bizarre decree - a holy war against those who had declared holy war on them – had a musical consequence.  Anwar notes that the state-controlled media was directed to use this fatwa to attack the anti-Government Mullahs through a series of ‘skits, songs and plays’. One chorus, which was broadcast regularly on both television and radio, included the refrain: ‘Lannat bar tu aye Akhwan-ul-Shaitan’ (May the curse of God be upon you, you brothers of Satan). The use of such a song was no longer emblematic of the zealously secular ideals of Communism, but proactively harnessed and exploited the ideals of its religiously devout jihadi adversaries.

Concerts were also regularly held in support of the Communist regime. One observer remembers:
As was customary, the stage was profusely decorated with large photographs of the “great leader”. Popular artists, including Qamar Gul, Gul Zaman, Bakhat Zarmina, Master Fazal Ghani, Ahmed Wali and Hangama, were busy singing the praises of the Revolution and the Party. The well-known comic, Haji Kamran, who was acting as master of ceremonies, was dutifully leading the crowd into chants of ‘Long Live Taraki’ and ‘Love Live Amin’ whenever a new performer appeared on stage.

During a concert on the evening on 14 September 1979, Hafizullah Amin deposed the incumbent President Taraki. This new, similarly Communist regime commissioned special songs for two of Amin’s supporters, Taroon and Nawab, who were killed in the coup. The songs, which were performed on state radio and television, commemorated their ‘great deeds’.

The tradition of music at family celebrations continued throughout the Communist era. In 1986, the International Herald Tribute published an article about a private engagement party in Kabul. The band leader told the journalist that the band’s repertoire ‘includes patriotic songs about the Communist Party and against the counter-revolutionaries [the Communist Government’s name for the Mujahedeen]  … ‘I always try to topple the counter-revolutionaries in my poems and songs’, the singer told government officials acting as interpreters for visiting foreign journalists.

In neighbouring Pakistan, hundreds of thousands of Afghans were living in refugee camps not far from the border. These camps were connected to many of the Mujahedeen groups and were under control of the mullahs. The religious authorities banned any kind of music in the camps; not just live performances and audio cassettes, but even music on the radio. Such censorship was a harbinger of times to come under the despotic rule of the Taliban.

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