Tag Archives: Asia

The Taliban and music: An annotated bibliography

Music has always been a controversial topic in Islam. Although the Islamic world has birthed rich and brilliant musical cultures, conservative Muslims nevertheless believe that music (especially instrumental music) tends to lead people astray by indulging in sensual pleasures.

The Taliban, a Sunni Islamic fundamentalist militant group that originated in the Kandahar region of Afghanistan, emerged in 1994. After taking power in 1996, the Taliban essentially banned music altogether in Afghanistan, until 2001 when the Taliban regime was overthrown in the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan. Yet with the recent Taliban recapture of most parts of Afghanistan, there are renewed concerns about the situation there. Will music be banned again?

Looking through the literature related to the Taliban and music, we can find that scholars, journalists, and directors have left us valuable information through their articles and films documenting musical life in Afghanistan during and after the Taliban rule. In chronological order of publication, we can outline a brief history of music in Afghanistan in the last two or three decades through these documents.

  • Yusufzai, Rahimullah. “All quiet in Kabul”, Index on censorship: The global magazine for free expression 27/6:185 (November–December 1998) 135–138. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 1998-26068]

Abstract: With the takeover of the Taliban regime in 1996 the cultural policies of Afghanistan changed dramatically, as music and any form of electronic entertainment were forbidden. The consequences of this prohibition are described and an excerpt of the Taliban’s official statement is provided.

  • Majrooh, Naim. “The Talibans have banned all music in Afghanistan”, 1st World Conference on Music and Censorship, Copenhagen, 20–22 November 1998, ed. by Marie Korpe. (Freemuse: København, 2001) 27–30. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2001-20196]

Abstract: Afghanistan’s centuries-old art and folk traditions began to decline after the communist coup of 1979 and the repression that followed, but they suffered a far greater blow with the rise of the Taliban in the 1990s. In 1992 women and music were banned from Kabul radio and television, and in 1995 all musical life was proscribed. While musical life continues in remote villages, in the cities even weddings and funerals are held without music. A black market in smuggled cassettes, enjoyed discreetly in private homes, shares many similarities with the drug trade in the West.

  • Baily, John. “Can you stop the birds singing?”: The censorship of music in Afghanistan. Freemuse report (Freemuse: København, 2001). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2001-20183]

Abstract: The people of Afghanistan under Taliban rule are subjected to an extreme form of music censorship. The only musical activity permitted is the singing of certain religious songs and Taliban chants.

The report traces the gradual imposition of music censorship since 1978, when the communist government of Nur Ahmad Taraki came to power in a violent coup d’etat. During 14 years of communist rule, music in Afghanistan was heavily controlled by the Ministry for Information and Culture, while in the refugee camps in Pakistan and Iran all music was prohibited in order to maintain a continual state of mourning. The roots of the Taliban ban on music lie in the way these camps were run.

In the Rabbani period (1992–1996) music was heavily censored. In the provincial city of Herat, the newly formed Office for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice (religious police) enforced a virtual ban on live public performance, but private music making was permitted. There was a little music on radio and television, and audiocassettes of music were freely available. In Kabul conditions were somewhat more relaxed until Hekmatyar became prime minister; cinemas were then closed and music was banned from radio and television.

When the Taliban took control of Kabul in 1996 a number of edicts were published against music. All musical instruments were banned, and when discovered by agents of the Office for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice were destroyed, sometimes being burnt in public along with confiscated audio and video cassettes, TVs, and VCRs. The only forms of musical expression permitted today are the singing of certain kinds of religious poetry, and so-called Taliban chants, which are panegyrics to Taliban principles and commemorations of those who have died on the field of battle for the Taliban cause.

The effects of censorship of music in Afghanistan are deep and wide-ranging for the Afghan people, both inside and outside the country. The lives of professional musicians have been completely disrupted, and most have had to go into exile for their economic survival. The rich Afghan musical heritage is under severe threat. The report concludes with a number of recommendations intended to counteract the effects of censorship.

  • Broughton, Simon. Breaking the silence: Music in Afghanistan. VHS (BBC Education & Training, 2002). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2002-15784]

Abstract: The Taliban’s prohibition of music was the most severe in history. Apart from unaccompanied chants, all music was banned and instruments were broken and burnt. This film documents the remarkable moment when the country was reconnected with its musical culture. Shot in Kabul and Peshawar (Pakistan) in January 2002, two months after the fall of the Taliban, this film is an introduction to the music of Afghanistan and the way it’s been caught in the crossfire of conflicting regimes over the past 25 years. Most poignantly, it shows the musicians in Kabul who are now rebuilding Afghanistan’s devasted musical life. Directed by Simon Broughton, it won the documentary prize at the Golden Prague Festival in 2002.

