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‘I Feel Like A Dead Fish’: Silenced By The Taliban, Afghanistan's Musicians Despair

Two musicians perform a "music-less song" at a wedding party in Herat Province.

Ahmad Gholami, a 25-year-old Afghan musician, had dedicated his life to the art of playing a sitar-like lute called the tanbur.

But after nearly a decade mastering the instrument well enough to earn his living as a professional musician, the Taliban has banned music under its tribal interpretation of Islamic law.

Gholami and other musicians he knows have effectively been silenced by an order from the Taliban-installed police chief in the central province of Bamiyan who has declared that no singing or musical instruments are allowed in his jurisdiction.

"I have not been able to continue my musical activities since the day the Taliban returned to Bamiyan,” Gholami tells RFE/RL’s Radio Azadi. “My greatest focus in life was this art form.”

"I do not think I can go on without music,” Gholami says. “I'm really confused. I feel like a dead fish out of the water. If I do what the Taliban says, my life will be wasted.”

After the Taliban seized control of Bamiyan’s provincial capital on August 15, Gholami moved back to his village in the Yakhulang district where he has been scraping out a meager existence as a farm worker.

“I came back here because of the Taliban,” Gholami says. “I work here as a peasant.”

The Taliban, which banned music during its repressive rule from 1996 to 2001, swept back into power in August.

The Taliban has tried to project a more moderate image to convince Afghans and the international community that it has changed since the 1990s.

But its position on music has been inconsistent and no clear order has yet been issued beyond a public statement from Taliban spokesman like Zabihullah Mujahid, who has called music "un-Islamic."

In line with that view, the Taliban has beaten musicians in some areas, burned instruments, and banned music. That has led hundreds of musicians to flee the country in fear of their lives.

Revival Terminated

Before the Taliban’s return to power, Gholami had been part of a thriving movement that brought traditional Afghan music to the people of the country.

For the previous two decades, it had been common to see groups of men in the streets performing Afghanistan’s traditional national dance, the Atan-e Milli, to the accompaniment of drums and reed flutes.

Fearing Taliban Crackdown, Afghan Musicians Are Already Falling Silent
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There were mass concerts in Bamiyan Province like the Tanbur Festival that attracted music lovers from across the country and helped restore the spirits of war-weary Afghans.

Gholami and other musicians could also earn a steady income by performing at wedding parties or at small private concerts in restaurants and private homes.

Now, the Taliban’s Information and Culture Ministry says music is “forbidden” under its strict Hanafi interpretation of Islamic law.

One of the first things Taliban fighters did in August when they seized control of Jalalabad, the capital of Nangarhar Province, was to break into a music studio used by well-known Afghan musicians.

The militants dragged their harmonium, lutes, drums, and other instruments out into the street -- dousing them with petrol and setting them ablaze.

Noman Khan and other musicians who had used the studio promptly fled the country in fear of their lives.

'Devastating': Afghan Pop Star Laments Taliban Takeover After Fleeing Her Country
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They are now living in limbo among about 11,000 Afghan refugees who have recently arrived in neighboring Pakistan.

Meanwhile, local Taliban authorities in Afghanistan continue to issue decrees outlawing music in the capital, Kabul, and in major cities like Kandahar, Herat, and Mazar-e Sharif.

Siddiqullah, the Taliban-installed police chief in Bamiyan, justifies the bans and the destruction of instruments by arguing that nobody is allowed to play music.

“We instruct the artists according to the principles of Shari’a and the Islamic Emirate,” Siddiqullah recently told RFE/RL’s Radio Azadi.

“Music has not been allowed anywhere in Bamiyan. Singing is not allowed in Shari’a,” Siddiqullah claims.

Endangered Traditions

The Taliban regime that ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001 had also banned music under its strict interpretation of Islamic law.

Most musicians who remained in Afghanistan at that time either played secretly in their homes or hid their instruments. Some literally buried their precious instruments underground.

Afghanistan’s classical music traditions survived through musicians who had fled to Pakistan or Iran where they could practice freely and pass their knowledge on to the next generation.

After 2001, when the previous Taliban regime was toppled by the U.S.-led invasion, Afghan refugees who returned to their homeland brought these musical traditions back with them.

Still, attempts to revive Afghan music were criticized by conservative Islamic clerics -- particularly, programs like a United Nations-funded school for female musicians at the Nagashand Fine Arts Gallery in the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif.

