John Baily

John Baily

Goldsmiths College, University of London


Recent research by Dr Ahmad Sarmast has thrown new light on the history of court music in the region we know today as Afghanistan: Ghaznavids, Ghorids, Timurids, and the early Pashtun rulers after they came to power in 1747 (Sarmast 2004). Today, this is often referred to as “Khorasanian music” by Afghan intellectuals. From the 1860s, under the patronage of a succession of music-loving Amirs, from Sher Ali Khan to Zahir Shah, this was gradually replaced by a new kind of art music which leaned heavily on inputs from the Indian Subcontinent. The “Father of Afghan Music” was Ustad Qassem, who during the reign of the progressive ruler Amanullah in the 1920s perfected this style. The main vocal genre is the ghazaI, using classical Persian poetry, usually spiritual in nature, from Bedil, Hafez, Sadi, and others. Some texts were drawn from Pashto poets such as Rahman Baba. The melodies were based on rags from Hindustani music, with an astai/antara “refrain/verse” organisation, with laggi-like instrumental sections showing a doubling of tactus. An important feature was the interpolation of couplets from other poems delivered in a quasi-free rhythm. The genre is still performed but considerably diminished in popularity and probably in repertoire. An example of ghazal as sung by the Kabuli singer Aziz Amiri in Herat in 1994 can be found below, taken from the film Ustad Rahim: Herat’s Rubab Maestro (Baily 2010). The ghazal was performed in the context of a gormani, the string-tying ceremony that takes place when an ustad takes on a shagerd. The song has been edited to make it shorter. The subtitles are repeated here to aid the viewer in understanding the structure of the ghazal musical form.

[Interpolated couplet]
In the story of our deeds, do not be the proudest of raconteurs (x 2)
Let life be, since faithful promises get broken

[Astai] The morning breeze seeks the lover’s sighs in the land of the beloved  (x 2)
If you see the mirror’s truth, you will seek God’s perfection (x 2)

Instrumental section

[Antara] Admire the wine-drinking libertines of this ruinous tavern (x 2)
[Astai] For in this obscure school you will find learning, not fame (x 2)

Instrumental section

[Interpolated couplet]
Bedil’s night will surely turn to day
When you, the sun, rise over our land

[Astai] Like the luminosity slowly arising from the east
The morning breeze seeks the lover’s sighs in the land of the beloved

Instrumental section

[Antara] At this crossroads of disappointment a poor man’s heart is crushed (x 2)
[Astai] If we hold fast, it will stir a revolution at the school of the beloved (x 2)

Instrumental section

[Interpolated couplet]
My father, may his soul rest in peace, used to tell my ustad
"Teach my child nothing but love"

[Astai] If we hold fast, it will stir a revolution at the school of the beloved
The morning breeze seeks the lover’s sighs in the land of the beloved

Note the distinguishing features of this performance: the mystical nature of the poetry; the division between astai and antara melodies; the interpolation of couplets in quasi-free rhythm; the use of the rubab as the principal accompanying instrument; the prominent instrumental sections, with accelerating tempi and pronounced rhythmic cadences.

The outsider scholar may consider this to be a distinctly Afghan art music, but many Afghan musicians who perform the genre do not see it in such terms. They regard Hindustani music as having originated in Afghanistan, specifically in the northern city of Balkh. They invoke the memory of Amir Khosraw Balkhi, famous in Indian music for many supposed innovations, including the invention of the sitar. Amir Khosrow was born in Patiala in 1253 and died in 1325. His mother was from India, his father was a Turkic officer from Central Asia. Amir Khosraw was great Sufi poet, writing in Persian and in Hindi, the disciple of the Sufi Pir Nizamuddin Aulia, and his tomb lies next to that of his mentor in Delhi. He was attached to the court of a succession of rulers of Delhi in 13th/14th centuries.  He is reported to have said: “Indian (Hindu) music, the fire that burns the heart and soul, is superior to the music of any other country. Foreigners, even after a stay of thirty or forty years in India, cannot play a single Indian tune correctly” (Bhanu 1955:16). Many of the claims for his contribution to Indian music may be dismissed, such as the invention of the sitar. (1)

According to some musicians and intellectuals, the art music of Afghanistan, Pakistan and India is one and the same. According to them, the ancient music of Balkh was brought to India by Amir Khosraw, whom they name Amir Khosraw Balkhi, and prospered in the more tolerant religious climate of India, while in Afghanistan religious intolerance held back its development. It is further argued that in recent times (that is, in the mid-nineteenth century) Hindustani music had been returned to its rightful place of origin, Afghanistan. This helps to explain why ‘classically trained’ Afghan musicians do not want to lay claim to a distinctly Afghan art music, preferring to claim the greater prize of Hindustani music for Afghanistan.

One might add that similar claims to ownership extend to Jalaluddin Rumi, also claimed to have come from Balkh, and to the Sufi poet Bedil, who, some say, came from Khwaja Rawash, near Kabul. These grand claims have a political context, too. They fit well with the kind of nationalist ideology that emerged in Afghanistan in the 1930s, consistent with the claim that Pashto is the purest and oldest Aryan language and that “the Avesta and the earliest Vedas were the greatest masterpieces of Afghan and Pashto literature” (Gregorian 1969:347).


(1) Allyn Miner has shown that there is a confusion between the 13th century Amir Khosraw and an 18th century figure by the same name who was involved in the development of the sitar (Miner 1993:21-24).

The ideas put forward in this short paper are discussed in more detail in the monograph Songs from Kabul: The Spiritual Music of Ustad Amir Mohammad. Ustad Amir Mohammad was the father of Aziz Amiri featured in the film above.


Baily, John. 2010. Ustad Rahim: Herat’s Rubab Maestro. DVD. London: The Royal Anthropological Institute.

Baily, John. 2011. Songs from Kabul: The Spiritual Music of Ustad Amir Mohammad. With compact disc, 8 tracks. Aldershot: Ashgate Press.

Bhanu, Dharma. 1955. Promotion of music by the Turko-Afghan rulers of India. In Islamic Culture. 9-31.

Gregorian, Vartan. 1969. The Emergence of Modern Afghanistan. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Miner, Allyn. 1993. Sitar and Sarod in the 18th and 19th centuries. Wilhelmshaven: Noetzel.

Sarmast, Ahmad Naser. 2004. A Survey of the History of Music in Afghanistan, from Ancient Times to 2000 A.D., with Special Reference to Art Music from c. 1000 A.D. PhD thesis. Melbourne: Monash University.