Forgotten sounds

A black and white image of a group of seated Afghan musicians posing with their instruments in Kharabat, Kabul
Since the Islamic militant Taliban returned to power in Afghanistan in August 2021, there has been no playing of instruments or singing of songs (source:

Kharabat was once Kabul's sacred music district, but since the Taliban returned to Afghanistan, music has been banned. Yet those brought up for a life of performance have not given up hope

By Emran Feroz

Recent decades have changed many of Kabul's narrow streets. While their former residents have fled from war and terrorism, other people – mostly much poorer Afghans from other provinces – have moved to Afghanistan's capital. It is a development that has led, among other things, to a rapid rise in the number of residents. 

It's a similar story in Kharabat, an area of Kabul's old town. A lot of Sikhs and Hindus once lived here. Now, most members of these religious minorities have the left country after facing oppression and persecution. The nearby Sikh temple stands empty, boarded up. "They're long gone, to India or Canada," a shopkeeper who works next to the temple tells me. 

Walking through the streets of Kharabat, you see a lot of faces that aren't just new to visitors. Some speak Pashto. Others, Farsi dialects from the country's northern regions. The original Kabuli – the Persian dialect of the Afghan capital – is still there, but it has become rarer. "A lot has changed here, but as long as we're here, a lot will also stay the same," says Asadullah Cheshti with a smile.

He is wearing a clean, white Peran Tumban, a shimmering green waistcoat and has combed his long, white hair elegantly back from his forehead. The slightly darker colour of his skin suggests that Cheshti's ancestors, like those of most "real" Kharabatis, came to Afghanistan from India centuries ago – bringing their traditional music with them. 

What about the next generation of tabla players?

To this day, Kharabat is known as Kabul's once-sacred music district. Practically all the masters of classical Afghan music, men like Mohammad Hossain Sarahang, Abdul Mohammad Hamahang and Rahim Bakhsh, came from here. 

60-year-old Cheshti knows Kharabat like the back of his hand. And no wonder; he is also a master of his art. He has been playing the tabla for almost half a century. Cheshti grew up with the two drums and was a pupil of another Kharabat legend, Mohammad Hashem Cheshti, whose surname he adopted out of respect for his teacher.  

Asadullah Cheshti should really be training Kharabat's next generation of tabla players. But since the Islamic militant Taliban took power in the country once again in August 2021, there has been no playing of instruments or singing of songs. 

Music was also banned during the first Taliban regime in the 1990s. The extremists confiscated and destroyed televisions and cassette tapes, and sent musicians into exile. For five years, there was a deathly silence in Afghanistan. 

An armed Taliban fighter lounges in a chair at the entrance to the Afghanistan National Institute of Music compound in September 2021; a treble clef graffito can be seen on the pillar behind him
According to spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid, the Taliban don't listen to music, they listen to religious battle songs, or "taranas". For Afghan musicologist Sidiqi Taliban, however, it is clear that "the Taliban listen to music, they just don't want to admit it" (image: AFP/Getty Images)

Not everything seems quite as bad now as it did then. The "new" Taliban are the same as the old in many respects: they say their ideology isn't compatible with music. In some regions of the country, instruments have been destroyed and musicians tortured. If you are caught with music in your car, you can often expect problems or at least snide remarks from the Taliban foot soldiers. 

Koran verses dominate the radio waves

Radio stations only broadcast Koran verses. These days no live music can be played at weddings, so couples have to make do with their own YouTube playlists. And even that usually requires prior agreement with the local Taliban fighters, and if necessary a bribe of cash or a hot meal. 

All musicians, including those like Asadullah Cheshti and his sons in Kharabat, were made forcibly unemployed and have had to find other ways of keeping their heads above water. "We're not trained for anything else. We can't suddenly start running a shop or selling food," Cheshti complains. 

He tells me that he has been practically condemned to failure. Many others in his profession have since left the country, but this time he wanted to stay. Like a lot of Afghans, Cheshti spent years living as a refugee in neighbouring Pakistan, making music in the refugee camps of Peshawar and the inns of Waziristan.

