Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Afghan Singers Fall Silent

Traditional musicians say rising security threats are driving them to leave the country or seek safer work.
By Hijratullah Ekhtyar, Mina Habib
  • Afghan musicians at a poetry festival in Farah, western Afghanistan, in May 2010. (Photo: US Air Force Senior Airman Rylan K. Albright/ISAF/Wikimedia Commons)
    Afghan musicians at a poetry festival in Farah, western Afghanistan, in May 2010. (Photo: US Air Force Senior Airman Rylan K. Albright/ISAF/Wikimedia Commons)

Outside the Amir Jan market in Jalalabad, a city in eastern Afghanistan, passers-by pause as they hear the strains of music wafting out of a building.

This is the headquarters of the Singers’ Union, a centre for singers and musicians with space for performers gather to discuss music or sing together. Young and old musicians chat and drink tea, while others sit and gaze at the street outside.

Pacha Khan was deep in thought, but his face lit up as an IWPR reporter approached him. But when the well-known singer realised he was not about to be booked for a performance, his expression changed to one of disappointment.

“I haven’t done any performances in the past two months,” he said. “I haven’t paid my office rent for the past three months. I borrow groceries for my family from the shopkeeper. He told me the other day that I’d borrowed a lot and that he would not lend me any more. I don’t know what to do.”

Pacha Khan says the deteriorating security situation in Nangarhar province has stopped him travelling outside Jalalabad city for work.

“Three years ago, we would go out to weddings in the districts. There were many performances – no weddings without music,” he recalled. “Nowadays, people living some way away from the city centre can’t have music at their weddings because of fears of the Taleban, while out in the districts it’s completely out of the question. Our work has come to an absolute halt.”

Music has always been an important part of Afghan culture, but the tradition has suffered from lean years because of religious attitudes and the general chaos of war.

Muslim scholars in Afghanistan are divided on the role of music. Some forbid it completely, while others see it as acceptable as long as only men perform and the songs have “modest” lyrics.

Some followers of Sufism include music in their rites, most famously the Chishti branch which originates from western Afghanistan, which uses song as part of its devotional practices.

Music was banned by the Taleban, who harassed musicians and singers and hung their instruments from the lampposts.

After the Taleban were toppled by a US-led invasion in 2001, a number of singers returned from exile and public performances resumed.

But despite the enduring popularity of music in Afghanistan, performers say they are not held in high esteem.

“Our people like the arts,” said Kamin Gol, head of the Singers’ Union for eastern Afghanistan. “They have TVs, satellite dishes and tape recorders at home. They have music in their mobile phones, yet they do not like singers or artists and they disrespect them.”

Many performers say they have experienced this lack of respect.

“I tell people, “We give you happiness. We work hard to make you feel happy. Treat us with respect. Don’t let us down. Let us live and do not insult us,’” Khoshal Taji, a singer in Nangarhar province, said.

Taji is originally from Nangarhar’s Pachiragam district, but moved into Jalalabad because the insurgents were in control.

“If I had stayed there, I would have already been killed. The Taleban rule there,” he said.

In the countryside, the musicians are missed.

“In the past, when district and village areas were safe, people would shoot into the air, play music and hold musical gatherings for joyous events,” recalled Nangialay Amarkhel, a resident of Surkhrod district. “But these days, people come to and leave weddings in quiet huddles, the same way they attend mourning ceremonies. It can be hard to tell whether they are celebrating or grieving.”

Even in the capital Kabul, musicians say they find it so hard to get work that many are considering emigration.

Barialay Wali, a well-known Pashto singer who currently lives in the capital, told IWPR he was trying to get a visa for a European country, and so were many of his colleagues.

“The arts are being besieged on a daily basis,” he said. “I was doing up to 40 performances a month two years ago, but now I have one or two a month. How can I live on that kind of money?”

Competition is fierce because singers from provinces all around Afghanistan have congregated in Kabul because of the insurgent threats in their home areas. Wali said there was just not enough work to go round.

“I used to charge from 1,000 to 3,000 dollars per performance in the past. I go for a smaller amount of money now, but there are no performances,” he said.

In Jalalabad, Aziz Gol’s performing work has also slowed down, and he has turned to repairing musical instruments. With no funds to rent a shop, he works in a hut he built out of old tarpaulins under a stairway at the Amir Jan market.

Aziz Gol says that two years ago, he was earning up to 400 dollars a month from providing accompaniment to singers, but these days he averages 100-120 dollars monthly from the repair work.

“When singers have no work, I have no work either,” he said. “I owe a lot of money.”

Some singers are abandoning their craft altogether to seek more viable forms of employment.

“Whenever things deteriorated in Afghanistan in the past, the singers used to go to Peshawar,” Pacha Khan recalled. “Now, the situation isn’t good there [northwest Pakistan] either. Singers are getting out of there, too,” he said. “My only option is to stop singing and brace myself for labouring work.”

Brothers Jawed and Wahidullah, from Kabul, used to perform as a musical duo, but for the last two years, they have worked as casual labourers.

“Musical work was good until two years ago,” Wahidullah explained. “We two would earn enough every month to solve our problems. In the past year, music has been restricted to the centres of a few provinces. Singers have come to Kabul from the provinces.

“If there is a job available, you won’t get it. Very famous singers who used to perform at parties for 2,000 or 3,000 dollars are now available for 500 dollars. We weren’t getting work at all so now we dig wells and work as day labourers.”

The head of the Afghan information and culture ministry’s Nangarhar department, Awrang Samim, said officials were aware of the problems, but were unable to do anything about them.

“Eight years ago, the information and culture directorate in Nangarhar had a music department, but it has since been dissolved,” he said. “Besides, a public-sector wage is not enough to support a singer. Our hands are tied.”

Samim said one way to boost singers’ income would be for private radio and television stations to hire them rather than broadcasting foreign recordings.

The only resource that hard-up musicians in Nangarhar can call upon is their association.

“Singers pay an affordable amount to the union on a monthly basis, and this is used to help the many singers who are in need,” its head Kamin Gol said.

“Two things have always been fallen prey to political games in Afghanistan – the Afghan people and their music. You know, a singer earns a living through his art, but when the ground is not prepared for it, how can the artist carry on?”

Hijratullah Ekhtyar is an IWPR-trained reporter in Nangarhar. Mina Habibis an IWPR reporter in Kabul.