Includes: Sarinda-player Mashinai, forced to work as a butcher under the Taliban; Singer Aziz Ghaznawi, who had no option but to sing for them; Female singer Naghma, whose tapes flooded the Kabul bazaar as the Taliban fled; Rare footage of Sufi gatherings where Islam and music fervently meet; Ensemble Kaboul, the best of the traditional Afghan groups in exile, who formed when the very survival of Afghan music seemed under threat.

  • Seybold, Dietrich. “Kulturkampf und Musikzensur: Über die Hintergründe des Musikverbots der Taliban”, Musik & Ästhetik 9/33 (Januar 2005) 104–112. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2005-256]

Abstract: Historically examined, musical censorship is an almost commonplace phenomenon. Less common is a ban as radical as that imposed in Afghanistan by the Taliban in 1996. The reception of the ban in the Western public sphere is analyzed, unifying the insights offered by various disciplines. Embedding this particular phenomenon in a historical examination of the theme of extreme, religiously based opposition to music, patterns of such opposition are revealed; these are also found in the occidental tradition, albeit focusing on a different problem complex: the stance of Islam, including its marginal, sect-like manifestations, in relation to music.

  • Alagha, Joseph. “Jihad through ‘music’”: The Taliban and Hizbullah”, Performing Islam 1/2 (2012) 263–289. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2012-13894]

Abstract: Discusses the cultural politics of the Taliban and Hezbollah. While Hezbollah embraces “resistance art” and encourages purposeful music and artistic expressions as pious entertainment, the Taliban censor music and restrict artistic activities, considering them innovations (bida’j) that distract from the practice of “authentic Islam” and “true worship”. To discuss the interplay between the “power of music” and “music in power”, this article uses samples of anashid (alternate spelling anachid or anasheed, meaning songs, hymns, and anthems) of the Taliban and Hezbollah, both of which practice jihad through music.

Most notably, both employ the same Qur’anic concept of “action of excellence under God’s guidance”, either to legitimize and justify certain artistic expressions and practices (Hezbollah) or to ban and prohibit them altogether (the Taliban). Hezbollah’s contextual argument leads to a music theory, whilst the Taliban’s prohibition in the absolute curtails cultural politics all together.

  • Cara, Gibney. “Dr. Ahmad Sarmast”, fRoots 39/10-12:418-420 (spring 2018) 31. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2018-1109]

Abstract: A profile and interview. Ahmad Sarmast is founder of the Afghanistan National Institute of Music (ANIM) in Kabul, which asserts in its mission statement: “We focus especially on supporting the most disadvantaged children in Afghanistan—orphans, street-working vendors and girls”. It’s been long, hard, dangerous work developing a music institute in Kabul focused on these marginalized populations, and the struggle isn’t over.

Ahmad Sarmast left Afghanistan in the 1990s, seeking asylum in Australia away from the relentless Afghan civil war. During his years away from home he pursued a music education that would develop skills and knowledge essential for the years ahead, ultimately becoming the first Afghan national to obtain a PhD in music. He returned to Afghanistan in 2008 after the defeat of the Taliban, a land where music was banned for many years.

ANIM opened its doors in 2010, and now offers a core academic syllabus including math, languages, and social sciences. It offers studies in Afghan music, Western music, and various ensembles including Zohra—”the first-ever all-female ensemble in the history of Afghanistan”.

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The Yandong Grand Singers

The Yandong Grand Singers are a choir of the Kam/Dong people from Guizhou province, China, specializing in the galao (grand song), a form of polyphonic song through which the Kam people transmit much of their history, culture, and knowledge. In 2009 the Grand Song was inscribed on the Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO.

Nearly every Kam person sings in a choir at some time in their life. From a community singing group of the Yandong township, the Yandong Grand Singers have gradually made their name known internationally through their album Everyone listen close—Wanp-wanp jangl kap and international tours. In 2019 they toured five cities in the United States to give concerts and workshops, which turned out to be a special experience of cultural exchange for both the musicians and audiences.

This according to “From the mountain to the world: My travels with the Chinese Yandong Grand Singers” by Mu Qian (Folklife 19 April 2021; RILM Abstracts 2021-1649).

Below, excerpts from the 2019 tour.

More posts about China are here.

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Rocking the (Chinese) tradition

 

In December 2015, on the Zhongguo zhi Xing (China Star) television program, a reality-show competition among professional pop singers, the singer Tan Weiwei presented a song collaboration with masters of Huayin laoqiang (a xiqu genre originating from Shuangquan village in Huayin), telling her audience that it represented “the earliest Chinese rock music.”

This broadcast, and a second one at the 2016 CCTV Chunjie Wanhui (Spring Festival Gala), led to considerable controversy regarding the three-way negotiation among Chinese rock music, the “Intangible Cultural Heritage’” represented by traditional Hauyin laoqiang, and the political ideology of the Chinese Communist Party.

