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Afghanistan Music Unit (AMU)

Nowruz 1393 Celebration

The Afghanistan Music Unit and the ACAA are inviting members of the public to the Nowruz 1393 (New Year) celebration, which is being held in The Great Hall, Goldsmiths, on Thursday 20 March 2014. The day will include the displaying of Haft Sin, or the seven "S's", plus music performances and poetry readings.

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The British Museum is currently running a series of events as part of their 'Music of Afghanistan' exhibition, with an introduction to the regional music of Afghanistan on their website, featuring musical examples from the audio recording that accompanies John Baily’s book Music of Afghanistan: Professional musicians in the city of Herat (CUP 1988).

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John Baily, Head of AMU, has had a strong commitment to the music of Afghanistan since 1973, when he and his wife Veronica Doubleday began their two years of ethnomusicological research in the city of Herat, in Western Afghanistan. Following 1978's coup d'etat, internal conflict prevented Baily from returning to Afghanistan for some time, and he began a series of research trips investigating music in Afghan diasporic communities in Pakistan, Iran, USA and elsewhere. One of his concerns has been the effect of censorship on Afghan music, and in May 2001 Freemuse published Baily's report "Can you stop the birds singing?" The censorship of music in Afghanistan.

In 2002, following the fall of the Taliban regime, AMU was set up to document the state of music in Afghanistan in the post-Taliban era. AMU also aimed to offer practical assistance in re-establishing traditional music after a long period of extreme censorship.

AMU's activities began with a month-long visit by Baily to Afghanistan in 2002 to investigate the Kabul music scene, funded by the British Academy's Committee for Central and Inner Asia. Using his own video research footage, he edited the 55-min. film A Kabul Music Diary (published as a DVD by Goldsmiths). His report for CCIA noted the rapid return of music and musicians to Kabul, the strong demand for the new popular music, and the fact that traditional Kabuli art music was on the wane.

In 2003, Baily was commissioned by the Aga Khan Music Initiative in Central Asia (AKMICA) to establish a Culture Bearers' Programme to support Kabul's art music. He selected four master musicians (for vocal, rubab, delruba and tabla) as teachers, and 35 students enrolled. Subsequently, under the leadership of a Kabul-based director, Mirwaiss Sidiqi, the AMKICA School has become a significant institution for teaching Kabuli art music, and other genres of traditional Afghan music. A second AKMICA school has been set up in Herat.

In 2004, with support from the British Institute of Persian Studies, Baily and Doubleday visited Mashhad, in Eastern Iran, where many musicians from Herat were still living, and the town of Torbat-e Jam, whose traditional music culture is close to that of Herat. They also gave lectures on Herati music in Tehran University.

In 2006 Baily received a grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Council's Diasporas, Migration & Identities Programme to work on Afghan music in London and its ongoing connections with Kabul and the Afghan Transnational Community. The main outputs from this AMU research were:

(1) A chapter entitled "The circulation of music between Afghanistan and the Afghan diaspora" in Angela Schlenkoff and Ceri Oeppen (eds) Understanding Afghans (Hurst & Co. in press). This material has been presented at various seminars and conferences, including the Music in the World of Islam conference held in Assilah, Morocco, August 2007 (see the Assilah version).

(2) A research report in the form of a 97-min. video Scenes of Afghan Music: London, Kabul, Hamburg, Dublin, to be published as a DVD by Goldsmiths.  

(3) A concert of Afghan music at Goldsmiths, organised in collaboration with the Afghan and Asian Community Organisation in New Cross; some of this was incorporated in the film Scenes of Afghan Music.

Public performance has been an integral part of AMU's activities. In the 1970s Baily and Doubleday learnt to perform Afghan music as an important element of their research, and over the years they have given numerous concerts as a duo or working with other musicians (Afghan and non-Afghan). Baily plays plucked lutes (the Afghan rubab and several types of Herati dutar), and Doubleday sings folk and popular songs in (Dari Afghan Persian) and plays the frame drum (daireh). Examples of their work can be found on YouTube, while Baily playing rubab can be heard on-line (from the CD From Cabool to California).

In 2001, Baily established Ensemble Bakhtar at Goldsmiths, with Veronica, the Afghan tabla player Yusuf Mahmoud, and the Pontic lyra player Dr Matthaios Tsahourides. This group has performed in the Opera House in Palermo, at various venues in the UK, and at the Sionna Festival in Limerick. A recording of their concert in Palermo was released in Italy by Avidi Lumi. There have been several AMU concerts at Goldsmiths, featuring Ensemble Bakhtar and various notable Afghan performers and groups including Abdul-Wahab Madadi, Bilgis Younusi, Timor Shaydaie, and the group Kharabat.

AMU has important projects for the future. In September 2008 Baily will retire from teaching and general administration at Goldsmiths, allowing him devote his time to AMU. He has been awarded a Leverhulme Emeritus Fellowship for a period of 24 months for a project on Music in Afghanistan and its Diaspora, 1985-2009. For this he has undertaken to carry out research on Afghan music in Australia, and to write a monograph about his work over the last two decades on music in Afghanistan and the Afghan diaspora.

Another AMU project is to organize the digitization of the Baily-Doubleday Archive, data collected by Baily and Doubleday during their fieldwork in Herat in the 1970s. This consists of many hours of audio recordings, super 8 film, still photos, and extensive fieldnotes. Once this task is completed, work can begin on the digitization of materials collected since 1985 from the many visits to the diaspora and to Afghanistan itself.

Yet another project is to create an on-line tutor for learning the Afghan rubab, the short-necked double-chambered lute, which is considered to be the national instrument of Afghanistan, used for a wide range of musical genres, including Afghan instrumental art music.

For further information, please contact Dr John Baily on 020 7919 7658 or e-mail j.baily (@gold.ac.uk).

Concert in memory of Ustad Hashim Mahmoud



Content last modified: 29 Jan 2014

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