Music in Town Life
As I became more familiar with town life, I noticed that there were types of urban centers that served different functions in the cultural ecology. Thinking this way, it seems that the musical life of each town-type is appropriate to its overall structure and function:
Some large villages come alive on off-days for the markets of the larger towns. They tend not to have a public music life.
These larger towns are surrounded by a network of satellite villages and village centers. One I spent a lot of time in was Aqcha. The map shows the grid of the market, the transportation hub where roads converge, and the surrounding larger and smaller villages. Somewhat differently, the map of another local center, Andkhoi, neatly lines up the villages along the thin trickle of water the region provides.
This type of town lives off the ebb and flow of market days, working as an oasis, transit point, and commercial nexus. Entertainment is a kind of staple commodity the bazaar offers, as indicated in the discussion of teahouse music. A filmclip shows the variety of activity in Aqcha on a market day in the spring. The seasonal indicator is the kid a man is carrying; the young animals have recently arrived and are the hope of the small peasants and the nomads. Turkmen women weave carpets, one of the most valuable commodities of Afghanistan, and receive the gold and silver jewelry shown for sale as a bride price. The clip moves into the teahouse to show Aq Pishak and his singers, Salaidin and Achel, at work. Notice the small finger cymbals and the veins standing out in the tense throat of the singers. Aq Pishak is wearing a large lambskin hat.
There are few of these, since they are the largest urban centers of Afghanistan. Mazar-i Sharif, in the heart of the Turkestan region, is the main northern metropolis. Mazar has a huge bazaar and an airport. Its heart is the magnificent fifteenth-century blue-tiled shrine of Ali, site of the annual pilgrimage held at the time of Persian New Yearís, nowruz, the first day of spring. A filmclip shows the massive activity and vitality of the thousands of pilgrims, climaxed by the raising of the janda, or standard of Ali. It is wrapped in cloth, and whoever gets a scrap of it might find good fortune in the coming year, so there is a scramble, controlled by troops.
Musically, Mazar is also special. During nowruz, a carnival atmosphere continues for forty days, and a tent-city of entertainers springs up, along with shooting games, carousels, storytellers and puppeteers (both sacred and secular), snake-handlers, incense-wafters (the aroma is said to be healthful) and the sale of children's toy musical instruments. But even year-round, there are more types and venues of musicians in Mazar than elsewhere in the north, including amateur middle-class musicians and the nendary, a kind of no-frills performance site with a variety of acts. Finally, Mazar supports instrument makers, two full-time artisans who make anything you want, all out of the same wood and in roughly the same style.
In more isolated and less-populated Badakhshan, Faizabad is the main hub, though it has only maybe 25,000 people. The national holiday of jeshen in August works something like nowruz in Mazar, bringing in villagers for entertainment. Faizabad also has urban styles that might be heard less in the villages. There are shopkeeper-musicians, for example, who prefer more classical verse forms to the homespun village poetry.
Towns like Samangan are not great market centers, but since they were designated provincial capitals, they carry some clout. The town neither produces nor exports entertainment. Its limited teahouse opportunities do attract people like off-duty soldiers on a Friday, who try to supplement their meager salaries (less than a dollar a month in 1968) by playing. But the government makes up for this lackluster cultural life by placing loudspeakers at intervals along the one-street bazaar, broadcasting Radio Afghanistan from early morning to late in the evening. Only teahouses at the end of the bazaar, beyond the reach of loudspeakers, can sustain live music.
Tashqurghan is the epitomy of a crossroads culture. At the junction of Turkestan and Kataghan, this city has figured out how to market its products in all directions. It is splendidly documented in the writings of Pierre Centlivres and Micheline Centlivres-Demont. The craftsmen turn out wooden objects from knife-handles to cradles on the same lathes, all painted in the Tashqurghan colors of red, green, and black. You seem them all over the North. One item is important for music: the ghichak fiddle. This Tashqurghan product consists of a simple cylindrical staff with attached pegs, ending in a point. To make a terrific fiddle, all you have to add is: wire for the strings, a piece of wood for a bridge the strings can cross, and a large nail at the base to make a spike for resting the ghichak on the ground or your instep. The hard part is actually making the bow, which involves bending a piece of wood, finding horsehair, and attaching it tightly.
Many celebrated musicians of the North come from Tashqurghan, part of its crossroads character, including Bangecha Tashqurghani, with whom I worked a great deal. He was always lively, garrulous, and good at marketing his talents. Unfortunately, his popularity cost him his life; he was killed in a early wave of liquidations under the Communist regime around 1980.
The modern center
As you come up from Kabul, cross the mountains and then the fertile foothill region going north, you come to Kunduz, the most modernized city, which is a little industrialized. In 1968, I saw a workers' demonstration in the streets, a sign of troubled times to come for the Spinzar cotton company and Afghanistan. The company cracked down on local music, for its own reasons, and there was a trend to import musicians from the capital, Kabul, just a few hours away, rather than encourage local talent. Kunduz seems like an Afghan Los Angeles, where an advanced economy and good climate attract people from all over, losing local character in the process. frain of the song, addressed to the bride is ìwalk slowly, my moon, walk slowly, which alternates with verse lines such as "my darling, your figure is like a flower." The attached soundclip offers two versions, one sung by the women of a Kabuli official's family posted to the North, the other by professional women singers of Uzbek origin. There is no overlap in the verse lines they sing, but it is clearly the same song done differently. This is a good example, then, of a "shared" item in the music culture: recognizably the same, but locally different.
The National Capital Kabul has special musical resources. The Radio Afghanistan building records, stores, and disseminates the styles of music that give the nation its cultural profile. The neighborhood called "kuche-i kharabat" is home to hereditary families of musicians and musical instrument makers. The ties between Afghanistan and the Indian subcontinent--Pakistan and India--are much more noticeable in Kabul, dating back into the early nineteenth century. The filmclip offers views of Kabul in 1968, from the middle-class residential neighborhood to the downtown, modernizing riverfront and the lower-class hillside houses. In the civil wars of the early 1990s, almost everything you see was destroyed in factional fighting and shelling.