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Veronica Doubleday

Veronica Doubleday

Goldsmiths College, University of London


The singing of chaharbeiti quatrains is a distinctive cross-regional musical practice that transcends the borders that divide Afghanistan, Iran and Tajikistan. This Persian-language poetic tradition has been documented over many centuries, and it is notable for its strong emphasis on longing, melancholy and dispossession. The quatrains have largely been orally transmitted, thus moving from region to region, and in this process singers have felt free to transform and personalise the verses. Chaharbeiti quatrains are used in a variety of genres including popular songs and lullabies, but their essence resides in a type of characteristically ornamented personal lament, usually in free rhythm, with a descending melodic contour and drawn-out melismas at the end of poetic lines (see Doubleday 2011; also Sakata 2002, Doubleday 2010).

Many of these quatrains address the situation of the traveller or migrant, far from home. An emotional focus on the pain of separation from a beloved place (and beloved people there) is acknowledged in the language used to describe this genre of singing. In parts of Iran and Afghanistan certain verses are called gharibi (dispossession/exile), and in Afghan Badakhshan and southern Tajikistan the related genre falak (“fate”) refers to the vicissitudes of life experience (see Van den Berg 2004, Spinetti 2005; also Shahrani 1973). In performance, singers select appropriate verses from their personal poetic repertoire, singing them to a local chaharbeiti melody, of which there are very many.

Divergence of style across national boundaries

Examination of one chaharbeiti melody type demonstrates divergences of musical structure and style across the national boundaries: here, between Iran and Afghanistan, within the historical region of Khorasan.

Example 1. Jamshid Poratai from Torbat-e Jam, Khorasan Province, Iran. Chaharbeiti del aram. Recorded by Mohammad Reza Darvishi.
Example 2. Abdul-Wahab Madadi from Herat, Afghanistan. Chaharbeiti Siahmu o Jalali. Recorded in 1960 at Radio Afghanistan, Kabul.

Example 1 illustrates solo performance by an individual playing the Khorasani dutar two-stringed plucked lute, whereas in Example 2 the solo singer is accompanied by a variety of instruments: the dutar, plus others originating from outside Khorasan –  tula flute, delruba Indian bowed lute, tabla drums, and Afghan rubab. Example 2 also illustrates the creative intervention of a state institution in a process of folklorisation, with a lively instrumental section following the singing. The use of verses about the legendary lovers Siahmu and Jalali illustrates another significant process: the imposition of specific themed texts onto a particular chaharbeiti melody (see Herawi 1968). The result is the creation of an ethos of place (here, western Afghanistan).

Charkho falak – southern Tajikistan

This process has also occurred in Tajikistan, where two specific quatrains appear in an iconic piece known as Charkho falak (“The Wheel of Fate”). This is the creation of the influential singer and musician, Davlatmand Kholov from Kulab, southern Tajikistan. Federico Spinetti states: “Davlatmand has devoted considerable attention to standardising charkho falak by staging slow-paced, very controlled and austere performances.” (2005:47) He aimed to create a classical falak (falaki klassiki). The text focuses on migration and nostalgia for home.

Example 3. Davlatmand Kholov from Kulob, Tajikistan.

Charkho falak

Wheel of fortune you spun me around
I was in Kulob, you brought me to Balkh [northern Afghanistan]
I was in Kulob, I used to drink sweet water
You made me wander and brought me to bitter water

Helpless are those uprooted from their homeland
Who fall into exile, and become someone’s slave
May the wheel of fortune turn and come home
May this hundred-year-old dead man come alive over again

In the first verse, the migration from Kulob to Balkh refers to the displacement of people during political upheavals (probably in the Basmachi uprising of the late 1920s; also see Slobin 1970). Spinetti states: “Given its fixed compositional form, and also its poetic content highlighting attachment to the homeland, Davlatmand conferred on charkho falak a great emblematic value, making it a paradigmatic musical symbol of South Tajik (and especially Kulobi) identity.” (2005:47)

Compare this with a recent composition from Afghanistan about the destruction of Kabul in the 1990s, and the pain of exile and loss. This is a lament for a beloved place, set to a typically Afghan instrumentation.

Example 4. Faiz-e Karizi from Kabul, Afghanistan.

Kabul chaharbeiti

Is dear Kabul busy and crowded or not?
Will the woes of Kabul be forgotten or not?
O God, Kabul and the friends of Kabul
Will you embrace one another together or not?

My heart is burning with sadness
Where will the sadness of Kabul be forgotten?
Friends and lovers of Kabul city
Have all gone silent and are all wrapped in their shrouds

I remember how I had a house
What a beautiful and exciting place Kabul used to be
I tell people
How we used to have dear Kabul

Kabul is far away and we’re sorely grieving
With no friends or anybody we know
I’ve suffered this grief for years
In this storm God is our safekeeper


These examples show how specific pieces may evoke a sense of place, and also how this genre lends itself to lamenting the loss of or separation from a home place. One should emphasise the common ground that gives this improvisatory quatrain singing its special character. It projects an emotional landscape of pain and separation. There are references to the road separating loved ones, and any place name may be personally substituted. Other topics are the messenger, the letter – and how attempts at communication fail. The landscape evokes high mountains and empty deserts as places of spiritual isolation, and the shrines of holy people whose intercession and help are sought. Another type of reference to place occurs when a whole province or kingdom is worth less than something personally treasured.

In this poetic tradition migration has been an important theme. In the early 1900s Jan Weryho collected hundreds of these chaharbeiti verses in Sistan, south-east Iran, and he devoted a section to camel-drivers’ longing for home (Weryho 1962, see also Blum 1974). Doubleday’s 2011 work with Afghan singers shows that women played their part at home, singing for beloved people and places. Family piety and Islamic piety have their place in this musical geography. Singers may even refer to the itinerant lifestyle of the Prophet Muhammad, with his camels, or they may invoke the intriguing concept of the wheel of fate – falak.


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Blum, Stephen. 1974. Persian folksong in Meshhed (Iran), 1969. Yearbook of the International Folk Music Council. 86-114.

Darvishi, Mohammad-Reza. 1990s. Regional Music of Iran (4-volume cassette collection, comprising 15 cassettes recorded by the author).

Doubleday, Veronica. 2002. Afghanistan: Female musicians in Herat. CD. Paris: Audivis/Unesco.

Doubleday, Veronica. 2010. I cried on the mountain top: Images from the Afghanaid archive (1980–2010) with traditional Afghan poetry. Veronica Doubleday (publisher): available from the author or via

Doubleday, Veronica. 2011. Gendered Voices and Creative Expression in the Singing of Chaharbeiti Poetry in Afghanistan. In Ethnomusicology Forum. 20:1. 3-31.

Faiz-e Karizi. [c. 2000s]. Chaharbeiti. Item on compilation CD of Afghan music.

Herawi, Mayel. 1347AH [1968]. Siahmu, Litan, Mariam (quatrains in Persian). Kabul: Daulat Matba`a.

Sakata, Hiromi Lorraine. 2002 [1983]. Music in the mind: The concepts of music and musicians in Afghanistan. 2nd edition. Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press.

Shahrani, Enayatullah. 1973. The ‘falaks’ of the mountains. In Afghanistan. 26:1. 68-75.

Slobin, Mark. 1970. Persian folksong texts from Afghan Badakhshan. In Iranian Studies. 3:2. 91-103.

Spinetti, Federico. 2005. Music, Politics and Identity in post-Soviet Tajikistan. PhD thesis. SOAS, University of London. With accompanying audio cassette.

Weryho, Jan W. 1962. Sistani-Persian folklore. In Indo-Iranian Journal. 276-307.