Returning after a notable absence

January 23, 2003

Mandy Garner talks to a man eager to revive Afghan music.

John Baily has been working on Afghan music for 30 years but his last visit to Afghanistan was 25 years ago when he and his wife, Veronica Doubleday, made an epic series of recordings in Herat. Last October, he went back to survey the music scene in a country where music and musical instruments were banned under the Taliban.

But despite the routing of the Taliban and the return of many musicians who had fled to Pakistan to find work, the picture is not particularly rosy. Heavy censorship of music remains, particularly outside Kabul, where there have been arrests and attacks on musicians. And women are still not permitted to sing on radio, television or the stage.

But Baily, head of Britain's first Afghan Music Unit at Goldsmiths College, University of London, and one of about 20 full-time ethnomusicologists in the UK, says there are several signs that the music scene is coming back to life - for example, traditional music venues are beginning to open again.

A number of western countries are sending musicians there. "I saw an electronic rock group from Dusseldorf play a concert at Kabul University, in the auditorium where the Taliban used to hold their meetings. It was packed," he says. The Goethe Institute, which brought the group to Kabul, also donated sophisticated electronic equipment to Afghan musicians. Pop music has been practised in Afghanistan since the 1970s, when Kabul staged a big pop concert, but under the Taliban, people were able to listen to it only secretly on foreign radio stations. "There is a great hunger for contact with the outside world among students," Baily says.

His interest is more in Afghanistan's traditional musicians, most of whom used to live in the Kucheh Kharabat, an area of the town that was destroyed by Mujahideen fighting between 1992 and 1996. He hopes to aid them by helping to set up a training scheme similar to those the Aga Khan Development Network operates in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. This involves master musicians and their students being paid to learn about all aspects of traditional music. Baily has written a paper on his trip, recommending a number of ways to encourage music in Afghanistan, from digitising Radio Afghanistan's tape archive to setting up an oral history project on the Kucheh Kharabat and forging stronger links between the music departments at Goldsmiths and Kabul.

Baily, a graduate of the National Film and Television School, is also working on a documentary of his visit, which he hopes to show at the Royal Anthropological Institute's film festival in Durham in July.

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