Afghanistan sits at a crossroads between central Asia, Iran and the Indian subcontinent, and the country's music reflects that. Kabul hosted two international music festivals this fall — one traditional, the other a rock concert — but music is still a sensitive issue. International donors, including the U.S., have helped refurbish a conservatory in Kabul, but some of the students say they still face disapproval from extremist elements, even at the university.
Just over one-year-old, the Afghan National Institute of Music is something of a revival of musical traditions that have been battered by years of war, and sometimes, religious prohibition. Students at the Institute practice Western instruments as well as traditional ones, like the tabla (drums well known in Indian classical music) or the rubab (a sort of cross between a banjo and a sitar with sympathetic strings that drone along with the melody and a resonating chamber that is covered with skin and sometimes filled with egg shells).
But Afghanistan also has a long tradition of controversy about music, with rural religious leaders often labeling it an un-Islamic foreign vice enjoyed by city-dwellers. That's sometimes still the case today according to one student.
Charshambay is a willow-thin tabla student from northern Afghanistan. He says that some of his religion teachers at Kabul University have tried to convince him that music is forbidden, and he's even been told not to practice his tabla in the dormitory. He doesn't care. For him, the music is a gift from god. Something else does worry him though.
"I'm worried about losing our culture," says Charshambay. He says many unique traditions from Afghanistan's different regions are being lost in the melting pot of globalization — that's a fear shared by ethnomusicologists.
John Baily is head of the Afghan Music Unit at the University of London. He says some modern instruments have crowded out traditional ones, and that many Afghan weddings now feature one-man bands with lots of electronic help.
But Baily, an accomplished rubab player himself, is encouraged by the Afghan National Institute, and he recently visited Kabul and put on a concert along with some other Afghan masters. He still finds the issue of music in Afghanistan to be a touchy one, as musicians are still considered somewhat irreputable, and those who support it most publically link music to religion, like some of Afghanistan's Sufi orders.
"Those who support music strongly here actually see it from a religious point of view," says Baily. "From their point of view — and you hear this a lot in Afghanistan — music is 'ghazairoo,' food for the soul, and I think that's such a wonderful idea."
Musicians from the Afghan National Institute have also been turning Afghan instruments toward Western music, most recently in "Bolero" by Maurice Ravel.