The Fieldwork Project
In September 1967, I arrived in Kabul, along with Greta Nachteiler Slobin, via Europe and Iran. I was a doctoral candidate at the University of Michigan, supported by a Foreign Area Fellowship (ACLS/SSRC) that had begun in July, and which extended through December, 1969, when I finished my dissertation. We remained in Afghanistan through the end of November, 1968, and returned to the US in March, 1969. This included two trips to cities in Soviet Central Asia (now independent countries) for a comparative look at the peoples I worked with the most: Uzbeks, Tajiks, and Turkmens along the Afghan-Soviet border. My interest in the musics of the region had been sparked by Soviet research on Central Asian musics and encouraged by my advisor, William P. Malm. Early readings formed the basis for my 1966 M.A. thesis, published in 1969 as Kirgiz Instrumental Music. Since no American could do fieldwork in the Asian parts of the USSR, I decided to do research among the same peoples across the border in Afghanistan. I studied Persian, the most commonly-understood language of the country's many tongues.
After the long fieldwork stint, I returned in 1971 and 1972 for month-long follow-up trips to clarify and expand the research, with an eye towards turning my 1969 dissertation, Instrumental Music of Northern Afghanistan (University of Michigan) into a more broadly-based monograph. Colin Turnbull, editor of the Viking Fund Publications in Anthropology, pushed me to make the work "more ethnographic." As the book says, my "initial musicological interest moved toward ethnography with consideration of the question of music as part of ethnic boundary maintenance." Music in the Culture of Northern Afghanistan appeared at the University of Arizona Press in 1976, staying in print until 2002, for which I am most grateful to the Press and to the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, the series sponsor, which reverted the rights to me in 2002.
I have never returned to Afghanistan. My work "temporarily" moved off in the direction of the musical heritage of the eastern European Jews and general issues of ethnicity and musical identity. Around 1980, when I completed the first cycle of the Yiddish music work, I might well have gone back to Afghanistan, but a vicious and tragic cycle of destruction engulfed that country, starting in 1978, which broke only with the American intervention of 2001.
Afghanistan allowed western researchers access only in the early 1960s. In the brief window between then and 1978, only three other western scholars did extensive fieldwork in music. Hiromi Lorraine Sakata was the first, doing her M.A. research (accompanied by Tom Sakata, for the University of Washington) in Central Afghanistan in 1966-67 before I arrived. She returned for doctoral work, eventually publishing Music in the Mind: The Concepts of Music and Musician in Afghanistan in 1983 (2d printing: Smithsonian, 2003), and the husband-wife team of John Baily and Veronica Doubleday, who focused on the music of the city of Herat in the mid-1970s, resulting in Music of Afghanistan: Professional Musicians in the City of Herat (Cambridge University Press, 1988) and Three Women of Herat (University of Texas Press, 1990) respectively.
But as of September 1967, virtually nothing useful had been written about the musics of Afghanistan in any western language (or locally), and only a handful of sparsely- or dubiously-annotated recordings had appeared. The many European travelers' accounts from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries occasionally mentioned music, sometimes informatively, but usually disparagingly. I might have benefited from Sakata's fieldwork knowledge, but in the days before e-mail, I had no way of contacting her; we did not meet until 1971. So I had no idea of what types of musical instruments, genres, contexts, and social roles existed anywhere in Afghanistan.
In short, I was doing classic terra incognita research. It was normal, even desirable, in 1960s ethnomusicology for a graduate student to cover entirely new ground, planting the flag for science, to use an imperialist metaphor that was not totally inapt. Afghanistan was ideal: music was still local and isolated.
