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Herat Youth Turn Backs on Afghan Music

Traditional artists bemoan youngsters’ preference for the likes of Shakira.
By Mohammad Sediq
Three young men sit in a park in central Herat, passing around a mobile phone. On the small screen is a music video of Shakira, the alluring Colombian pop star.



“Shakira has a beautiful body,” said Nasir, 24. “She wears great clothes – you can see some of her skin. She is intoxicating. Although I do not understand her language and do not much care for the music, I love the clip.”



It is hardly surprising that young Afghan men would be titillated by Shakira. They seldom see a girl with a bare head, let alone large swaths of exposed flesh. And in a society where female dancing is strictly prohibited, Shakira’s provocative hip-shaking is an exotic delight.



But Nasir and his friends represent what many see as a rejection of traditional Afghan culture and values.



“I believe the time for listening to old music is over,” Nasir said. “Young people are looking for something new and interesting.”



Music has had a long and chequered history in Afghanistan. During the Soviet invasion, traditional music was quite popular, with venerable singers such as Nashnaz and Farhod Darya appearing regularly in concerts and on television.



But the civil war that followed the Soviet withdrawal in 1989 caused many of the musicians to flee. Those who remained were silenced in 1996, when the Taleban took over most of the country and put a decisive stop to such entertainment.



Since the fundamentalists were routed in 2001, Afghanistan has been flirting with different musical forms. Many singers and musicians came back after years in the West, bringing new traditions with them.



The country has even spawned a rap singer, DJ Besho. And Tolo TV has pioneered an “American Idol” type song contest that, while tame by western standards, is enough of a departure from Afghan culture to cause serious heartburn in the more conservative quarters of society.



In all of the excitement of the new era, many fear that old traditions are being lost.



Afghan music often consists of haunting poetry set to the music of the rebab, a stringed instrument that predated the violin and guitar by several centuries. The beat is kept by the tabla, a set of drums.



Ustad Khoshnawaz was a widely acclaimed singer in Afghanistan 20 years ago. He gave concerts and taught hundreds of students; his songs were played on radio and television.



Today the 55-year-old maestro teaches music in his Herat home.



Entering the house, the first thing that strikes the visitor are the musical instruments everywhere. The walls are hung with handmade carpets, against which hang rebabs, dotars (a lute) and sitars.



Khoshnawaz and his students are sitting on carpet-covered toshaks – the cushions that most Afghans use in lieu of sofas or chairs. The teacher is patiently instructing his pupils on the different characteristics of Herati music.



But his disappointment and bitterness show when he begins to talk about his own life in music.



“It has been years since people were interested to come and hear me play,” he said. “They prefer young singers who play new music on modern instruments. Our country has been attacked not only militarily, but also culturally.”



Twenty years ago he might have 100 students at a time; now he is lucky to have four or five, he says. This has hit his income and he now runs a supermarket.



“I am not against those who like modern art,” he insisted. “But people should maintain their own cultural traditions. This is what keeps a country alive.”



While Khoshnawaz now lives in obscurity, Jamshid Tapesh has no such difficulties.



“I make two music videos a year, in Tajikistan,” he said. “I perform with Tajik girls. After people see my videos on TV a few times, they stand in line to book me and my group.”



Tapesh’s audience is Herat’s young, hip set and he says he is booked weeks in advance for concerts and parties.



“Young people request songs they have seen in movies or on TV,” he said. “They like sexy music - Iranian, Indian, Turkish, Arabic or western.”



Jalil Ahmad Dil Ahang, who performs traditional Afghan music, calls the fascination with foreign singers “cultural suicide”.



“These new songs are against Afghan and Islamic culture,” he said, adding that radio and television stations that play the new music are just pandering to the tastes of the masses. “Most of these songs are very poor in terms of quality. Many of the singers know nothing about music.”



Ahang wants the government to step in, “Officials should take measures to protect Afghan music and culture.”



Herat’s information and culture department is trying to help, but says the problems it faces are overwhelming.



“We have asked the central government to give us a budget to establish an association of local singers,” said director Nematollah Sarwari. “But nobody is listening to us. We have organised a number of seminars and other programmes to attract people to traditional music.”



Sarwari is ready to take a more bureaucratic approach if necessary.



“We will force the media to broadcast more local music,” he said. “Music is one of the indicators of cultural identity, and we ask people not to let it vanish.”



But Afghan media are likely to resist.



“We almost never receive requests for local Herati songs,” said Ajmal Yazdani, a director of Radio Watandar in Herat. “We try to broadcast the songs our audience wants.”



Nematollah Hashemi, director of the singers union in Herat, bemoans the ignorance of the young.



“The new generation is unaware of the importance of their culture,” he said. “The government should provide us with technical assistance and the media should promote this culture.”



There are, of course, patriotic supporters of Herati music.



Mohammad Shah, a taxi driver, said he listens mostly to local, traditional music. The new songs, he said, are against Afghan culture.



“I do not like foreign music,” he said. “The songs they play now on radio and TV are copied from other countries. They are played on western instruments. Most of the singers are just kids, who cover up their musical weakness behind flashy clothes and beautiful girls. If we take the girls out of the music videos, I am sure hardly anyone will want to watch them.”



Mohammad Seddiq Behnam is an IWPR-trained journalist in Herat.

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