Various Artists – Anthology of World Music: The Music of Afghanistan

Various Artists
Anthology of World Music: The Music of Afghanistan

Growing up in and being constantly inundated by a culture where Western music predominates to the extent that one’s experience with another culture’s music is likely to come only in stereotypical mimicry or as background music for geographical documentaries, experiencing the music of a foreign culture can be somewhat jarring. No doubt, the first time I heard African polyrhythms being beaten out on hand drums on a world music compilation, the resulting sounds seemed totally random, the sonic equivalent of a Jackson Pollack painting with crisscrossing yet meticulous madness forming something that I couldn’t even vaguely understand. Yet, the more I heard it, the more it started to become decipherable, the rhythms less chaotic and inexplicable. Most surprisingly, I actually started to like it. And once that wall fell, all variety of previously unrecognized musical forms were able to enter into the narrow confines of what constituted “music” to me. The Music of Afghanistan is another history lesson.
Because of its particular geographical placement, Afghanistan has stood at the center of many of the world’s ancient musical forms, from Indian to Greek, Russian to Turkish to Iranian. Europe and Africa were similarly not free from the influence pouring out of the region. Still, to be honest, you’d have to be in possession of much more refined ears than mine to be able to hear all of those trace elements bubbling to the top in traditional Afghani song, but the excellent 17-page booklet that accompanies the disc aids considerably in that process. What I do hear is hand drums and what sounds like a violin (and is actually a traditional instrument known as a ritchak) on “Song of Kataran,” a track that employs rolling rhythms and a slight drone to support rounds of singing whose musical pedigree is thought to stretch back to the medieval era. Other sounds do vaguely evoke the music that we have inherited today. The rolling, finger-picked rabab sounds just a little like a banjo, undulating in a light-hearted dance melody from the Kabul region. The lamenting vocals and call-and-response relationship between the singer and his lute in “Ancient Chant of Kabul” could easily be seen as a Middle Eastern predecessor to the blues that popped up in the Piedmont 100 years ago.
Impressively, the songs seem to have been chosen in order to make an account of the various disparate regions and people within Afghanistan, with 16 tracks stretching across 16 different geographical or cultural classifications. As such, variation – textural, rhythmic, thematic – becomes the collection’s defining feature. Joyous choral arrangements mix with heartbroken a cappella performances that give way to rousing solo instrumentals. For sure, you couldn’t pass yourself off as an expert in Afghani music after listening to this disc, as the music surely stretches far beyond the confines of a single-disc collection, but you get a decidedly eclectic and wide-ranging foray into the music of a region that you probably associate with war and chaos more than music.
In the end, hearing this music is cleansing for one’s sonic palette, making the sounds that you’ve grown accustomed to take on a different resonance and the songs that once seemed so foreign take on a feeling of familiarity. For the same reason that visiting other countries and cultures enriches the understanding of one’s own culture, listening to another culture’s music makes the qualities of previously familiar music stand in clearer definition. Like good literature, these songs take their listener to another vaguely imagined place, giving entry to a reality that would otherwise be closed off and inaccessible. To that extent, The Music of Afghanistan is an inexpensive sojourn that travels across boundaries of time, art and geography, enriching the listener’s understanding of each.