dont 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 its affecting us here, very close to home, at UCLA.
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 theres no dam. I think thats
what the present regime inAfghanistan is trying to do next, to dam
up this music.
Because of musics fluid properties, musicians
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 Indias greatest sitarists,
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 kings family music, the classical
music of Indiabasically North Indian or Hindustani music.
And so, youll find that theres a sharing of musical
appreciation for this kind of music.
Ustad Vilayat Khan was not the only musician who traveled back and
forth; in fact, Ive 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 concerthe 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.
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 peoples 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 instrumentsnot 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
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 womans right to
an education, to work, to participate in public life, are also seen
as violations of human rights. I think this is what weve heard
about the Taliban most recently.
How does the attack of September 11th have any bearing on Afghan
music today? Well, there are many examples, but Id 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 rababthe traditional
Afghan plucked luteafter he heard about the Talibans
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 alsoI think more importantlyhe
fears that other Americans will see his musical performances as
a celebration of these terrorist acts.
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, lets
say, of Beethovens music, everybody understands that this
is a way of getting people together, to remember and memorialize.
If its a concert of another kind of music that, perhaps, most
Americans dont understandfor example, a concert of Afghan
musicthen because of a lack of knowledge, we interpret that
as having different motives. Its not gathering together to
mourn, but its 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
I have many more examples of how weve all been affected by
the events of September 11th, but Id like to just talk about
two that directly affect us. I was looking forward to a concert
by Youssou NDour, 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 its thought that Yousou
NDour 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.
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.
It is actually a photograph of musicians in Rajasthan, India, photographed
by Daniel Neuman, Dean of UCLAs 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 cant 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.
I just want to end by saying that information is very important.
But, I think its more important how we use that information
even in the best of times, and especially in bad times, when peoples
emotions are so high and weve become afraid of anything we
dont quite understandit is crucial to be sensitive to
the ways we use our knowledge
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