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Finding a voice

It’s one of the most haunting sounds I’ve ever heard — the plangent wail of a female Sufi singer from Afghanistan.

30 October 2010

12:00 AM

30 October 2010

12:00 AM

It’s one of the most haunting sounds I’ve ever heard — the plangent wail of a female Sufi singer from Afghanistan.

It’s one of the most haunting sounds I’ve ever heard — the plangent wail of a female Sufi singer from Afghanistan. Her song, ‘Gar konad saheb-e-man’, which translates as ‘If my eyes meet the eyes of the Lord’, was filled with religious longing for the divine; austere and otherworldly, yet also deeply persuasive, engaging, absorbing, taking over the mind. You can hear it on World Routes (Radio 3, today, Saturday), presented by Lucy Duran (and produced by Peter Meanwell).

Mahwash is the name of the singer; her song one of the unaccompanied devotional songs that emerged out of the repressive regime of the Taleban. They would not allow music-making of any kind, destroying all instruments and punishing anyone who was discovered listening to music on radio or cassette. It was considered unIslamic, a distraction from the worship of Allah. You can never, though, stop a whole nation of people from singing. The songs of Mahwash are sublime, uplifting, fuelled by desperation and resonating now with the story of what’s been going on in the cities of Herat and Kabul. It’s extraordinary that something which sounds so strange to those of us who come from the West is yet somehow so tangible, reaching out to be heard and received. It’s also cheering that such beauty and truth could have survived in a country decimated by war for so many decades.


Afghanistan, though, has a rich musical heritage, bringing together three very different cultures — Persian, Indian and Central Asian — to forge a very individual tradition. The instruments are complex, many-stringed and created with superb craftsmanship, often inlaid with precious mother-of-pearl and decorated with flower and bird motifs. When the music was allowed to return in 2001 after the fall of the Taleban there was an immediate outpouring of ghettoblasters on the streets and of stalls in the markets piled high with cassettes. Instruments that had been hidden for years were taken out of their carefully secreted boxes and played at exuberant wedding parties, and also in public recitals that reflect the other, meditative purpose of musical expression.

Many musicians had fled, to live in exile in an Afghan diaspora, but the desire to preserve the tradition was too strong for the Taleban. The huge football stadium in Kabul now resounds with the music of Safdar Tawakuli and Farhad Darya rather than the dying screams of the women executed for doing little more than wearing nail varnish.

Lucy Duran also introduces us to the music of Wahid Wahidi on tabla and Wahid Delahang on rubab, a 22-stringed lute with subtle depths of tone that originates from the mulberry orchards of Afghanistan. There’s an added poignancy to listening to this music as the unusual beauty of the sound clashes so oddly with the images seen so often on the news. The notes are staccato, plucked from the strings, yet the large dome-shaped body of the rubab, carved out of a single piece of wood, smooths out the notes so that they flow on into each other in a meditative, trance-like way. You can listen on your sofa wrapped up in a rug against the encroaching cold and be taken miles away to the crisp air of the mountains and a fast-flowing rivulet rippling over pebbles in an endless stream. ‘“The nightingale has complained that the flower has thorns” is the song’s poetic title,’ says Delahang. He plays with a plectrum shaped by a heart, ‘because if you play with that the music will go to the heart of everyone’.

Radio 3 has been struggling to get its voice heard above the fanfares that have played out the end of Neil MacGregor’s historic world history series for Radio 4. But the Controller played a masterstroke by securing for his network the first airing in the same week of a ‘new’ short story by Anthony Burgess (who died in 1993). Chance Would Be a Fine Thing, discovered in papers held by an American university, was read by John Sessions last Friday in the interval of a concert from Manchester, Burgess’s home city.

Mrs Mills, described by Burgess as ‘a cheerful, good-hearted woman, warmly bedded into widowhood’, but rather common and not too bright, has her cards read each week by an invalid friend Mrs Copley, much more genteel and circumspect. She warns that the Tarot is dangerous and does not like to be tampered with, but Mrs Mills decides that with a bit of help from a book borrowed from the public library (you can tell that Burgess was writing pre-1993) she’ll create her own cards and do her own DIY readings in the hope she might outwit the horses and even the pools. Such a simple tale, yet springing to life with those oddly brilliant turns of phrase. Having access to such stuff is a reason to be cheerful in these days of approaching doom. All is not lost — not yet anyway.


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