Migration Streams - Dr. John Baily on Afghan Music

Dr. John Baily: Afghan Music and its Significance for Migrant Musicians


John Baily is an ethnomusicologist who has extensively researched and worked with the music of Afghanistan. He has lectured at Queen’s University of Belfast, as well as Columbia University in New York. In 1990, he joined Goldsmiths, University of London, where he has taught as a Professor of Ethnomusicology.

Alice Taylor, impactmania and AD&A Museum, University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB) student speaks with John Baily to better understand the situation of Afghan and migrant musicians, learn about his experiences working as an ethnomusicologist and musician, and discover his thoughts on the importance of music.

By Alice Taylor

I read at the beginning of your book, War, Exile and the Music of Afghanistan, that even from your first trip through Afghanistan, you noticed its artistic, fascinating society. Was this the first time you felt drawn to the nation?

I had been there twice before starting my research and had even made a little recording on my second visit. I knew that I liked the place, the music, and the people, who are extremely hospitable. When I had to choose where I was going to do ethnomusicological research, Afghanistan was the obvious place to go to. I benefited greatly from two American ethnomusicologists who had already worked there: Professor Mark Slobin from Wesleyan University and Professor Lorraine Sakata most recently of UCLA. They were very helpful not just in the work they had done before me, but in giving me advice and putting me in contact with people. Both of them had done work in the city of Herat.

Can you speak a little about your experience in learning an Afghan instrument?

This is an Afghan rubab, a very sophisticated, complicated instrument. 

diagram of an afghan rubab

The Afghan rubâb is a member of the widespread rubâb family of Central Asian plucked lutes, which includes the Pamir rubâb, the Kashgar rewap, the Dulan rubâb, the Tibetan dranyen, the Nepali tungna, the Persian târ, and others. (courtesy of John Baily)

It has three main strings, long drone strings, and sympathetic strings on the side. The sympathetic strings give it a really fantastic sound. This was the instrument that I play, but not the instrument that I actually went to study, which was the dutar. The name means “two strings.” There is also another instrument called the dutar, but it has fourteen strings. It's much bigger. In my research, I was looking into this transformation from the two-stringed version to the big one: who had done it, differences in the music, and differences in the movement patterns you use to play it. Although it has all these strings, you only play melodies on one.

Here is a snippet of the dutar: John Baily Playing the Dutar

Thank you for sharing.

Well, that's the best part.

musicians playing in dutar band

Dutar band playing the long-necked four-stringed dutar, Nowruz (New Year) (courtesy of John Baily)

Obviously these instruments have an incredibly rich history. Do you find that music can convey the collective feelings and experiences of a certain culture? Do you have any examples of that?

This is from my book, from Dr. Farid Younos who is based in Fremont, California, a big center for Afghan settlement. I'm asking him about modern Afghan popular music, which has really grown up in the migrant situation, particularly in the States and in Germany using keyboards and guitars.

He says, 

Personally I prefer rubab and tabla, that’s our traditional music. If you want to preserve our cultural identity, all these keyboards and so on, I’m not against them but they are not ours. They want to perform the songs of somebody like Faiz-e Karizi with modern instruments. But it’s not the same thing, it’s not … I don’t know how to express it, but it’s just not the same thing, it doesn’t have the same rhythm, it doesn’t have the same taste, it doesn’t have the same nourishing of my mind. Everything is lost because of the different instrument, because this instrument, the rubab, by its own components and structure, it’s not just a piece of wood with some strings attached, there are some values in each of these strings. And those values are not transmitted with any other instrument than that one, the rubab… that box with those strings … the sound of it transmits a culture.

If you go to Afghanistan itself, a lot of the younger people are not interested in their traditional music. They've been surrounded by and are much more interested in playing keyboards and guitars. Although, there is now an increasing interest in the younger generation in Afghanistan, particularly in Kabul, in their own traditional music.

