The musical worlds of Afghanistan

Lost gems rediscovered: The Afghan ensemble Safar.

Melting Pot Afghanistan :Music in a multi-ethnic state

The musical worlds of Afghanistan are among the most interesting mixed cultures of the Silk Road, indeed of the entire continent of Asia. Framed by the traditions of the Hindustani music of northern India and Pakistan, by the classical and folk music of Iran and its Central Asian neighbours and interaction reaching as far as China, a unique diversity evolved here over the centuries. All the facets of the multi-ethnic state were concentrated in the metropolis Kabul, where they had their heyday in the 1960s and 70s, the city's »golden age« , in one special place: in the artists' district of Kharabat, local folk music, Sufi chants and the jazz and pop imported by Western hippies all coexisted in an atmosphere of »free love«.

Bitter decades

Then, however, there came bitter decades for Kharabat: as a junction on the Silk Road, Afghanistan had always been a bone of political contention between Arabs, Pashtuns, Mongols and Indians, with the differences of opinion often erupting in hostilities. But never before had the country been exposed to such sweeping cultural destruction as under the rule of the Mujaheddin and the Taliban, which led to a mass exodus of musicians. No-one could imagine that Kharabat would ever flourish again. But many years later, this is exactly what happened, and the ensemble Safar has made a decisive contribution to the musical revival of the post-Taliban era.

Ensemble Safar
Das Ensemble Safar © Anim

The Ensemble Safar

In April 2020, the ensemble Safar would have presented Sufi music and classic pieces from the heyday of Afghan music at the Elbphilharmonie.Unfortunately, the concert had to be cancelled, but its music is well worth hearing.

The five-man group led by master Mohammad Murad Sarkhosh brings together the guardians of these ancient musical treasures. These »ustads« (masters) have painstakingly reassembled the jigsaw pieces of Afghan art music and folk music that are scattered throughout the world. To give this reviving culture a framework, the Afghanistan National Institute Of Music (ANIM) was founded in 2012. The aim of the institute is to revive and preserve knowledge about modes and rhythms, instrumental pieces and songs and to pass it on to the next generation. Safar means 'journey', and the name of the quintet reflects what has always distinguished Afghan music: a flowing cultural exchange that the Silk Road encouraged for thousands of years – and that has recently recommenced after an era of darkness.

Video recording of concert of the ensemble Safar in September 2016 in Weimar

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Text: Stefan Franzen, last updated: 9.4.2020

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