Afghanistan exhibits considerable regional diversity and is composed of a number of different ethnic/language groups, with Pashto, Persian and Turkic being the main tongues. The country's music is rhythmically lively, the scales are largely diatonic (without microtones), there is an absence of polyphony and Western concepts of harmony have had little impact until recently.
Afghan music is largely in song form, but a significant repertoire of instrumental music also exists. Poetry occupies a very important place in the country's music culture. The Persian poetic heritage, shared with Iran, is of great significance. Pashto poetry also has considerable historical depth. There is a close relationship between poetic structure and musical structure. Song texts deal with a rather limited range of topics. Love songs predominate, with themes of unrequited love and frequent allusion to the Leyla and Majnoon story being very important. There is little reference to current events or with recounting personal experience. The national instrument is the rubab, a short-necked plucked lute with sympathetic strings. Long-necked lutes such as tanbur, dutar and dambura are widespread, as are bowed lutes like the sarinda and ghaichak. The tanbur and 14-stringed Herati dutar are the only instruments that are exclusive to Afghanistan.
The various regions have close relationships with the music of adjacent countries: Iran, Pakistan, Turkemistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. In many cases song texts are traditional, with no known progenitor, but there are also many local poets whose work in song form enjoys local fame. Many regional singers achieved national and even international fame, such as Salaam Logari, Meri Maftun and Rahim Takhori. Women's domestic music is of great importance, consisting of songs accompanied by the daireh (frame drum), which is also used to play rhythms for dancing. Another widespread kind of music is that for sorna and dohol (shawm and double-headed frame drum), which has an important role in village wedding festivities for staging processions and for group dancing by men.
In the 1860s, ruler Amir Sher Ali Khan brought classically trained musicians from North India to be his court musicians in Kabul. In due course their descendants established a distinct form of Afghan art music. The main genre is the ghazal, which refers to one of the principal forms used in Persian and Pashto poetry, constructed from a series of couplets following a particular rhyme scheme. Ghazal also indicates a musical form for the singing of this kind of poetry. The Kabuli ghazal generally uses Persian texts, often from the great poets of the Persian language such as Hafez, Sa'adi and Bedil, and much of this poetry has a strong spiritual and mystical content. The music is based on the rags (melodic modes) and tals (metrical cycles) of Indian music but has certain distinct features, notably the repetitive use of fast instrumental sections interpolated between units of text, a characteristic that can be linked to Pashtun music.
Since at least the 1920s it has been usual for the ghazal singer to accompany himself with the hand-pumped Indian harmonium, backed by a small ensemble including rubab, tabla (drum pair) as well as the tanpura drone and sometimes bowed lutes such as sarangi and delruba. Apart from the rubab all these instruments have been adopted from North India. In the 1930s the art music of Kabul was disseminated to provincial cities such as Herat, Mazar-e Sharif, Kandahar and Jalalabad. The greatest singers of Afghan ghazal in the 20th century were Ustad Qassem and Ustad Mohammad Hussein Sarahang.
Afghan popular music originated in response to the need to create a style suitable for radio, which could be received in most parts of the country by the late 1940s. The regional music of mixed Pashto and Persian speaking near Kabul (such as Parwan) provided the models on which the new popular music was built, bringing together Persian or Pashto texts, the Pashtun musical style and North Indian theory and terminology. Composers and musicians working at the radio station created many new songs in the popular style. Others works were originally regional songs, brought by provincial singers to the radio station and performed with radio ensembles. In this way many of the folk songs of Afghanistan were given a new lease of life. There was also input from the Indian and Pakistani films regularly shown in the cinemas of Afghanistan and from the popular music of other neighboring countries.
The radio station became a bastion of modernism, and its inception led to considerable upgrading in the status of musicians and singers, male and female, professional and amateur. In some cases they came to enjoy star status. The singer Ahmad Zahir is a good example. He represented the most Westernized form of Afghan music in the 1970s; he played the electric organ, accompanied by instruments such as trumpet, electric guitar and trap-drum set, instruments not available to the average amateur enthusiast. His recordings, rereleased on many CDs, are very popular among Afghan exiles in the West. The new respectability conferred by radio allowed a number of women singers to achieve fame. The best known was Ferida Mahwash, who worked as a secretary at the radio station. Her singing career began in the 1960s, and in 1976 she was given the honorific title of Ustad (master musician) by the Afghan government. -John Bailey