The Afghanistan National Institute of Music is a school that was established in 2010 by Dr. Ahmad Sarmast, an Afghan educated musician with a doctorate in the study of Afghan music. It's a co-educational secondary school, which is very unusual in Afghanistan. It has a very  strong emphasis on music, and although it's a regular school as well, the kids there are all involved in music. They have Western types of orchestras, as well as Afghan and Indian kinds of music. One of the great things about it is its women’s orchestra, Zhora, which has been admired enormously by people who have a feeling for Afghanistan and want to see Afghanistan advance itself, despite all the problems that are pressing on it at the moment.

So there's a lot of stuff going on, but the music is going on too.

women professional musicians at women's wedding party

Women professional musicians at a women’s wedding party in Herat (photo by Veronica Doubleday)

Have you discovered that it is both a struggle and a form of comfort for musicians to continue creating music despite the dynamic circumstances?

It's hard to generalize. Traditionally, there has been a strong prejudice against music. Music is fine for a wedding party or some important occasion like that, but it is also dangerous. It can lead people away from the straight and narrow path, and makes them forget about their religious duties. A lot of families are not in the least bit interested in having their kids learn a musical instrument. One of the great achievements of the school is that they have overcome these barriers. When I was in the school, once as a teacher and once as a visitor, I was really impressed by the devotion of all of these kids to music. They're mad about music and they love what they're doing. It's so reassuring.

You have experience in creating and dealing with ethnomusicological films. How has this influenced your perception of migrant musicians?

When I use film, apart from one or two of my films, I've used the camera as a research tool. The real exception is Amir: An Afghan Refugee Musician’s Life in Peshawar, Pakistan. Amir does have a very strong story to it. I went around with the band that Amir was playing in. They didn’t regard me as an interloper because I played the music as well.

band at Ramadan concert

Amir Mohammad and band, Ramadan concert (photo by Veronica Doubleday)

Towards the middle of the film, there is this famous wedding scene.

There's a band playing mostly popular songs at that time. The singer starts singing a song about Afghanistan itself, and this is in Pakistan. This isn’t an Afghan audience, and they were referring to the war and how “you can't defeat us.” The wedding party explodes and guys start coming up and dancing, throwing money all over the place. At one point, a guy comes along with a machine gun, right in front of the band, and lets off thirty seconds of rounds all going up in the sky. People start running away because they’re getting a bit frightened by what might happen. That showed an extraordinarily powerful effect of music in a social situation that had people excited.

I can think of a few professors in my life that have had a profound impact on me. As a professor yourself, what importance do you see in sharing your experiences with others?

I don’t want to brag about it, but my wife Veronica and I have been repeatedly thanked by people from Afghanistan — and this is a total exaggeration — for saving their music. Of course we didn't save it at all, but took an interest in it.

How can I put it? Working in this way has been extremely rewarding for me, and a lot of Afghan people have benefited from it as well. In the refugee situation it's very hard to believe that the people around you understand and support your culture and look at you as a human being. The word “migrant” has a lot of difficulties and associations attached to it. And we’re people who not only take a great interest in what they do, but can do it ourselves. Afghan people who hear a recording of Veronica’s singing, for example, cannot believe she's not from Afghanistan. For us that has been very rewarding in our own artistic work, but also in being so favorably received by the people of Afghanistan as people who have supported and valued their culture, and have seen value in every string of one of their instruments.

john baily sitting and playing music with veronica doubleday

Veronica Doubleday and John Baily, playing the two-stringed dutar (photo by Liliane de Toledo)

Music is often called a universal language. Would you agree with this statement?

Presumably if we believe in Darwinism, there's a stage where we develop language. This is one of the most characteristic features of human abilities, the ability to communicate through language. We're understanding much more about how non-humans also emit sound as a form of communication. We realize that all these birds, beasts, and whales have amazing kinds of language they use, not just to signal “I'm here,” but to communicate ideas.

In that sense music is a universal language. There's a famous French composer called Messiaen who was a very big expert on birdsong, and he composed this piece called “Catalogue d'Oiseaux,” or “Catalog of Birds.” There's one called “Le Loriot,” “The Golden Oriole.” When I went to do some work in Afghanistan, I thought, “Okay, I know that Afghans love birdsong. Here is this piece played on the piano that is the song of the golden oriole. I wonder what the Afghan musicians will make of this.” When I was with a group, including my friend Amir and a tabla player, I played them Messiaen’s piece, but they were not very interested in it. But I also had a recording that I'd taken of a real nightingale song. The nightingale is a very important songbird in Afghan culture. 

