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Ustads and rubabs

July 19, 2012

For three weeks, master musicians from Kabul were in Germany to introduce their music to Western audiences. They also improvised with three German musicians as part of the Safar project.

Image: Georg Anton Stipek Michienzi

"Transcultural Music Studies," might sound very academic but it is actually the name of a series of creative projects conducted at the Liszt School of Music in Weimar. The aim is to conduct research into local musical traditions and then present the results in live workshops and concerts in Germany.

Safar, which means journey, is the result of such a project. It is a journey that for Philip Küppers began in January when he was at the Afghanistan National Institute for Music. He looked for musicians who were prepared to set up an ensemble, go to Germany and present their music to a Western audience.

Under the Taliban's regime, it was forbidden to play and listen to music in Afghanistan. Some musicians had their fingers chopped off. Instruments were hung from the gallows to act as a deterrent. Videos and cassettes were destroyed. The area of Kabul where musicians had lived before was completely laid to waste.

Forced into exile

Ustads (masters) of Afghan music who had survived decades of war were forced into exile - in Pakistan, Europe or the US.

Ustad Amruddin
Ustad Amruddin is in his 80s and still going strongImage: Georg Anton Stipek Michienzi

Ten years after the Taliban were ousted there are very few musicians left in Afghanistan who have a firm grasp of the country's traditional music, but some Ustads have returned to change this.

Music can be studied once again at the Afghanistan National Institute for Music, which is state-funded, as well as at Kabul University and the Aga Khan Music Initiative.

Traditional music in Afghanistan has to compete against Bollywood and American pop but there is an attempt to maintain Afghanistan's cultural heritage.

Influenced by all corners

Located on the crossroads between many trade routes, Afghanistan's music tradition was influenced by Arabs, Persians, Indians, Mongolians, Chinese and many others passing through. Thus Afghan music features a mix of Persian melodies, Arab scales, Indian compositional principles as well as sounds from tribes such as the Pashtuns or Tajiks and the instruments used range from Indian tablas to long-necked lutes.

German audiences were able to get an insight into Afghanistan's musical richness at five concerts - one of which took place at Deutsche Welle in Bonn. They centred on the sounds of the rubab, Afghanistan's national instrument. Made from the trunk of a mulberry tree, it has three melody strings tuned in fourths that are plucked with a plectrum and numerous sympathetic strings to intensify the sound.

Rubab player Ustad Ghulam Hussain and Ustad Amruddin (at least 85 years old) impressed the crowds with their traditional pieces and improvisations, as did the youngest player of the project –-14-year-old Salim. For Ustads the transmission of musical knowledge is as important as playing itself.

German and Afghan musicians improvising together
German and Afghan musicians improvising togetherImage: Georg Anton Stipek Michienzi

Later, the Afghan musicians were joined on stage by three German musicians - Jörg Holdinghausen on bass, Arne Jansen on guitar and Jan Burkamp on the drums, who provided a perfect rhythmic background.

Author: Matthias Klaus / act
Editor: Arun Chowdhury

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