The reception of these performances among various groups of viewers–general audience members, rock music fans, musicians, and government officials–illustrates how different interpretations reflect audience members’ differing social ideologies. The process of combining rock music and traditional culture is given different meanings based on the identity and stance of different viewers.

This according to “Rocking the tradition or traditionalizing rock? A music performance on Chinese reality show China star” by Yang Shuo (Sounding board 2017; RILM Abstracts 2017-43941). Above and below, the historic performance.

Happy Chinese New Year!

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Uday Shankar’s “Kalpana”

 

The feature film Kalpana (Imagination) is the only kinetic record of Uday Shankar’s choreographic work. Directed by and starring Shankar himself, it is semi-autobiographical and also stars his wife, Amala Shankar.

The film involved a fair amount of social commentary, and Shankar’s opening statement in it still feels strikingly appropriate:

“I request you all to be very alert while you watch this unusual picture—a Fantasy. Some of the events depicted here will reel off at great speed and if you miss any piece you will really be missing a vital aspect of our country’s life in its Religion, Politics, Education, Society, Art and Culture, Agriculture and Industry.”

“I do not deliberately aim my criticism at any particular group of people or institutions, but if it appears so, it just happens to be so, that is all. It is my duty as an Artist to be fully alive to all conditions of life and thought relating to our country and present it truthfully with all the faults and merits, through the medium of my Art.”

“And I hope that you will be with me in our final purpose to rectify our own shortcomings and become worthy of our cultural heritage and make our motherland once again the greatest in the world.”

This according to “Uday Shankar’s Kalpana” by Sunil Kothari (Sruti 195 [December 2000] 53–57).

Today is Uday Shankar’s 120th birthday! Above and below, excerpts from the film.

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Ratoh jaroe and female youth empowerment

 

The Acehnese dance form ratoh jaroe has empowered young women, especially high school students who are shaping their own youth culture, by taking center stage in Jakarta, one of the largest metropolitan cities in the world.

Young Jakartan women take advantage of the positive reputation of ratoh jaroe there, leveraging perceptions of the genre to channel self-expression and confidence, maintain their physical and mental health, and enrich their social lives, religious identity, education, and future. The genre is a medium for what young female Jakartan students consider success. Furthermore, Jakarta’s cosmopolitan engagement with consumerism and industry, along with the goal-oriented mindset of Jakartan youth, has created a fertile social space for ratoh jaroe’s popularization.

A network of practitioners and the culture of competition drives the circulation and economics of a ratoh jaroe industry, and Jakartan understandings of the dance’s historical roots in Islam promotes its acceptance, allowing young, mainly female, Muslim dancers to maintain their religious identities while performing on a public stage.

This according to “Ratoeh jaroe: Islam, youth, and popular dance in Jakarta, Indonesia” by Maho A. Ishiguro (Yearbook for traditional music LI [2019] 73–101; RILM Abstracts 2019-20798).

Below, a Jakartan group performs in 2012.

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Chindon’ya today

 

Chindon’ya (チンドン屋) are companies of street musicians engaged primarily in advertising for shops, stores, cabarets, and game parlors. Their development is closely linked to the economic and cultural development of Japan since the end of the nine­teenth century.

Although once a common sight in urban Japan, the number of chindon’ya has greatly decreased since the late 1960s. Recently, however, some signs of a new interest in this nearly obsolete profession have appeared.

Their profile has changed somewhat; job offers from rural communities are increasing, and engagements as main attractions in large hotels and at festivals have begun to be booked. The music has even influenced some pop music groups, who are taking up the chindon’ya repertory.

This according to “Chindon’ya today: Japanese street performers in commercial advertising” by Ingrid Fritsch (Asian ethnology LX/1 [2001] 49–78; RILM Abstracts 2001-24360).

Above and below, chindon’ya in action.

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Bhatkhande’s vision

 

The four all-India music conferences that were organized between 1916 and 1925 by Vishnu Narayan Bhatkhande were seminal events in the formation of a nationally based urban middle class and a predominantly Hindu-oriented music culture that encompassed performers, patrons, and audiences.

The conferences were the first modern gatherings on a national scale to combine discussion and analysis of musical practice and theory with a showcase of musical performance. A close examination of the reports generated by the conferences offers an opportunity to examine the conflicting social and political ideologies that were shaping north Indian classical music over a critical decade, as the aristocratic music of the courts was transformed into a national music.

Bhatkhande believed that music had to be taken over by the Western-educated, nationally conscious middle class, and that the patronage of the wealthy princes formerly given to support their private music establishments should be transferred to national institutions supporting music. Through the medium of the conferences he took the initiative of bringing together these disparate groups: traditional musicians, traditional patrons, and the new, primarily Hindu intelligentsia.

