Banned at home, Afghan music is thriving in the diaspora


THE LAST time Ahmad Fanoos performed in Afghanistan was at a lavish wedding in August 2021, days before America pulled out of its 20-year-long war against the Taliban. A well-known singer and former judge of “Afghan Star”—the equivalent of “American Idol”—Mr Fanoos asked for song requests. Instead he received a note calling him an infidel. He was no stranger to threats; they had accompanied him on his rise to prominence, prompting him to send his wife and three of his children abroad. Mr Fanoos decided to leave one week after the Taliban overran Kabul.

The militants have since banned most music, along with other types of entertainment. As a result, the fledgling music scene which developed after America ousted the Taliban in 2001 has dissipated. Local radio stations no longer play Afghan music programmes; the likes of “Afghan Star” are not broadcast on television. The musicians still there hide their instruments—those which the Taliban have not already destroyed.

Beyond its borders, however, Afghanistan’s complex, varied music lives on, thanks to artists in the diaspora such as Mr Fanoos. He arrived in America in October 2021, reuniting with his sons Elham and Mehran. (He had not seen the elder, Elham, for five years.) They now perform together under the name Heart of Afghanistan (pictured). Unlike their father, who is self-taught, the brothers have trained in Western classical music. Elham is an accomplished pianist with a master’s degree in piano performance; Mehran won a scholarship to study violin performance at university in Indiana. The trio—plus one other performer who plays the tabla, a pair of twin hand-drums—kicked off their second tour in America in January, with the help of American Voices, a non-profit organisation.

Their repertoire includes songs that were crowd-pleasers back in Kabul. It is a diverse mix, for Afghanistan has a rich musical history. The empires and cultures that swept through Central and South Asia have shaped its songs: Buddhism and ancient Greek instruments are thought to have influenced early Afghan folk tunes, for instance.

The family’s performance reflects this cultural fusion. Mr Fanoos senior sings 19th-century folk songs, patriotic tunes, romantic ballads and ghazal, an ancient poetic form which sets couplets to music. Their composition includes lines by Rumi, a 13th-century Sufi poet who was born in modern-day Afghanistan. The brothers accompany their father on the piano and violin, adding fresh sounds by swapping traditional instruments for Western ones. Harmonies and chords typically heard in the Western canon suffuse their songs, Elham explains.

Ahmad Sarmast, who founded the Afghanistan National Institute for Music (ANIM), a music school, in 2010, says Elham’s and Mehran’s skill makes the Fanoos’ performance a particular pleasure to listen to. Mr Sarmast welcomes their break with tradition, viewing it as part of a pattern: generations of Afghan artists have emigrated and gone on to incorporate the sounds of their adopted home into their work. Musicians left Afghanistan in the 1980s to escape limitations imposed by the socialist government. Another exodus took place in the 1990s after the Taliban assumed power and clamped down on music. In California, a generation of Afghan-Americans introduced keyboards to their songs. They ramped up the tempo and volume so people could dance to them, writes John Baily in his book, “War, Exile and the Music of Afghanistan”.

Afghan musicians are proving that tragedy can lead to renewal. ANIM, which closed soon after the Taliban marched into Kabul, is now in Portugal. Around 273 of its members and their families were granted asylum. The students perform around Europe and invite young Portuguese musicians to join their orchestras. In Britain, exiled Afghan composers will debut work in June with the Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra.

All this is introducing new audiences to Afghan culture. Mr Fanoos is an artist-in-residence at the New School in New York and intends to keep touring indefinitely with his family. In the meantime, he is waiting to be reunited with his wife, who is in India. Many of his former band members are thought to be stuck in Afghanistan. Yet Heart of Afghanistan is a symbol of something cheering: that the Taliban cannot prevent the country’s music from evolving abroad, nor from being heard.

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