Smithsonian Institution
Summer 2011: Featuring Music From Afghanistan



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The online, multimedia magazine of Smithsonian Folkways

Afghanistan’s music in the Smithsonian collection

By D. A. Sonneborn

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Further acquaintance with Afghanistan’s music will serve to increase our understanding about the culture of a land that in these times is featured daily in our print and broadcast media. We have heard of the fierce local resistance to invaders since Alexander the Great in 330 BC and Genghis Khan in the 13th century (both of them conquered the region), all the way through the more recent and ultimately unsuccessful incursion by The Soviet Union (1979–1989). How the American war that began in 2001 ends, history will tell.

But to set the stage for listening to the music, a quick rundown of a few more key facts will help.

Zoroastrianism, then Buddhism held sway there (ca. 500 BC and ca. 100 BC, respectively) until Islam arrived in the decade before 650 AD. A Sunni empire (the Ghaznavids) arose in the 10th century and countered the eastward spread of Shia Islam from Iran. Even today Afghanistan is predominantly Sunni, though a significant minority follows the Shia path. In 1747 a successful military commander of Pashtun origin named Ahmed Shah Durrani founded a monarchy which after a few years of militant expansion encompassed much of today’s Afghanistan―though the borders were not finalized until 1895, when Great Britain and Russia agreed to keep Afghanistan as a buffer zone between their imperial domains of influence. Today, Pashtuns comprise half of the Afghan population and hold the reins of political power.

Afghanistan’s multiethnic cultural landscape is complex. A crossroads of East-West and North-South trade routes, its western neighbor is Iran; to the south lie Pakistan and India; Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan, three former Soviet Socialist Republics, mark the frontier to the north; and via the long finger of the Wakhan Corridor it shares an eastern border with China.

Afghanistan was profoundly influenced by Persian and Indian cultures over many centuries. While the official national languages today are Dari (a dialect of Persian) and Pashto, a bit over a century ago Hindi was important as well.

Musically, in fact, Afghanistan is especially interesting as a meeting place of Persian and North Indian classical music traditions. Experts and aficionados familiar with the music of one or the other of those regions’ music tradition may claim that Afghan music is primarily Persian or Indian, but the reality is more complicated.

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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.