Musicians in Afghanistan live in fear and despair amid the Taliban ban on music

Musical instruments and equipment being burned by the Taliban in Afghanistan. Screenshot from Sky News Australia YouTube channel. Fair use.

Afghanistan’s musicians and the overall music industry have been gravely affected by the Taliban rule since the group took over the country in August 2021. Both traditional and modern music thrived in Afghanistan in the preceding 20 years. All of that changed less than a month after the Taliban took power and some of its members started harassing musicians to intimidate them and force them to stop playing music.

Things have gotten only worse since then, with the Taliban imposing a ban on playing and listening to music. A similar ban was enforced in Afghanistan in the late 1990s during the Taliban’s first rule over the country. According to the Taliban’s strict interpretation of Islam, listening to and playing music is forbidden, since it allegedly causes “moral corruption” and leads “youth to go astray.”

Musicians have been affected the most by this ban. Those who had the opportunity left the country. Those who remain in Afghanistan are subjected to public humiliation and economic hardship. The Taliban have paraded musicians with their instruments hung around their necks only to destroy them later in publicly televised events. Musicians have had to find new means of existence, struggling to make ends meet.

Global Voices spoke to Afghan musician Faisal (name changed for security reasons) to find out how the lives of musicians in Afghanistan have changed in the last two years. Before the Taliban, Faisal played the piano and keyboard and made a living performing at various public events. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Khojasta Sameyee (KS): What did the Afghan musical industry/landscape look like before the Taliban’s rule in 2021? 

Faisal (F): Before the collapse of Afghanistan’s government into the hands of the Taliban, musicians had freedom with their work. Despite security threats and unsafe conditions at the time, at least they were allowed to continue their work and have their own places and offices.

Both 2020 and 2021 were brilliant years for Afghanistan’s music industry. Numerous music schools developed in Kabul and other locations in the country. The popularity of music increased, especially among the younger generation. Young girls and boys were enthusiastic about learning music. Overall, the music industry was in outstanding condition before the Taliban.

KS: What role does music play in Afghan culture and society? Where did you learn to play music and where did you perform? (Weddings? Concerts? Other events?)

F: Fortunately, music maintains a prominent place in Afghan society. Afghanistan has a long history with music and art. Our people adore music and they view it as a means of happiness and joy. Afghanistan has a very diverse music scene. Each province has its own local and native music. Besides that, modern music also has a lot of fans among people in Afghanistan.

I learned piano and keyboard under the supervision of Mr. Haroon Halimi, he was my instructor. Music is love and it gives me peace of mind. I believe that music fosters tolerance, freedom, love and cultural diversity among individuals.

I played piano and keyboard at various public events, including concerts, people's weddings, and birthdays, in order to serve my people and my community.

I am living in fear. I lost my job and career. Playing music was my only income and through that I was supporting my family. I hope one day I feel free and secure to perform and play music once again and continue my work as a musician.

KS: How has the situation changed for Afghan musicians since the arrival of the Taliban in 2021? How does the situation look now?

F: After the Taliban took power in Afghanistan, they began to banish music and art. They forbade music because they believe it is haram [forbidden] in Islam. Numerous musicians lost their jobs as a result of the music ban, and they are currently in an extremely difficult economic and security situation.

Nowadays, listening to music is illegal. No one is able to listen to music on TV or radio. No one is allowed to study or perform music.

Taliban have transformed Afghanistan into a place deprived of music and art. They transformed it into a quiet, dumb country. Music and art are in an extremely terrible condition. It is very difficult to live in Afghanistan as a musician right now since the Taliban transformed the country into a prison for musicians.

KS: What challenges/difficulties has the Taliban’s ban on playing and listening to music brought to Afghan musicians and ordinary citizens? Can people still learn to play music? Can people listen to music on tapes or CDs or over foreign radio?  

F: Taliban shuttered all music schools and destroyed or burned all musical instruments, therefore there are currently no music schools or courses in Afghanistan where individuals can learn music.

People are unable to listen to music on radios, because the Taliban also prohibited the use of foreign radio stations throughout all of Afghanistan, and publishing music videos or audio is seen as a serious, terrible crime.

For a playlist curating a diverse array of music from Afghanistan, see the link below, and check out Global Voices Spotify account for more eclectic playlists from around the world.

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