A number of topics recur through all four conferences: discussion of śrutis and rāga variations; a call for adoption of a uniform, systematic notation for Indian music; and a proposal for the creation of a national academy of music. The extent to which agreement and action on these proposals proved elusive can be read as indicating the degree of cross-cultural conflict that underlay the conferences, and gives a sense of the extent to which Bhatkhande’s vision resonated with the broader concerns of his day.

This according to “The All-India Music Conferences of 1916–1925: Cultural transformation and colonial ideology” by David Trasoff, an essay included in Hindustani music: Thirteenth to twentieth centuries (Nai Delli: Manohar, 2010 331–56; RILM Abstracts 2010-15196).

Today is Bhatkhande’s 160th birthday! Below, a documentary on the Music Institute that he established.

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Raqṣ šarqī as musical interpretation

 

Interpretive skill plays a particularly important role in Egyptian raqṣ šarqī, which is customarily improvised by a solo dancer to live musical accompaniment. The heterophonic structure of classical Egyptian music involves layering instruments, each of which simultaneously performs its own ornamentation on the melody, rather than adding harmonies.

As an intermediary between the music and the audience, the dancer has the ability to direct the audience’s attention to a particular instrument or embellishment by emulating its rhythm, pitch, and dynamics in movement. In so doing, the raqṣ šarqī dancer chooses not only what the audience will see, but also what they will hear.

The concept of muāsabah (analytical listening) illuminates how, by being a sammīʿa (skilled listener), the dancer can enhance the audience’s appreciation of the music, temporarily making them skilled listeners as well. Ultimately, raqṣ šarqī performance is a multisensorial practice that combines sounds, sights, and movements in order to heighten the audience’s aesthetic and emotional experience.

This according to Listening with the body: The raqs sharqi dancer as musical interpreter by Ainsley Hawthorn (St. Johns: Research Centre for the Study of Music, Media, & Place (MMaP), 2020).

Above, a raqṣ šarqī dancer in Cairo with her ensemble, photographed by Dan Lundberg; below, Dr. Hawthorn presents her research.

Related articles:

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Angklung and modernity

The musical style associated with the bamboo frame rattle called angklung embodies the egalitarian cooperation so essential for the agriculture that sustained Sundanese people in West Java for centuries. In the early twentieth century, Indonesian nationalists reimagined the sound of the angklung to index a connection to a distinctly Sundanese modern identity rooted in rural values.

The kind of angklung ensemble now popular in Indonesian schools and universities, which was designated an item of intangible heritage by UNESCO in 2010, is an elaboration of the innovations of the Sundanese music educator Daeng Soetigna. Current incarnations of angklung ensembles feature large numbers of performers, often playing arrangements of classical and popular hit songs as well as well-known Indonesian songs.

Angklung’s persistent appeal to Sundanese citizens has much to tell us about the relationship of humans to the places in which they live, the social structures that sustain them, and the strategies they concoct to remain grounded in a changing world.

This according to “From the rice harvest to Bohemian rhapsody: Diachronic modernity in angklung performance” by Henry Spiller, an essay included in Making waves: Traveling musics in Hawaiʻi, Asia, and the Pacific (Honolulu: University of Hawaiʻi Press, 2018, pp. 19–38).

Above, a children’s angklung ensemble; below, Queen’s Bohemian rhapsody.

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Bali remixed and revisited

 

In May 2019 Songlines Magazine and the PRS Foundation launched a competition to find the best remix of David Attenborough’s recording of a performance of Balinese gendér wayang, a style of Indonesian gamelan that features a quartet of ten-keyed metallophones. Among the reactions of gamelan enthusiasts was concern that the unnamed musicians (or their descendants) were receiving neither recognition nor royalties for this reuse of their work.

The music and instruments in the recording (said to date from 1956 but in fact recorded in 1968, as discovered by Edward Herbst since the publication of the article) were instantly recognizable to people who knew the repertoire of the village of Teges Kanginan; the gamelan set is presumed to have belonged to this village for at least 100 years.

Soon after the competition was announced, the American ethnomusicologist Edward Herbst met with the village leader, his staff, and local musicians, and listened to the original recording as one of the current players tapped out the basic melody on one of the historic instruments. All the pitches matched, and everyone agreed that the recording was of the Teges gamelan, and that the royalties should go to that village.

Herbst presented the royalties to the village leader, and all were elated that the royalties would provide seed money for restoring and reviving this legacy gamelan, and that Teges could regain its heritage.

This according to “Bali remixed and revisited” by Edward Herbst (Songlines 150 [August–September 2019], pp. 50-53).

Above, Herbst (center) with the gathered villagers; below, the recording in question begins at 1:05.

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