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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, November 19, 2001

Afghanistan's expatriates keep their music alive

By Kim Curtis
Associated Press

FREMONT, Calif. — Naghma, an Afghan singer who fled her country after receiving death threats, watched for years from afar as the Taliban outlawed music.

Mariam Fakhri, right, dances at her wedding reception with her sister, Wahida Noorzad, in Hayward, Calif. The music-filled affair contrasts with weddings in Afghanistan, where the head of a family could be arrested if there was music or dancing.

Associated Press

Tapes were ripped from cassettes and hung like brown streamers from trees. A man caught hiring musicians for his daughter's wedding went to jail for 10 days. For musicians, performing could mean death.

"Serving others in our country is considered a crime, particularly in the arts. I was an artist. The community itself was against art and music," said Naghma, 36.

She and other Afghan musicians have kept their music alive from afar — and despite the Taliban's five-year rule, they remain popular.

Their music can be found in bins of cassettes in Pakistani bazaars, or on the Internet. It plays from loudspeakers in town squares in Iran, or in living-room concerts in Afghan American homes. It was among the treasured possessions carried by some refugees leaving Afghanistan.

And last week, when Taliban soldiers retreated from some Afghan cities, people spontaneously celebrated with music. They held tiny tape recorders to their ears and danced in the streets.

"Without music, I could not live — not even for one hour," said another Afghan singer, Mahwash, through a translator. Mahwash lives in Fremont, home of the nation's largest Afghan American community. She performs at concerts and weddings — or just sings in the shower to keep her music alive.

She says she is eager for peace so she can go back and "sing for all the women who suffered under the various governments, to reduce a little of their pain and suffering."

Mahwash, left, and Khalil Ragheb are Afghan musicians who fled to the United States in the late 1980s. They usually perform at weddings and concerts.

Associated Press

Afghanistan has enjoyed a rich musical tradition. As early as the 1860s, Indian musicians were invited to perform in Kabul.

Afghan music distinguished itself from its Indian roots with its use of spiritual and mystical poetry sung with heavy vibrato; a favorite subject is love. The singer is usually accompanied by a harmonium, which is like an accordion. The singing is punctuated by fast, instrumental sections. Afghanistan's national instrument is the rubab, a short-necked lute. Long-necked lutes like the dambura and the tanbur and dutar are also widespread.

Before the Taliban banned it, music was sold in stores, and played on loudspeakers in town squares and at festivals. In the 1960s, Radio Afghanistan was launched, creating an audience for modern, popular versions of Afghan music. Radio also lifted the low social status of musicians.

Thousands of musicians have fled Afghanistan in the past 20 years. Some left because of the communists, who ruled from 1978 to 1992 and restricted what kind of music could be played. Others left during the chaos after the fall of communism. The few musicians who remained fled or went underground when the Taliban cracked down.

Naghma — whose face is seen throughout the Middle East, on walls, on posters, painted on the sides of trucks — has never considered herself political. But she became a star in Afghanistan under communist rule, and her popularity made her a target of authorities.

She said the communists killed her sister, mistaking her for the singer. Fearing her family was next, she fled to Pakistan a decade ago. Then Taliban sympathizers there threatened to kill her. Two years ago, Naghma settled with her family in Fremont, and she was granted U.S. political asylum.

"If I don't speak out for the rights of the women and the people and the peace of the nation, then who will do it?" she said in a phone interview from Pakistan, where she was on a secretive visit to record an album with musicians there. "I and other educated people must do it. We are threatened, but it will not stop us."