Various Artists, Afghanistan Untouched
Listen and Buy at CD Roots
I've heard a wide variety of field recordings of music from Central Asia, and the newly released Afghanistan Untouched is right up there with some of the finest. Part of the reason for this is the music's historical relevance. It was recorded in 1968 by Mark Slobin in the northern parts of Afghanistan, where Tajik, Uzbek, and Turkmen groups are more prevalent than the Pashtuns (who are the majority in the rest of the country). The time of these recordings is key. Only a few years later, Zahir Shah, the country's constitutional monarch, was overthrown, and from this point to today, Afghanistan has been at war: first the Soviet invasion, then the civil war, then the Taliban, and now (of course) the US "occupation." The Afghanistan heard on this two-disk album no longer exists; hence, the relevance of this music is undeniable.
Moreover, the music itself, while primarily performed by amateurs, is far more sophisticated and more interesting than one might expect. These are traditional songs that have been sung, performed, and passed down for hundreds of years; the amount of concentration and determination put forward by these artists can be felt with every string plucked, every reed blown, every drum tapped, and (above all) every vocal cry. Although the locations of these recordings (bazaars, teahouses, hotels) lend the work an informal, even casual air, and although the recordings themselves contain faults (on a few occasions, the music fades in and out, due perhaps to a particular musician's inability to stay near a fixed microphone), the artists' dedication to their craft is always evident, as is the serious role that music held in this culture. During one particularly playful song, "Songs with Qairaq," which includes a few nonsense children's verses and an extremely happy, bouncy rhythm, a man in the crowd can be heard yelling "Bas!" ("Enough!")--and so the musicians stopped. You see, Slobin had asked an elder to play some music using a particular instrument, a qairaq (made out of polished stones), and the musician had complied. However, the crowd of men could only tolerate so much playfulness before the music progressed to something more serious.
Yes, music in Afghanistan in 1968 was an elemental part of everyday public life. The artists performed passionately, not for riches but for camaraderie and for respect. Moreover, few outside influences had every been incorporated into this music, making this a very insular culture. Still, as I said earlier, the key to this work is its historical context. Despite the joy and passion of the music here, the album is a sad work--not because of the music but because of the suffering that these musicians and their audiences have (most likely) endured since these recordings were made. Even if Afghanistan recovers from its endless cycle of horrors, the musical culture represented on Afghanistan Untouched is gone forever.
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