Musical Perspectives on Sept. 11th

Introduction, Jairazbhoy, Racy, Questions

Responses to Roundtable

Discussion Board


  1. I don’t know exactly how to present my thoughts on music, politics, and violence to you today. I thought I should begin by telling you a little bit about the traditional place of music in Afghanistan, then go on to the current place (or, I should say, non-place) of music in Afghanistan today under the Taliban. Finally, I will talk about how the events of September 11 have affected particularly the music of Afghanistan, and music more generally, particularly how it’s affecting us here, very close to home, at UCLA.

  2. Traditionally, music in Afghanistan was always considered a central form of cultural expression that was inextricably tied to a sense of identity. Music provided a form of communication which paid very little attention to political boundaries. So, it provided a means to promote intercultural understanding. You find many regions in Afghanistan where the music of one group of Afghans is very similar to, or the same as, the music of their neighbors across the border; they share a musical language, they share musical instruments, and they share musical repertoire. And so in this sense, music is very fluid, like water where there’s no dam. I think that’s what the present regime inAfghanistan is trying to do next, to dam up this music.

  3. Because of music’s fluid properties, photo of Vilayat Khan playing the sitarmusicians are often able to act, or function,as cultural ambassadors. Let me just give you a couple of examples of how musicians were able to act as cultural ambassadors. One of India’s greatest sitarists, Ustad Vilayat Khan, used to travel to Afghanistan regularly during the regime of King Zaher Shah. He would perform there for the court, for the king, and also teach the king’s family music, the classical music of India—basically North Indian or Hindustani music. And so, you’ll find that there’s a sharing of musical appreciation for this kind of music.

  4. Ustad Vilayat Khan was not the only musician who traveled back and forth; in fact, I’ve met many very famous musicians today who remember fondly their trips to Afghanistan to perform there for the king, and how royally they felt they were treated. Another example of a kind of musical ambassador was Ustad Mohammad Omar, who has since died. He came to the United States to teach the students of the University of Washington, and during his tenure, he was to give a concert—he plays a very traditional Afghan instrument known as the rabab, and he needed tabla accompaniment. Since we could not find an Afghan tabla player, we called on Zakir Hussein, who happened to be in the San Francisco area at that time. He very kindly consented to come and perform in the concert with Ustad Mohammad Omar. Now, Ustad Mohammad Omar did not speak English, Urdu, nor did he speak Hindi; Zakir Hussein did not speak Farsi, nor did he speak Pashto. Yet, these two musicians met for the very first time on the day of the concert, and through their understanding of a common musical vocabulary, they rehearsed and performed one of the most memorable concerts in my experience. Such exchanges have constantly taken place.

  5. In terms of what is happening now in Afghanistan, under the Taliban regime they are in fact trying to displace music in Afghanistan. Mainly by censoring and banning music, the Taliban regime is attempting to starve and eventually kill the people’s cultural heritage. They attack it politically and violently: by issuing government decrees against music, by sending out religious squads (police squads) to find public performances and to break them up, and by destroying musical instruments—not only musical instruments, but also taped recordings and videocassettes. They have the power to arrest and punish musicians, as well as those who listen to this kind of music.

  6. The West views this ban on music as a deprivation of basic human rights. In other words, the West feels that denying music is a denial of cultural expression, just as denial of a woman’s right to an education, to work, to participate in public life, are also seen as violations of human rights. I think this is what we’ve heard about the Taliban most recently.

  7. How does the attack of September 11th have any bearing on Afghan music today? Well, there are many examples, but I’d like to give you a particularly poignant example that was reported in the New York Times last week. The article describes a young Afghan-American who was inspired to learn to play the rabab—the traditional Afghan plucked lute—after he heard about the Taliban’s attempt to ban music in his native country. He felt that it was his duty to keep his cultural heritage alive by becoming an Afghan musician himself. Yet, after the events of September 11th, this young man has not been able to play concerts, out of respect for the victims of the attacks. But also—I think more importantly—he fears that other Americans will see his musical performances as a celebration of these terrorist acts.

  8. Now, this is a completely opposite view of how we in the West use music often to bring a community together, to bring them together to be able to mourn, or to remember; and, I think concerts are being organized all around the country in memory of the victims of the attacks on September 11th. For example, we, the Music Department and the School of Arts and Architecture, are organizing a memorial concert on December 8th at Royce Hall. If this is a concert, let’s say, of Beethoven’s music, everybody understands that this is a way of getting people together, to remember and memorialize. If it’s a concert of another kind of music that, perhaps, most Americans don’t understand—for example, a concert of Afghan music—then because of a lack of knowledge, we interpret that as having different motives. It’s not gathering together to mourn, but it’s more of a celebratory event; and, very frankly, most Afghan musicians or Middle Eastern musicians are afraid of the potential to stir up racial attacks against themselves. So, I want us to be very aware of the different perceptions. In the case of this young Afghan musician, the very act of defiance against the Taliban before September 11th was completely silenced after September 11th.

  9. I have many more examples of how we’ve all been affected by the events of September 11th, but I’d like to just talk about two that directly affect us. I was looking forward to a concert by Youssou N’Dour, a Sengalese musician, who was supposed to perform for Royce Hall next week, next Thursday. I was just informed that the concert has been canceled, and it’s thought that Yousou N’Dour did not want to fly at this time. But I also imagine that the thought did cross his mind that we have not been particularly welcoming to international, foreign Muslim musicians. There are those who are afraid of what might happen. So, I think with that in mind, he decided to cancel his trip.

  10. One last story: before September 11th, we were going to advertise the 40th anniversary of the Ethnomusicology Archives with a very colorful photograph of musicians in the field, musicians who had just been recorded and who are listening to their own recordings with very happy faces.

    [shows picture]

    It is actually a photograph of musicians in Rajasthan, India, photographed by Daniel Neuman, Dean of UCLA’s School of the Arts and Architecture, who does fieldwork in Rajasthan. After September 11th, we showed the photograph to a number of people whose gut reaction was: “Oh my God, you can’t use that! These men have turbans on.” And, “what are they listening to? Are they doing secret intelligence? And that instrument looks like a gun.” These musicians are musicians from Rajasthan, India, they are not Afghans, they are not terrorists, but people jump to conclusions. Needless to say, we did not use the photograph.

  11. I just want to end by saying that information is very important. But, I think it’s more important how we use that information even in the best of times, and especially in bad times, when people’s emotions are so high and we’ve become afraid of anything we don’t quite understand—it is crucial to be sensitive to the ways we use our knowledge

, Jairazbhoy, Racy,

Responses to Roundtable

Discussion Board

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