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A celebration with dance and music ended in August 2012 for 17 deadly people. The Taliban decapitated those celebrating. Never before have music and musicians been subjected to such radical persecution as under the Taliban regime. All forms, performances and distribution were strictly forbidden between 1996 and 2001 under the rule of the self-proclaimed holy warriors and could be punished with death. But as in every country, music was and is part of Afghanistan’s cultural wealth. Also in Afghanistan people liked to dance, sing and celebrate. Laughing women with short skirts and modern haircuts – that was not a rare picture in Afghanistan in the 60s. Many dark years of oppression and dictatorship, accompanied by the total music censorship of the Taliban, have not passed the country by without a trace since then.

The Development of Afghan Music Culture

Afghan music is characterized by Persian, Hindu and Indian influences. The most typical musical instrument is the so-called rubab, a stringed instrument which is plucked. In contrast to Persian literature, which has a centuries-long written tradition, Persian music was usually only handed down orally. Musical knowledge and skills were little spread or passed on. Musicians simply learned many things on their own. Only with the founding of the first radio station, Radio Kabul in 1925, did the development of popular music in Afghanistan begin. As early as 1929, the station was destroyed again as a result of armed conflict and remained closed for 10 years. It was officially reopened in 1940 and within six years loudspeaker systems were distributed in all major cities. Music had to become more suitable for radio and so Afghan pop music developed. Amateur singers suddenly grew out of the ground. Provincial musicians who knew how to play the rubab were recruited to “upgrade” and improve the music. Since the 1930s, the proportion of women in the music scene has increased steadily. Women sang, danced and played mainly harmonium, tabla and daireh (drums).

The new constitution implemented in 1964 not only provided for parliamentary democracy, but was also accompanied by a new press law that protected freedom of the press and expression. Music, theatre, art and culture could revive. King Zahir Shah, who ruled Afghanistan from 1933 to 1973, loved music and invited numerous artists from India to perform in Afghanistan.

Soviet Occupation and Mudjaheddin

The diversity of Afghan musical culture suffered its first setback with the invasion of Soviet troops in 1978. The free press was banned, private theatres closed. Nevertheless, music was an indispensable part of the daily life of Afghans. Especially in the Herat region, music continued to be practiced in all possible facets: Women and men, bands and solo artists performed both religious and non-religious songs. Most life performances took place at weddings or family celebrations, where people danced, celebrated and sang for 24 hours. Even concerts in bigger cities could last 6 to 8 hours. Especially the fasting month Ramadan was marked by strong musical entertainment. Nightly concerts were organized in restaurants and cafés. Musicians from Kabul travelled to Herat and played. Concerts, musicals and dramas were also held every night in the city’s state theatre. The radio spread popular songs all over the country. Songs from all over Central Asia, Iran, India and Pakistan were played. Audio cassettes became more and more popular and in Kabul the Afghan Music Centre developed with technically well-equipped studios. Young Afghans also enjoyed listening to Western music, and hotels tried to attract Western tourists by playing European music. In 14 years of communist rule, music was strongly controlled, but not as forbidden as it was in the Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan and Iran.

Soviet troops withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989. Until 1992, the government under President Mohammed Nadschibullah was able to hold its own, then the Muddjahedin fighters and President Rabbani took the lead and founded the Islamic State of Afghanistan. From then on the music was strongly censored. Professional musicians first had to acquire a license, which specified exactly which songs they were allowed to perform. Of course, those who praised the Mujahhedin regime were the most allowed to perform.

Love or dance songs were almost without exception forbidden, it was not allowed to play with amplifiers, female musicians were forbidden to perform. The “Ministry for Virtuousness and Prevention of Vice” often appeared at a wedding celebration, confiscated musical instruments and returned them to the musicians only days later after paying a bribe. The dictatorship left its first traces. With the takeover of power by the Taliban in 1994, this was only to intensify.

The Taliban seize power – end of music in Afghanistan

In 1994 the Taliban first took Kandahar. From there they gradually began to imply their strict measures in Afghan society, which were completely in conflict with Western values. Women were immediately forbidden to work. For many families in Kabul, who had lost any male leader in the previous conflicts, this was equivalent to a death sentence.

