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How a Pakistani folk band changed the Pashtun narrative through music

How a Pakistani folk band changed the Pashtun narrative through music

When Farhan Bogra was teaching himself to play the rubab, an ancient instrument played by ethnic Pashtuns, 15 years ago in Peshawar, little did he know that his home province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa was on the brink of a war that lasted more than a decade.

The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP, also known as the Pakistan Taliban) was formed a year later, killing thousands of Pakistanis across the country with indiscriminate bombing and shooting. The Taliban, many of them ethnic Pashtun, banned musical performances and imposed a conservative form of Islam in areas where they had influence.

As representations of Pashtuns in Western and Pakistani popular culture focused on extremism and violence, Pashtuns, who make up about 20 percent of Pakistan's 207 million people, became associated with violence, plus Than as victims of the rise of the Taliban.

"There was not a good image of [Pashtun] musical instruments presented," Bogra said, speaking to Al Jazeera about the class taboo around musical performance in Pashtun culture. “People didn't let their children play rubab. I even faced a lot of resistance from my family. "

As the military drove the TTP out of its strongholds in the northwest from 2014 onwards, violence has dramatically receded in the past three years. But rights groups like the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM) say that widespread discrimination against Pashtuns, particularly by Pakistani security forces, continues unabated.

In the midst of all this, the Pakistani folk music band Khumariyaan, of which Bogra is a part, is changing the narrative around their ethnic group through music.

Bogra and his fellow Pashtuns Sparlay Rawail, Shiraz Khan and Aamer Shafiq, all from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, first seduced Pakistanis in 2009 with their distinctive combination of the sweet and vibrant sound of the rubab, a string instrument popular in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran. masterfully combined with guitar and percussion melodies.

Since then, the distinctive sound of Khumariyaan has revitalized a rich and varied musical genre personified by the queen of Pashtun tappay (folk songs), Zarsanga; the poetic ghazals of Afghan vocalist Nashenas; Sardar Ali Takkar from Pakistan, who sang for Malala Yousufzai at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in 2014; and pop music from artists like Gul Panra and Rahim Shah.

The band was eager to reach out to a generation of young Pashtun graduates from their native Peshawar who were hungry for new and modern music that spoke to their cultural heritage.

"We felt that Pashtun popular music, in general, had stalled a bit," says guitarist Sparlay Rawail. "If it was not Sardar Ali Takkar or Nashenas and you listened to Pashto music, it meant that you belonged to the [lower] class."

Bogra, who also works to preserve the traditions of Pakistani artisans and musicians, quickly saw the rubab, an irreplaceable cornerstone of Pashtun culture, disappear before his eyes.

“I remember giving a friend a rubab [in 2006]. But his father broke it, gave him a guitar in his place and said that the rubab is the sound of the lower class, of [rickshaw] drivers, "he recalls.

Today, the Khumariyaan are among a creative new generation of young Pashtun musicians resuscitating reverence for Pashto folk music in the Pakistani national consciousness.

In 2018, their cover of the classic Pashtun folk song Ya Qurban on the live music series Coke Studio Pakistan (sponsored by the multinational beverage company) catapulted the band to the world stage as the video racked up more than 13 million views on YouTube.

Rawail said this move to revive Pashtun music has sparked not only a new love for the resonant sound of rubab, but also a desire to play the instrument.

"In 2000, the production of rubab [in Pakistan] was completely reduced," Rawail said. “People weren't listening to him. Now everyone wants to buy a rubab […] ”.

Even as Neopastun folk music like the Khumariyaan marches into modernity, Karan Khan, one of Pakistan's most prominent Pashtun folk singers, says that the richness of the Pashtun language and the transcendent power of the rubab combined with contemporary instruments have drawn audiences. young and old to their unique sound.

"When [the musicians] sing our folk compositions with new instruments, they get modernized, but they are still folk in taste and color, so those [songs] attract people," says Khan. "Those old compositions and lyrics were powerful enough to present these modern instruments to the public."

Khan was forced to flee northern Pakistan's Swat Valley in 2008 with his family, and more than two million more became internally displaced after the province became a battlefield for the Pakistani army offensive. against the Taliban. His musical career materialized from struggle and displacement at a time when musical performance was stigmatized.

But for a new generation of Pashtun musicians emerging from northwestern provinces that were once overshadowed by violence, Khan says that is slowly changing.

"Look at the families these children belong to, then look at the villages where their families are," he said.

“Ten, fifteen years ago, people did not consider music to be a respectable profession. Now college kids are [more and more] interested in music. "

"Rubab is a beautiful instrument in fusion," he said. "It feels good as an independent instrument, in Sufism, parties, attan, it looks good in jazz, rock, pop, hip-hop, it feels good in all these forms of music."

A brief history of rubab

Although there are different variations of the rubab in Pakistan, Iran, and Uzbekistan, its roots go back to Afghanistan, where it is the national instrument.

"The rubab that Khumariyaan plays dates back to the medieval period as a uniquely Afghan instrument, although possible ancestors can be seen in 4th-century Buddhist sculptures in the border areas between Afghanistan and Pakistan," says the historian of literature and culture. pashto, Dr. James Caron at the University of London School of Oriental and African Studies.

The rubab was especially revered by the 16th century Roshaniyya Sufi movement, led by the Pashtun poet and warrior Bayazid Pir Roshan, who is also said to have created the first Pashtun alphabet.

"In the 16th century, one of the earliest Pashtun texts describes the use of rubab in Sufi rituals that were intended to open a conduit between the embodied senses and the higher spiritual realms," said Dr. Caron.

The instrument has evolved over the centuries, and today's Afghan and Pakistani rubabs are quite different from the 10th-century instrument shape, according to ethnomusicologist Professor John Baily of the Afghan Music Unit at Goldsmiths University in London.

"There are accounts of [Pashtun] mounted troops being led into battle on horseback, singing patriotic and nationalist Pashtun songs and playing the rubab," Baily said.

Dancing to that music, known as attan, has in modern times become a traditional part of Pashtun weddings, celebrations and folk music performances around the world.

Combat anti-Pashtun sentiment with music

The rise of the Taliban and the so-called "war on terror" devastated music production in the region. As the TTP gained influence in more and more territory, including Peshawar, the streets of Pakistan, which once reverberated with all forms of music, qawwali, folk and contemporary, fell silent while music was banned in many places, the Instrument makers were shut down and musicians killed or threatened.

The threats sparked an exodus of Pashtun musicians, including prominent figures like Sardar Ali Takkar and Haroon Bacha, who applied for asylum abroad.

Military operations against the Taliban have generated their own complaints of discrimination against Pashtuns, and the PTM has documented thousands of cases of enforced disappearances allegedly carried out by the military.

The army succeeded in breaking the Taliban's control over most of the province, and with it, the ban on music that prevailed for years. From South Waziristan to Khyber, public performances have slowly begun to return to the streets of former Taliban strongholds.

"Our music is for anyone with preconceived notions about Pashtuns," says Rawail.

“If the narrative is that Pashtuns are backward, they don't have a good education, they don't know how to be 'civilized' and they don't know how to create art and be creative, then we are certainly breaking stereotypes. "

The gang has taken it upon themselves to carry that torch. In the days after the massacre of 148 people, mostly children, at a Peshawar school in 2014, Khumariyaan held a public concert for a city that was drowning in pain.

Driven by the desire to build a musical bridge between Pashtuns and other groups, and to fuel their own cultural revolution, the band is trying to bring people together, not just in Pakistan, but around the world.

"Everyone else is celebrating their rich musical culture," Rawail added, "and it's about time we did too."

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