I put the tape of the nightingale on, and immediately this tabla player was interested. Indian drumming has these metrical cycles called talas, and soon he could hear a rhythmic structure buried within the nightingale song. As the bird is singing, he's tapping these sorts of drumming syllables. At that point, I get his drums for him and he starts playing, accompanying the bird on the tabla, playing the cycle that he can hear as a very advanced musician. Then my friend Amir grabs his rubab and starts, motivated to play a tune which I had never heard before, making it up on the spot. They turn this nightingale song into a wonderful piece of music.

So it's almost like music is universal between nature and humans too.

I'm gonna read you this thing now. 

This is a recording I made of one of my rubab teachers in Herat, Ustad Amir Jan Khushnawaz. And one of my peak moments was when he was describing an evening and morning spent in an orchard with a group of friends. They'd had a party and all slept there overnight.

We were sitting and playing really well, really good music and singing. At about two in the morning they started to get sleepy. The nights were short, two hours later it would be dawn. In springtime it gets light that early. I didn't feel sleepy. I quietly took my rubab and went to sit by a big tub with flowers growing in it. I took a carpet with me and sat down quietly there. I was waiting for the first glow of dawn. Very gently I took up my rubab and started to get it in tune. That gave me exquisite pleasure. I tuned it to Asa, Mand Asa. I kept on tuning it until every string was completely to my satisfaction, and then I reached for my plectrum. I played the shakl. As I played the shakl, phrase by phrase, I saw the first rays of light. I heard the nightingales and other birds, singing from every direction. And from every direction the perfumes of morning came to me. It made me feel wonderfully refreshed to smell those flowers. But the others were all asleep, snoring. “What’s this! Get up!” I cried. “That's not pleasure, this is pleasure!” They were sprawled all over the place. Some had eaten too much and their eyes were all puffed up. “Get up!” Nothing, dead to the world. “Get up!” One of them groaned. I took my rubab again and played some more, and I saw them begin to awaken, and to listen from where they lay. “God bless you,” one said, because when you are asleep and woken by the sound of music it gives great pleasure. One by one they got up and came to sit with me. “May God shame you, is this the time for sleep?” I said. “Come, look: this is pleasure, this is enjoyment, taste this.” And they were saying, “Yes, by God.” “Observe,” I said, “the breeze now it's light, the song-birds, the green, the scent of flowers. Wha Wha! And you want to sleep. What's going on?” “Yes,” they said, “by God, you have transported us with delight.” 

musician Ustad Amir Jan Khushnawaz playing the rubab

Ustad Amir Jan Khushnawaz plays rubab (photo by John Baily)

Isn't that wonderful? Kind of the poetic nature of their discourse and the wonderful delight in nature.

What advice would you give someone who wants to respectfully learn about the music of another culture?

It depends what you want to write about. My advice is to absorb as much as you can of the music by listening to it, and be very humble in your approach.

Dr. Baily has previously studied zoology, physiology, and experimental psychology, of which he also has a Ph.D. in, particularly on human movement and spatial coordination. While working in experimental psychology, he discovered the book Theory and Method in Ethnomusicology by Professor Bruno Nettl, drawing his interest in the subject. He also spent time in Kathmandu, Nepal for seven months, becoming immersed in the music created by instruments such as the sitar and the tabla. After becoming a Post-Doctoral Research Fellow in the Department of Social Anthropology, Queen's University of Belfast, he engaged in ethnomusicological fieldwork in Afghanistan with Professor John Blacking.

Dr. Baily has written several publications, including his book War, Exile and the Music of Afghanistan, and directed films such as the award-winning Amir: An Afghan Refugee Musician's Life in Peshawar, Pakistan. He and his wife Veronica Doubleday have done considerable work with migrant musicians, spending time both in the U.K. and abroad in cities such as Herat, Afghanistan.