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Almaty or Bust!
Central Asia in Words and Pictures

Part One: Afghanistan

Quick facts from the CIA World Handbook

Population: 28,717,213 (July 2003 est.)
Capital: Kabul
Ethnic Groups: Pashtun 44%, Tajik 25%, Hazara 10%, minor ethnic groups (Aimaks, Turkmen, Baloch, and others) 13%, Uzbek 8%
Religions: Sunni Muslim 84%, Shi'a Muslim 15%, other 1%
Languages: Pashtu 35%, Afghan Persian (Dari) 50%, Turkic languages (primarily Uzbek and Turkmen) 11%, 30 minor languages (primarily Balochi and Pashai) 4%, much bilingualism

Afghanistan is surrounded by Iran, Pakistan, and nearly every other Central Asian country (except Mongolia and Kazakhstan). Its proximity to so many powers (Iran/Persia, Pakistan/India, Russian/Soviet-controlled Central Asia, and China) basically explains its turbulent history. For centuries it was the favorite stomping ground of great (as in horrible) conquerors like Alexander the Great, Tamerlane, and Genghis Khan, among others. In recent history, however, things have been a bit different, though no less bloody. The British tried to conquer Afghanistan in the 19th century (basically as a buffer zone against Russian imperialism; the Czars had their eyes fixed on Britain's crown jewel, India); their troops were massacred on several occasions, and they eventually gave up any hope of controlling the region. Then, of course, the Soviets tried to make a grab at the country in the late 70s, but the Mujahadeen forces (with help from the United States) fought back until invaders eventually left, shortly before the collapse of the Soviet Union. This, as we know, paved the way for the Taliban and Osama Bin Laden's Al Quaeda (groups who sprang up from the Mujahadeen). Now, of course, the US-backed coalition, having weakened the Taliban (without fully destroying it) is trying to gain control of the country. Kabul is somewhat under control, but the rest of the country is still in chaos. Will things improve? I hope so. It's a beautiful country, and its people have suffered as few others could possibly understand.

One great beneficiary of the Taliban's downfall is the music industry. Music was outlawed under the strict Islamic ruling of the Taliban, so the re-emergence of music in this region is a welcome sign. Music groups like the Kaboul Ensemble (based in Paris, like so many Afghan musicians who fled the country in the 90s) have begun touring the world, and records are starting to emerge from this country after a long hiatus.

The music of Afghanistan is similar to the music of other Central Asian countries, though Iranian and Pakistani influences are also evident. This shouldn't be surprising, as the country is a mixture of Tajiks, Pashtuns, Uzbeks, and a host of other ethnicities not called "Afghan." This diversity has caused its share of problems, but it also has given Afghan music a very rich musical heritage. In some ways, Afghanistan is a microcosm of all the different musics of Islamic Asia: the classical pieces of Transoxiana (modern-day Uzbekistan and Tajikistan), the love and spiritual poetry of India and Pakistan, the folk music of Turkmenistan, and a host of other styles from a host of other cultures.

No matter what the subject of the music is or the proficiency of the performers or the location of the performance (be it a home, a teahouse, a hose race, or a wedding), the same instruments dominate Afghan music. Along with the dutar and zirbaghali, there are variations on the fiddle (ghichak), the flute (badakhshani), and cymbals. Of course, the most important instrument is the human voice, which, like other Islamic musics, can be piercing, like the wailing of a "call to prayer," but it can also sound as understated and muted as a Richard Thompson vocal in one of his folk ballad.

In the end, what makes Afghan music so engrossing is its variety. This is a big country, as rich and as varied as the landscape; the music echoes this.

Below, you'll find a few pictures of the instruments and the people of Afghanistan.

 

Dotar

The picture on the left is of a dutar, which is a two-stringed instrument that is commonly used throughout Central Asia. The picture on the right is of a zirbaghali, which is a single-headed pottery drum. These particular pictures are taken from the liner notes to Traditional Crossroads' wonderful album, Afghanistan Untouched.

 

Afghan Musicians

Here's a photo of Afghan musicians performing.  Normally, music is a public activity, performed by men in specific areas like teahouses.  They seem pretty happy, don't they?   Perhaps its because music was outlawed during the Taliban regime (though I don't actually know when this photo was taken).  This photo is courtesy of Afghanistan Online.

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