His craft was valued. Even the Taliban know that the musicians of Kharabat are no cheap wedding singers, thirsting for fame and money using autotune and YouTube, but real masters, whose songs and music often coalesce with the many aspects of spiritual Islam and Sufism. 

"They came here, saw our instruments and said – with some degree of respect – that from now on, playing was not allowed,” says Asadullah Cheshti, while one of his sons sits in a little kiosk, selling energy drinks and cigarettes to a customer. Cheshti bought the kiosk with the last of his savings, to secure an income for his family. The tabla master used to be fully booked, and his sons were studying music, hoping one day to follow in their father's footsteps.

Taranas – another kind of music

While the Taliban have declared war on the music that Afghanistan is famous for and made life difficult for Asadullah Cheshti and other musicians, ironically they themselves are listening to another kind of music. 

"You've banished music. But your fighters are listening to music at their checkpoints. Can you explain that? What kind of music do you like?" a foreign journalist asked Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid during an interview, which subsequently did the rounds on social media. 

Mujahid replied that he did not listen to any music at all and the same went for his fighters. They would be listening to religious battle songs, called taranas, usually broadcast on Taliban channels. Though, he said, these did not constitute music in the usual sense. 

Here you can access external content. Click to view.

One man who disputes this is Afghan musicologist Mirwaiss Sidiqi, who once taught classical music in Kabul, and for the past twenty years has worked in Afghanistan for various institutions such as the Aga Khan Foundation. 

Sidiqi has worked and studied in France, Germany and the UK among other places. He is an open-minded cosmopolitan, who speaks German, French and English in addition to Pashto and Persian. "The Taliban listen to music, but they don't want to admit it. Their taranas are nothing other than music," Sidiqi said at an event in Vienna in June. 

Then he explained that the Taliban orient themselves by familiar tones and rhythms to compose their own music. "They even turn to famous singers for this, demanding they produce taranas for them," said Siddiqi. 

The age of Afghan pop music

During his lecture at the Vienna University of Music and Performing Arts, Siddiqi showed video clips from private concerts and weddings in the Kabul of the 1970s and 80s, the age of Afghan pop music.

Here you can access external content. Click to view.

One of the most arresting was a recording of the well-known singer Hangama, who at the time wore her hair short and uncovered, with Western clothes. It is an unimaginable sight: not only today under the Taliban regime, but also in Kabul at any time during the last twenty years. 

As Siddiqi described the scenes and the music, he grew emotional for a few moments. Many Afghans in the audience felt the same, as Siddiqi's lecture allowed them to indulge in their own nostalgia. The seemingly peaceful Kabul of yesteryear, with its music and dancing. And today, the dark regime of the men in black turbans. 

The idea of home within the Afghan diaspora usually differs in many respects from the reality of those who still live there. Music as a profession is scorned and rejected not only by the Taliban, but by large sections of the country's traditional, conservative society. Fundamentalists and fanatics aren't the only ones who equate singing women with prostitutes. 

Here you can access external content. Click to view.

Famous Afghan musicians such as Sadiq Fitrat, commonly known as "Nashenas" (the unknown one) sang for years while fearing their fathers' wrath, and remained anonymous for that reason. And the events where pop icons like Hangama or her famous musical partner Ahmad Wali once performed were not representative of Afghanistan as a whole, either, just of a small, middle-class bubble in Kabul. 

Asadullah Cheshti knows all of Afghanistan's prominent musicians, but his metier – like his life more generally – is very different to that of someone like Hangama. She has been living in Canada for decades, while the tabla master has remained in a narrow street in Kharabat. 

Cheshti also agrees that, despite their vehement denials, the Taliban do listen to music. "Obviously what they're listening to is a form of music. Maybe eventually they'll accept that and allow us to take up our profession again," he says with a smile. 

Emran Feroz

© 2023

Translated from the German by Ruth Martin