The Taliban banned any visual presence of animated creatures, whether human or animal. As a result, all forms of visual media – cinema, television, video, photography and painting – disappeared from public life. And of course, musical entertainment was banned. Radio Kabul was converted to propagate the Taliban regulations. The Taliban announced on September 28, 1996 via Radio Kabul that “drinking alcohol is punishable with whip lashes”. Videos, satellite dishes, all games including chess, football and kite flying were banned. Radio Kabul was renamed Radio Shariat. Whoever was found on the street as a man without a beard was arrested.

With regard to the music ban, the Taliban issued the following decree:

Cassettes and music are forbidden in shops, hotels, cars and rickshaws. If a cassette with music is found somewhere in a shop, the shop owner is to be arrested and the shop closed. If a cassette is found in a car, the driver is to be arrested. If five men vouch, the driver can be released.

According to Education Minister Mullah Abdul Hanifi, the Taliban opposed music because it “causes headaches and distracts from the study of Islam”.8 Many musicians fled to Pakistan. Only audio cassettes with quotations from the Koran and prayers were allowed.9 As a result, sounds were not forbidden per se. The Taliban did not allow love songs, but when it came to the Koran cassettes were allowed. Spiritual songs without instrumental accompaniment and patriotic chants could still be heard. According to the Taliban, these were the only songs that could not lead to a decline in morals and values.

In general, Western explanatory models try to justify the music ban of the Taliban with their strictly fundamental Islamism. However, no other Islamic state forbids songs, sounds and music as such. The Wahabists in Saudi Arabia, for example, prohibit music and dance in general, but songs are still played on radio and television, CDs and cassettes are sold, and only public concerts are very rare.

John Street (2012) argues that music has a certain meaning for the Taliban. The Taliban are not so much interested in music as such, so it is not an intrinsic value of music that makes its ban decisive. Rather, Street assumes that the Taliban will make a connection between the Soviet occupiers and music. The Soviets use music on the radio to strengthen their authority. For the Taliban, the Soviets were oppressors, and their oppressive methods must therefore be banished. Not the sounds, the songs as such, but the political association was the decisive point for the Taliban.

In the Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan and Iran, music was banned because it was considered “inappropriate. In times of war and a million deaths in 20 years, playing music was considered wrong.

The English musicologist John Baily has been researching Afghan music for years. He assumes that the Taliban, like the Christian Quakers, are extremely puritanical and reject any form of entertainment and joy outside religion. This does not necessarily have anything to do with Islam, the Quakers also rejected all forms of art and music in the 16th century. They described music as “detrimental to the health of the soul” and as “seduction to harmful associations” as well as “vain devotion to worldly pleasures”. In the Sufi orientation of Islam, on the other hand, music is regarded as “food for the soul,” a complete contrast to the Taliban view. The attitude of the Quakers changed over the years. Today there are many concerts and musical events in the Quaker schools. Music seems to have been accepted and is no longer considered a “sin”. Baily hopes for reflection and positive development.

After the Taliban regime

With the intervention of American troops in 2001, the Taliban regime partially disintegrated. But attacks and deaths still occur in many places. Many musicians returned from exile in Pakistan, Iran and other countries and began to play again.13 The National Institute for Music was opened in Kabul. In September 2011 the first rock festival took place in Kabul, although the Taliban had tried to prevent the performances with attacks days before. The festival was the first official one in more than three decades.14 It is an expression of an oppressed society that wants to free itself from the shackles of music censorship. Music, songs and dancing have always been part of Afghan culture. It is still dangerous to live in Afghanistan as a musician and music lover, as the attack of August 2012 makes clear. Nevertheless, the tendencies are positive. John Baily calls on the UN and NGOs to do more for artists and musicians in Afghanistan so that the country can return to its cultural identity. This includes above all financial support, courses and the provision of instruments. Baily said: “When Afghanistan regains a freer radio and TV culture, when women are allowed to sing in public, we will be able to conclude that the country is returning to the freedoms it had in the 1970s before the civil war.