Roads were terrible through the 1960s, allowing for the survival of local or microregional styles. Media exposure to even local, let alone world commercial music, was very limited. The one radio station in the country, Radio Afghanistan, had only extended its broadcast range nationwide in the 1950s. The main competition in my region, the North, were the single, state-controlled stations of the Soviet republics-Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan--and possibly neighboring Iran. A few open-reel tape recorders allowed minor circulation of other musics, mostly the songs of the Hindi films that were the mainstay of the few local cinemas. My fieldnotes from the remote town of Andkhoi foreshadowed the impact of audiocassettes in the early 1970s: "I asked Mowlanqul about taped music blasted over PA systems from teahouses. He said the practice started twelve years ago. Someone brought a recorder from Kabul and everyone was amazed, so everybody got them and it became commonplace. The tapes we hear in the hotel are 4-5 years old, showing exactly zero stylistic change since then, and he says twelve years ago it was the same."
At Radio Afghanistan, they asked me to do a program explaining the Beatles, whom people had vaguely heard about but did not understand. Having the only copy in the country of Sergeant Pepper made me an authority, and I overcame my worries about contaminating the music culture I wanted to study; listeners were willing to join the transnational music world without my help. By the time of my last visit, in 1972, young bands of Filipinos, some of whom worked for Americans, were playing rock at the new restaurants like the Marco Polo. This was an "emerging" and "developing," peaceful, stable nation-state operating democratically under a constitutional monarchy and tiptoeing onto the world scene. Foreigners spread across the countryside: French, German, and American Peace Corps units, east German, Czech, Polish, and Dutch technical advisors, UN and USAID colonies, and an Englishman telling Radio Afghanistan how to do standard modern programming. One day, I met John Donne, the advisor, in the radio archives. He was searching for a march so the station could have a proper sports show.
Afghan musicians, and even most officials, were curious, sometimes bemused, and helpful. Traditions of hospitality remained intact and the government saw to it that foreigners were as secure as possible. The Acknowledgements section of the book lists just some of the people who made it possible for me to gather the material on this site and to try to understand the many cultures of Afghanistan, but there are many more people who explained things and shared my love for the folk musics of the country.
The Fate of Music
In 1973, the King, Zahir Shah, was deposed by his brother-in-law and rival Daud, who was then assassinated and replaced by a small communist clique. When fierce backlash pushed that group to the edge of annihilation, the geriatric Soviet leadership decided to invade rather than cut its losses, plunging Afghanistan into 22 years of resistance, civil war among the militias that ousted the Soviet army, supported by various foreign powers, the rule of the authoritarian Taliban, and an American invention in 2001 that placed a new western-supported leadership into power, with an uncertain future. Through all this time of dark upheaval, nearly a majority of the population fled to refugee camps in neighboring Iran and Afghanistan.
Music-making, so strongly tied to celebration, fell to the most marginal status. John Baily continued to document its survival, most vividly in his well-received ethnographic film Amir: The Life of an Afghan Refugee Musician. The film, set in Peshawar, Pakistan, recounts how he reconnected with a musician-friend from the faraway Afghan city of Herat. Baily also saliently summarized the crushing of Afghan music under the heel of the Taliban in the period 1996-2001 (Baily 2001), and at the end of 2002, he visited Kabul to help with the reconstruction of Afghan musical life under the Karzai government.
Baily’s film A Kabul Music Diary (2003) and a film by Simon Broughton for BBC, Breaking the Silence: Music in Afghanistan (2002), document the early phases of music reconstruction in Afghanistan. More recently, Hiromi Lorraine Sakata, the third early major scholar of Afghan music, has helped to arrange for the digitization of the Radio Afghanistan music archive. It was thought to have been destroyed by the Taliban, but it turned out that the staff managed to save this main treasurehouse of Afghan musical heritage from pre-war times.
In 2006, a young Turkmen named Noor Mohammad Quyash from the city of Shiberghan contacted me about this website and I asked him to send an update on music there. His initial report is attached as a pdf file, describing the recent revival of celebrations in the town of Qizil Ayaq, where I had done substantial collecting under the aegis of the local spiritual and temporal leader, the Qizil Ayaq Khalifa, in 1968. It would be wonderful to receive more communications like this as the always fluid political, social, and cultural situation of Afghan music evolves.