Smithsonian Institution
Summer 2011: Featuring Music From Afghanistan



The online, multimedia magazine of Smithsonian Folkways

Afghanistan’s music in the Smithsonian collection

By D. A. Sonneborn

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In the 19th century, Pashtun (the British in India called them Pathans) rulers emulated their Indian neighbors and brought North Indian classical music to the Afghan court. However, in the Pashtun royal courts of Afghanistan for more than a hundred years earlier, until around the 1860s, Persian music was held in the highest esteem. Listen to excerpts from the Iranian "Mahur" and from Iran’s border with Afghanistan, "Allah Madad," for a hint of how that music might have sounded.

The flavor of northern Afghan music is seasoned by its Uzbek and Tajik minorities and the influences from neighboring states carrying those names, and it is readily heard as different from Persian music, for example in "Tarona" and "Nawroz-i Sabo" from Music of Central Asia Vol. 2: Invisible Face of the Beloved: Classical Music of the Tajiks and Uzbeks.

The influence of Radio-Kaboul as a unifying force in the development of the modern Afghan nation and sense of nationhood cannot be overemphasized. First established in 1925 and now operating as part of Radio Television Afghanistan, it had a limited broadcast range until it expanded dramatically during the 1940s. Since around 1960, the station has broadcast music from every corner of the land, and recorded almost everything aired for its own archive.

The first female vocalist to appear live on radio in Afghanistan was Parwin in 1951; listen to "Spring Is Here." In instrumental music, the distinctive and preeminent Pashtun instrument is a short-necked, plucked lute called a rubāb (sometimes rabāb or rebāb). Rubāb virtuoso and composer Ustad Mohammad (Mohamed, Mohammed) Omar also appears on the aforementioned album, Music of Afghanistan(1961). He was on the staff of Radio-Kaboul for many years, and eventually became the director of the National Orchestra of Radio Afghanistan. In 1974 he came to the U.S. on a Fulbright-Hays fellowship to teach for the University of Washington’s ethnomusicology program in Seattle. Late that year he played a memorable concert, accompanied by a young tabla player named Zakir Hussain. That concert was published a few months after the 2001 American-assisted overthrow of the Taliban as Ustad Mohammad Omar: Virtuoso from Afghanistan(2002). Peter ten Hoopen’s Teahouse Music of Afghanistan (1977) features other musicians of the Radio Afghanistan orchestra, including young Farida Mahwash, "Come to Me in the Morning," now an Ustad and a global star in her own right.

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Click to watch video

Homayun Sakhi
Homayun Sakhi is the outstanding Afghan rubâb player of his generation, a brilliant virtuoso endowed with a charismatic musical presence and personality.

Click to watch video

Making of the album “In the Footsteps of Babur”
Six musicians from Central Asia, Afghanistan, Northern India, were brought together with the aim of merging their musical instruments and traditions to create new sounds.

The Silk Road: A Musical Caravan


Allah Madad

Music of Central Asia Vol. 2: Invisible Face of the Beloved: Classical Music of the Tajiks and Uzbeks


Nawroz-i Sabo