Music, Culture, and Community in Kabul
Ethnomusicologist Michael Lindsey received an ACC Fellowship to research the effects of violence on Afghan musical culture.
As part of his larger dissertation research on the tabla and accompaniment-style drumming in South Asia, Michael Lindsey (ACC 2017) planned to study the rubab, an Afghan lute, and the tabla, a set of hand drums played throughout South Asia, with professional musicians in Kabul’s musicians' neighborhood, the kharabat. He shares highlights from his six-month ACC Individual Fellowship below.
I lived in an area called Taimani, close to the new city of Kabul, Shahr-e Nau. The house was designed and built in the 1930’s by Abdul Ghafoor Breshna, a famous artist, architect, and musician in Afghanistan. As one of the few Air BnBs in Kabul, it housed international residents—long-term and short-term, travelers and students, as well as filmmakers and journalists. The house, itself, had a pretty fascinating history. Breshna’s family lived there until they fled Afghanistan during the Soviet War in the 1980s. The house was then used for a few years as the Dutch Embassy until 1994, occupied by extremists until 2001, and ultimately renovated and restored by the Aga Khan Foundation. It has since been reacquired by members of Breshna’s family.
Michael Lindsey presenting on Afghan music and playing rubab for 2nd graders at the Barakat International School in Kabul
During my first months in Kabul, I volunteered at the Afghanistan National Institute of Music (ANIM) (ACC 2013) as a percussion instructor, coaching students and ensembles. This was an opportunity to build my musical network–ANIM’s tabla teacher was the brother of a musical contact from California and the rubab teacher was the son of my soon-to-be rubab teacher.
Through these introductions my musical instruction began in earnest with the tabla teacher, Fraidoon Miazada, at ANIM and my rubab teacher, Ustad Din Mohammad Saqi, at my own residence. I had many musical lessons in our backyard. It was filled with fruit-bearing trees—apricots, figs, mulberries, and almonds—and a trellis with a spider web of grapevines shading the patio space of carpet and cushions below. This was an amazing place to practice into the night. The only downside of an outdoor space was the constant interruption of Chinook helicopters. From 6:00 AM to 11:00 PM daily, our location in a flight corridor between Bagram Air Force Base and the embassy neighborhood brought these helicopters so close that they shook the house and windows. Their sound and vibrations were something I never got used to in Kabul.
The backyard where music lessons took place, courtesy of Michael Lindsey
In addition to taking musical lessons, I conducted archival research at the American Center at Kabul University (ACKU), as well as had opportunities for travel. In the spring, I visited the Panjshir Valley and Salang Valley, which cut through the mountains north of Kabul. It was incredible to see some of the Afghan countryside, with fruit trees in first bloom and fresh mulberries sold in buckets along the roadside. I was also able to take a short trip to the city of Herat in western Afghanistan near the Iranian border. The monuments there – the citadel, the Great Mosque, Musalla Minarets, and tomb of Gazar Gah (an 11th century Sufi mystic) – were stunning. Within Kabul, I enjoyed exploring the bazaars. One could wander for hours along the labyrinth of winding, narrow streets in kucheh ka Firushi (the bird market) or amidst the antique stores of Chicken Street.
In regard to my research on the effects of violence on music in Afghanistan, all I engaged with—friends and musical contacts alike—expressed that they had been personally impacted by the war one way or another. People had lost family members, friends, teachers, and personal property from the violence that continues to occur in Afghanistan. Some refused to play live on television in Kabul because of the risk that came with such exposure. Most of my peers played at large-venue wedding halls and hotels, yet these too had been targeted by extremist groups. Other concert opportunities included playing at the various international embassies in Kabul, which were also security risks and frequent targets. Because of this, many artists actively sought out performing opportunities outside Afghanistan, which in turn proved difficult due to visa challenges.
Nazir Latif on tabla (right) and Ahmad Fanoos on harmonium (middle) at a private party concert, courtesy of Michael Lindsey
With all this in mind, I’m most commonly asked whether I felt safe in Kabul. My answer is almost always yes. Because of my relative independence, I was able to travel throughout Kabul in a way that other expats working for NGOs could not. In the first month, I traveled by private taxi agency, but after getting my feel of the city’s layout and gaining a level of fluency in Farsi, I began to get around Kabul by local city taxis and by walking around my neighborhood. My adoption of the local dress, mannerisms, and language enabled me to do so with relative ease and anonymity. So much so, people commonly mistook me as a person from Panjshir, an area to the northeast of Kabul. I became a regular at various restaurants and shops in my neighborhood and felt welcomed as a member of the local community. I was extremely humbled by the generosity and hospitality that was extended to me while I was in Afghanistan. The relationships that I made with the local and musical community in Kabul are ones that I expect to last throughout my life.
Below: Michael Lindsey on rubab with his teacher Ustad Din Mohammad Saqi on tabla, courtesy of Iason Athanasiadis