Afghan musicians, both men and women, also found themselves being targeted by militant attacks.

Nevertheless, a revival of the art form blossomed as Afghan musicians breathed life back into their heritage after decades of war and repression.

Those traditions are a blend of traditional Afghan folk melodies and the poetry of the former Afghan royal courts that merged with classical music structures from northern India.

Afghan music students play their instruments during a practice session at the Afghan National Institute of Music in Kabul in 2018.
Afghan music students play their instruments during a practice session at the Afghan National Institute of Music in Kabul in 2018.

This unique fusion, seen by scholars as a cousin of north Indian classical music, has been dated to the 1860s, when Afghan ruler Amir Sher Ali Khan brought Hindustani masters to Kabul as court musicians.

Like classical Indian music, Afghan music is an oral tradition. Young musicians take tutelage for years under a single master -- an “ustad,” whose pupils become their legacies.

Students learn to vocalize rhythms and melodies by speaking musical phrases as verbal patterns -- internalizing the music before attempting to play a complex song on an instrument.

Thus, Afghan music students can trace their knowledge through their teachers directly to the old masters.

But the Taliban’s ban effectively brings an end to such instruction in Afghanistan and endangers the future of those centuries-old traditions.

“The elimination of music in Afghanistan is the elimination of a large part of Afghanistan’s cultural community,” says Javed Tashe, an Afghan musician who is among those that have fled Taliban rule.

“In Kandahar, music was banned and the [Taliban-controlled] Afghan media stopped broadcasting music that feeds the human soul," Tashe laments.

‘Music-less Songs’

Before Taliban fighters stormed into Herat in early August, about 50 musical ensembles regularly performed at weddings and private concerts in the western Afghan city.

Most of those groups no longer exist.

An official at Herat’s wedding hall, speaking on condition of anonymity, told RFE/RL those groups disappeared after Taliban cultural authorities warned that musical instruments should not be played at weddings.

Despite such bans, some Afghan musicians continue to work by performing a Taliban-approved form of “music-less song.”

These recently founded Taliban-approved groups are flourishing by performing recitations from the Koran at weddings along with speeches and theater performances that praise the Taliban.

One such group, called the Islamic Peace Group, was founded in Herat by Rahim Farahmand.

“It has been a month since the establishment of the Islamic Peace Group,” Farahmand says. “There are six of us in this group and we have various [Taliban-approved] programs at weddings -- including recitations from the Holy Koran.”

Sultan Ahmad Mohammadi, a 35-year-old member of a Taliban-approved ensemble, told Radio Azadi that “people have no choice but to take Islamic groups into their wedding circles.”

Afghan folk music instruments in Herat.
Afghan folk music instruments in Herat.

“Since the day the Taliban came back into power here, music has been cut off altogether,” Mohammadi says. “They do not even allow any band to perform with musical instruments in wedding halls.”

“Islamic groups are proliferating because the people are forced to take these Islamic bands into their circles,” Mohammadi explains, noting that Islamic scholars also speak as part of Taliban-approved wedding programs.

Critics of such programs describe the performances as “Islamic propaganda” -- saying they are similar to the Taliban’s Shari’a Radio broadcasts and spoken-word renderings that had been allowed by the Taliban regime during the late 1990s.

In the northern province of Jowzjan, a popular local singer named Tajuddin Andkhoi continues to perform at wedding parties without the accompaniment of musical instruments.

A video posted to social media of one recent wedding shows Andkhoi performing a traditional Uzbek song called “Nai Nai.” But the singer has changed the well-known lyrics to praise the Taliban.

“Long live my mujahedin. Thank you so much. Thank you,” Andkhoi sings, employing a word for "holy warriors" that the Taliban uses to refer to its fighters. “Go slow, dear brother.”

Andkhoi’s performance has been criticized on social media by members of Afghanistan’s diaspora.

Afghan Facebook users say it is inappropriate to praise the Taliban at wedding parties. They have accused the singer of doing so out of fear of no longer being allowed to perform.

Written and reported by Ron Synovitz with reporting by RFE/RL’s Radio Azadi

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    Ron Synovitz

    Ron Synovitz is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL.

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    RFE/RL's Radio Azadi

    RFE/RL's Radio Azadi is one of the most popular and trusted media outlets in Afghanistan. Nearly half of the country's adult audience accesses Azadi's reporting on a weekly basis.