When the Taliban returned to power in August 2021 following the final removal of US troops from Afghan soil, music was once again silenced across the nation. This most recent banning of music in Afghanistan follows a long history of music censorship, beginning with the takeover of the communist government of Nur Ahmad Taraki in 2021. When the Taliban came to power between 1996 and 2001 this censorship turned into prohibition, and a number of edicts were published against both playing and listening to music, which was as seen sinful and haram (forbidden by Islamic law). While the period following 2001 witness a rebirth of the countries musical activity, recent vents mean instruments are once again being burnt and musicians are fleeing the country, stripped of their ability to participate lawfully in society. Afghanistan’s rich musical heritage thus now only exists in the hands of its expatriates, its refugees, and the celebrations once vibrant with music in their homeland have fallen silent.
Afghans make up one of the largest refugee populations, with the UNHCR estimating that 24 million Afghans are in need of humanitarian assistance whilst at least 2 and a half million were officially registered as refugee’s following the events of 2021. Whilst the majority of refugees have settled in either Pakistan or Iran, there are also many significant Afghan communities in the West, for example in the San Francisco Bay area.
Where Afghans have gone, music has followed, with distinct musical cultures evolving in each of these communities. Ethnomusicologist John Bailey has conducted significant research into the role of music in refugee communities, focusing particularly on Afghan musicians in Mashhad (Iran) and Fremont (California). He argues that where refugees have a less secure status, as in Mashhad, music is ‘all about normalization, reassurance, ticking over, keeping things going through difficult times for a righter future’. The temporary nature of refugee status in Mashhad meant Afghan’s hoped to replicate the feeling of home, and music was a big part of that. Musicians played at weddings and celebrations, as they would have done in Afghanistan, where music is a ritualized aspect of many cultural events. Stylistically the music was very similar to its roots in Heart, and it was understood to be a means through which Afghan’s could contribute to the society around them, one of the ‘seven fundamental human needs’ according to Dr. Kenneth Acha. In contrast, Bailey notes that in California, where status was more secure, music provided ‘a means through which to create a new identity as permanent citizens, as well as providing therapeutic experiences at individual and community levels’. In America Afghan music moved into the concert hall, and became a way for the community to connect with their culture and identity, and indeed with each other.
The importance of music to the establishment of communal identity is reflected in the National Immigrant Services efforts to establish a traditional Afghan music course, teaching table and harmonium. Indeed, the importance of music to one’s sense of self and belonging is well understood within music scholarship. There is significant research on the relationship between music, identity, and memory, and it is generally understood that listening or playing music is extremely affected by ones embodied experience and history. Musicologist Andy Bennet writes that ‘music serves as a highly tangible way through which individuals are able to feel a sense of collective identity and belonging in which participation in common musical activities and a feeling of connection to place are simultaneously realized and articulated through each other’. Music’s ability to evoke strong emotions has been linked to its attachment to specific memories or moods, and therefore listening and engaging in traditional music can help connect a listener to their childhood or a place. For refugees then, music is a particularly powerful force to articulate a sense of belonging where the feeling of ‘home’ is displaced from its geographic roots. Ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax has written that ‘the primary effect of music is to give the listener a feeling of security for it symbolizes the place where he was born, his earliest childhood satisfactions, his religious experience, his pleasure in community doings, his courtship and his work - any or all of these personality-shaping experiences’.
As well as carrying a sense of belonging and nationhood through musical memory, music can also create social bonds through shared experience and participation. Because of the way in which music enhances emotion, collective participation in both listening to and playing music intensifies social bonds. Shared musical taste then can serve to define and regulate social groups, particularly important for refugee communities hoping to retain a distinct cultural identity in a foreign country. ‘Participation’ and ‘belonging’ are both understood to be part of the seven human needs, where people need to feel as though they are able to contribute to the society in which they live and further to feel as though they are ‘connected to a group of like minded individuals’. Music, therefore, is a crucial way through which refugees can maintain links both to their homelands and with each other in new places.
Music as a mean of collective identity is particularly important in the case of Afghan refugee communities, where the recent prohibition of music in the country itself means that this form of cultural heritage lives on only through its expatriate communities. In 2021, practicing musicians once again found themselves needing to flee the country if they wanted to stay connected to their art and livelihood. Many low-profile practicing musicians sought asylum in nearby Pakistan, where they hoped they would be provided with the opportunity to continue their art. However, unconvinced of musicians need to seek asylum; the Pakistan government were reported to be searching for and deporting ‘undocumented’ Afghan musicians. As such, the musician refugees are unable to practice their art or earn a living for fear of being displaced. Many have returned across the border and many further live confined to their homes. Uncertain of their status, musician refugees in Pakistan have lost their ability to participate in the community and connect with their identity and culture. Like many refugees around the world, their human needs are not being met.
Similarly, when the National Institute in Kabul closed in August 2021, both students and teachers lives were thrown suddenly into danger. Recognising the need to evacuate, head teacher Ahmad Sarmast contacted the leaders of many European countries in search of refuge, which was eventually granted in Portugal. Now, tucked inside an old military hospital on the outskirts of Lisbon, a small bubble of pre-Taliban Afghanistan lives on, where over 250 musicians from the institute of music have not only been granted asylum but the ability to recreate their school and continue their musical education. Through music, Afghan refugees are able to preserve their identity and cultural heritage, as well as create the opportunity to contribute to their new community. The children of the school will grow up to be fluent in both Afghan and Western musical traditions, and therefore able perform to new audiences and forge a new identity. Whilst these refugees have faced many struggles in assimilating into a new culture, particularly in finding work, music has provided a constant and allowed the needs to identify and belong to be met. Sarmast believes that through music ‘we can show the world a different Afghanistan’ and indeed the students have performed a range of both traditional and new music to locals. Many of their concerts start with the popular song ‘Sarzamin-e Man’ – “My Homeland”.
Baily, John. So near, so Far: Kabul's Music in Exile, 2005
Bennett,, Andy ‘Identity: Music, Community, and Self’, in The Routledge Reader on the Sociology of Music, ed. John Shepherd and Kyle Devine, 2015
Lomax Alan ‘Folk song style’, American Anthropologist, 1959
Holly is a third year Musicology student at Oxford University. She researched and wrote this article as part of the Oxford University Micro Internship programme.