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Kabul struggles to get back on song

By Rustam Qobil
BBC Uzbek, Kabul

FROM THE BBC WORLD SERVICE
Music school in Kabul

In rapidly-changing Kabul, the old musician's quarter Kharabat is still marked by past bloodshed and destruction.

While money has poured into the physical regeneration of Afghanistan, the country's cultural life has been largely ignored.

Traditional music, reviled by the Taliban regime, is one case in point.

Kharabat is one of the poorest neighbourhoods in Afghanistan's capital.

Very few buildings here have been left unharmed by rocket attacks, and traders along the quarter's main street park their carts piled with second-hand clothes surrounded by the ruins of once magnificent buildings.

No money

These ruins used to be home to dozens of small music schools, where famous Afghan ustads, or maestros, taught youngsters traditional Afghan music, passing their skills on to new generations.

Classical Afghan music is a fine blend of South and Central Asian traditions and Middle Eastern melodies. It has its own unique voice, which was defined, polished and perfected in Kharabat.

But in the decades of conflict, Kharabat was virtually destroyed by the mujahideen forces in the early 1990s.

Later the Taliban turned their attention to the area in an effort to eliminate everything associated with music and art.

Harabat, Kabul's old music quarter
Much of Harabat is still in runs

Many ustads had to leave their music schools and became refugees in neighbouring countries.

Now some of them are back in Kabul, determined to bring the quarter's tradition back to life.

In a small room above a row of shops, the Amiri family has set up a Kharabat-style traditional school.

"We teach youngsters to play rubab, tabla and harmonium. We also work with their voices and they learn classical songs," says Nasir Amiri, one of three brothers running the school.

"Altogether, we have six pupils. But young people lack patience to learn classical music these days," he says.

There are a few music schools in Kharabat now, and few are driven by the desire to make money.

Those who can't afford to pay can attend lessons for free.

"We were taught music by our father, Muhammad Amiri, who was one of the famous ustads of Kharabat," Nasir says.

"After his death, we feel obliged to continue his work, even if we don't make any money out of it".

Struggle

The Amiri brothers used to earn their living playing classical music at wedding parties. But with the spread of Western style pop, they have had to adapt. But while playing popular songs might feed their families, it is classical music where their hearts lie.

Kabul music shop
No one is really interested in buying these instruments because they are no good for pop music.
Kabul shopkeeper

The family lived in Pakistan for 12 years where they taught music to Afghan refugee children.

"Back in Pakistan we lived under better conditions. At least we could pay our rent and didn't have to worry about what our children would eat," says Bashir, "but our music is needed here - in Afghanistan."

But reviving the old music is a struggle. There is one music shop in Kharabat which sells finely decorated, traditional instruments. The shopkeeper, a musician himself, says he struggles to sell even one instrument a day.

"Everything here is made in Kabul. But no one is really interested in buying these instruments because they are no good for pop music. I'm afraid I might close this shop and do something else instead," he says.

Maybe it is no surprise that the revival of musical traditions is not high on the agenda of a country facing so many problems, from the insurgency to widespread poverty.

But the popularity of new television channels playing music shows that there is a hunger for entertainment, even if commercial stations offer something rather more populist than the traditional sounds from Kharabat.

But those trying to revive those sounds are determined not to give up.

The original translation of Kharabat meant "ruins".

But there is another meaning: "dedication".

It seems the quarter is living up to its other translation in every sense.



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