Music Music in Afghanistan
Mark Slobin
  • LAST REVIEWED: 15 January 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 January 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0261


The literature on the musics of the peoples of Afghanistan is recent and small. Due to the cross-regional setting, Afghanistan’s music cultures and literature overlap with three neighboring zones: the Iranian, the Central Asian, and the South Asian. The citations in this article are only for modern Afghanistan proper. European travelers described Kabul’s 19th-century court music and offered stray, casual accounts of folk musics. But the kingdom was not open to Western researchers until the 1950s. Only a few scholars were able to complete fieldwork before the tragic cycle of invasions and wars began in 1979. Massive dislocation and destruction eroded social customs and networks, cultural monuments, and sources. For music, the worst period was under the rule of the Taliban (1996–2001), who actively suppressed music, which survived mainly in clandestine domestic performance and public religious/propaganda formats. The post-2001 situation saw revival of traditions, but no new literature on music, with the notable exception of the historical survey Sarmast 2009 (cited under General Overviews). As a result of this turbulent history, nearly all the writing on the topic comes from the pens of only five scholars: John Baily, Veronica Doubleday, Hiromi Lorraine Sakata, Felix Hoerburger, and Mark Slobin. Sakata, Baily, Doubleday, and Sarmast assisted with the preparation of this article.

General Overviews

Sarmast 2009 is the only extended attempt to provide a history of music in Afghanistan in English. Beliaev 1960, the only Soviet study of Afghanistan, is skimpy. Baily’s two essays (Baily 1994, Baily 2015) offer fine coverage of recent decades. Baily 2001, commissioned by the organization Freemuse, surveys earlier history in the context of the Taliban era of 1996–2001, with its extreme suppression of musical expression. Sakata 1985 investigates the category of “musician” in general. Sakata 2012 offers a general-audience account of Afghan music history. Shahrani 2010 covers a wide variety of topics, from biographies of musicians through Islam’s relationship to music and how Afghan music fits into the regional context. Qanun e tarab takes up only the period before the importation of Indian musicians in the mid-19th century. The works in Afghan languages remain untranslated and unavailable for review. Küppers and Bleier 2016 is a set of short contributions from a 2014 conference.

  • Baily, John. “The Role of Music in the Creation of an Afghan National Identity, 1923–73.” In Ethnicity, Identity and Music. Edited by Martin Stokes, 45–60. Oxford: Berg, 1994.

    Covers the monarchy under the kings Amanullah and Zahir Shah.

  • Baily, John. “Can You Stop the Birds Singing?” The Censorship of Music in Afghanistan. Copenhagen: Freemuse, 2001.

    An account of the suppression of music during the Taliban era (1996–2001).

  • Baily, John. War, Exile and the Music of Afghanistan: The Ethnographer’s Tale. Farnham, UK, and Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2015.

    Combines historical overview with a personal account of the author’s involvement in Afghan music. Includes a DVD with four of Baily’s many films: Amir: An Afghan Refugee Musician’s Life in Peshawar, Pakistan (1985); A Kabul Music Diary (2003); Tablas and Drum Machines: Afghan Music in California (2005); Across the Border: Afghan Musicians Exiled in Peshawar (2008); and Return of the Nightingales (2013). For Amir, a detailed print study guide was published by Documentary Educational Resources.

  • Beliaev, Viktor Mikhaikovich. Afganskaia narodnaia muzyka. Moscow: Sovetskii Kompositor, 1960.

    The only Soviet work on Afghan music, a slim survey. [Title translation: Afghan folk/national music.]

  • Küppers, Philip, and Laurina Bleier, eds. Music in Afghanistan: Tradition and Transformation; Historical Perspectives and Current Positions on Afghan Music and Society. Proceedings of a symposium held at the University of Kabul, Afghanistan, November 2014. Weimar, Germany: Franz List University of Music, 2016.

    An anthology of short contributions culled from a conference cosponsored by the Franz List University and the University of Kabul in 2014, covering many topics, including comparisons to Indian music, musical instrument makers, archiving and digitization of music, women’s status, and social media presentation.

  • Madadi, Abdul Wahab. Sar-guzasht musiqi mu’āsir Afghanistan. Tehran, Iran: Hauza Hunari, 1996.

    Madadi was deputy director of the Music Department at Radio Afghanistan (1967–1974) and then director (1974–1992), playing a key role in transitional periods. A second edition was published in 2011, with added photographs. [Title translation: The story of contemporary music of Afghanistan.]

  • Qiyam, Siddiq. As sader ta awaz. n.d.

    Sources are unavailable if not offered in current version. [Title translation: From the source to song.]

  • Sakata, Hiromi Lorraine. “Musicians Who Do Not Perform; Performers Who Are Not Musicians: Indigenous Conceptions of Being an Afghan Musician.” Asian Music 17.1 (1985): 132–142.

    DOI: 10.2307/833745

    A survey of the indigenous categories of “musician” in Afghanistan.

  • Sakata, Hiromi Lorraine. “Music in Afghanistan.” Education about Asia 17.2 (2012): 18–22.

    The article gives the general reader an overview of music as defined in Afghan culture with a description of regional folk, urban classical, and popular music from the 1950s through the early years of the 21st century. History of music, musical forms, and genres in Afghanistan, the region, and the West.

  • Sarmast, Ahmad. A Survey of the History of Music in Afghanistan: Special Reference to Art Music from c. 1000 A. D. Saarbrücken, Germany: VDM Verlag, 2009.

    The only general history of music in Afghanistan, based on the author’s 2004 dissertation (Monash University, Australia). Sarmast positions Afghan music between Khorasan (Iran) and northwest India. He surveys the 19th-century court music tradition and the incursion of Western music. Includes a rare chapter on Pashtun music. Contains useful references for articles in local languages and periodicals.

  • Shahrani, Enayatullah. Qanun e tarab. n.d.

    History of music in Afghanistan before the arrival of Hindustani music influence. Reprint of a book by Ustad Sarahang, with extensive commentary and photos of Afghan singers. [Title translation: The law of music.]

  • Shahrani, Enayatullah. Saz wa awaz dar Afghanistan. 2 vols. Kabul, Afghanistan: Baihaqi Publishing House of the Ministry of Information and Culture of Afghanistan, 2010.

    Contains a discussion of the place of music in Islam, the cultural relationship between Khurasan and the Indian subcontinent, opinions of religious and scholarly writers on music, and biographies of musicians/singers, organized by genre and style of music. [Title translation: Instrumental and vocal music in Afghanistan.]

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