If asked to pick a song that represents Afghanistan as a whole, I’d probably choose something by Ahmad Zahir or Farhad Darya. They are the biggest names, though I could list dozens of other outstanding singers. Maybe that’s a subject for a later post.
Today, rather than selecting something popular, I want to highlight a style of music that is not well-known, either in Afghanistan or abroad.
Nuristan is a remote, isolated, and mountainous province in the eastern part of Afghanistan, bordering Pakistan. The people of Nuristan have a unique culture, and even within the province, there are multiple languages and music traditions.
There are many theories about where the people of Nuristan originated. Some say they descended from the soldiers of Alexander the Great. Other scholars disagree. What is clear is that they are ethnically and culturally distinct from the rest of Afghanistan.
A couple of years ago, I had the privilege of meeting several bands of musicians from Nuristan in Kabul. One of the groups performed songs in the Waigali language. Their music stood out to me for three reasons:
1) Throughout Asia, choral singing is not particularly common, and polyphony is extremely rare. To my surprise, in the Waigali tradition, men perform polyphonic choral music. Still more surprising, they even use a form of hocketing (a technique I mentioned a few days ago in connection to the BaAaka of Central Africa).
2) Harmonies take place primarily on the interval of a major second. In most parts of the world, this interval is used only for brief moments of tension. However, Waigali music highlights and celebrates the dissonance.
3) The musicians make use of a harp known as wanz (also written wadzh or waji). Harps are not found anywhere else in Afghanistan.
The video below actually comprises at least two different clips. In the first part (up to 2:21) you can hear the wanz playing a tune for the men to dance to.
From 2:22 onwards, you can hear an example of traditional Waigali singing.
I wish that the quality of the video and recording was a bit better and that it did not cut the song off at the beginning and end, but I like how it captures these singers dancing in their natural environment and wearing traditional garb.
Cover Image from Wikimedia Commons:
Tech. Sgt. Brian Christiansen (U.S. Armed Forces) / Public domain