Afghanistan is also struggling with change. It's a country that's becoming more open to the outside world, even as a war drags on. This is a country that had a rich musical tradition, also a country where the Taliban once banned music. This past fall, Kabul hosted two international music festivals; one of them, traditional, the other, a rock concert. But music remains a sensitive issue.

International donors, including the United States, has helped to refurbish a conservatory in Kabul. But some of the students say they still face disapproval from extremist elements, even at the music institute itself.

Here's NPR's Quil Lawrence.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: The Afghan National Institute of Music is just over one year old.


LAWRENCE: It's something of a revival of musical traditions that have been battered by years of war and sometimes religious prohibition.


LAWRENCE: Students here 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.


LAWRENCE: But Afghanistan 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.

CHARSHAMBAY: (Foreign language spoken)

LAWRENCE: Charshambay says he's even been told not to practice his tabla in the dormitory, but he doesn't care. For him, he says, music is a gift from god. Something else concerns him though.

CHARSHAMBAY: (Foreign language spoken)

LAWRENCE: 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: Of course, all the modern communications have completely changed things and the isolations that existed in the past in which allowed different regional styles to thrive, that is diminishing.

LAWRENCE: John Baily is head of the Afghan Music Unit at the University of London. He says some modern instruments have crowded out traditional ones - many Afghan weddings now feature one man bands with lots of electronic help - it sounds like this.


LAWRENCE: But Baily, an accomplished Rumbab player himself, is encouraged by the Afghan National Institute. And he recently visited Kabul and gave a concert along with some Afghan masters. That sounded like this.


LAWRENCE: Baily says he still finds the issue of music sensitive in Afghanistan. Musicians are still considered somewhat irreputable, and those who support it most publicly link music to religion, like some of Afghanistan's Sufi Muslim orders, that use singing and sometimes dancing as a form of prayer and meditation.

BAILY: Those who support music strongly here, actually see it from a religious point of view. From their point of view, and you hear this a lot in Afghanistan, music is ghazairoo - food for the soul, or nourishment for the soul - and I think that's such a wonderful idea.

LAWRENCE: Musicians from the Afghan National Institute have also been turning Afghan instruments toward western music, most recently "Bolero" by Maurice Ravel.


LAWRENCE: Quil Lawrence, NPR News, Kabul.



Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.



Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.