Forbidden melodies

July 4, 1997

In the first of a series of visits to academics' rooms, Kate Worsley is admitted to ethnomusicologist John Baily's shrine to the Afghan music banned by the Taliban

Cross-legged, in jeans and stocking feet, ethnomusicologist John Baily is coaxing a harmonious twang from an instrument somewhere between a banjo and a mandolin. This is the music of Herat, Afghanistan's second city, but you are more likely to hear it here, in his first-floor office in Brighton, than at any of the wedding celebrations for which it was intended. Music started to go underground in Afghanistan when the Mujahadin took over in 1992. Now the Islamic extremist Taliban faction has banned it, along with paper bags and other essentials.

"Let me open up the boxes and show you the enormity of the crime," Dr Baily says. He draws out from under a table a large metal trunk painted in broad strokes of green, yellow and blue "like the Afghan lorries".

It was made for him in a Herat street to accommodate the instruments he had custom-made during a two-year field trip to Herat in the 1970s with his wife Veronica. Now it houses more than 250 cassettes and reel-to-reel tapes of local music, recorded while he was there with a basic and hefty Sony TC888b tape recorder. "If you went now there'd be absolutely nothing," he says.

"When I went back to make a film (among Afghan emigres in Pakistan in 1985) I thought I'd find political music. But so many people had died that everyone was in a state of perpetual mourning. And funerals are the one area where they don't have music."

Baily teaches the masters degree in ethnomusicology at Goldsmiths College, London. His office, a sunny room spanning the front of his Brighton terrace, has become a sort of shrine to Afghan music. He hopes one day to return to Herat and give back the city the best of what it has lost. Meanwhile his half-dozen dutars - two-stringed, banjo-like instruments - and rubabs with their extra sympathetic strings, both played only by men, hang by their necks along a side wall.

Facing them on the chimney breast across the room is a cluster of framed prints of Islamic shrines. One intricate yellow drawing depicts the layout of the notes on a rubab, its three strings and four frets. To the left is a 1972 black-and-white photograph of a man "in a cheeky version of a turban" - Amir Jan, his teacher and "the outstanding master of music in Herat from the mid-1930s to the mid-1960s", now dead.

From below a shelf in the alcove that houses a rubab he bought from Amir Jan, Baily whips out a flat round drum about a foot wide. This is a daireh, or daff in Arabic, a frame drum played by women. He shakes it so that its tiny cymbals jangle. There are driftwood sculptures, and ethnic patterned cloths over the computer and printer. A quilted chapan coat hangs on the back of the door. The carpet is obscured by rugs, an oily sheepskin folded to make a low seat in the bay window. It looks like Camden market ten years ago.

Baily was, after all, part of the hippy generation. In 1965, as a 22-year-old with a psychology degree, he went round the world for a year and got hooked on the music he heard. He remembers "driving with the radio on through the Arab world - you'd hear this endless barrage of music".

But it was Afghanistan that stole his heart. It's a westerner's cliche now, but "the people are so hospitable. Even going there in 1994, when those people had suffered tremendously, I think I ate out 28 times in ten weeks."

He may have tuned in but he did not drop out. After postdoctoral research at Queen's University, Belfast's anthropology department under John Blackie, he returned to Herat to record "over 100 hours of music". Following the heredid, the professional musicians, he went to private homes, country fairs, family celebrations. "I used motorcycle batteries to charge up my tape recorder at night. The electricity in Herat worked only three times a week and then only in the evenings. The voltage went from 110 to 240 as people turned their lights out."

After the Marxist coup he did not return for 17 years until a Leverhulme fellowship allowed him to make a film about the musicians he had met for the National Film School. On his last visit in 1994, "you'd hear music on TV and be looking at a vase of flowers and never see the performers". Letters from friends gave nothing away, "but when you get there you find the most ghastly things are going on". And a closer look at a small rug by the window reveals representations of tanks, Kalashnikovs and helicopters. "It's one of a whole generation of so-called war carpets. I swapped it for a tape in the market."

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