Here at ACL, coverage of traditional Middle Eastern music is sparse. Much of this music fits our focus on beautiful instrumentation. And we often love listening to it. Nonetheless, it can be uncomfortable writing from a position of relative ignorance. The Afghan rubab is a case in point. This short-necked lute comes with fourteen centuries of cultural significance, spanning classical, folk, and spiritual practices. It is powerful symbol of the rich culture of Afghanistan and it takes decades (often multiple generations) to master. An outsider cannot hope to make sense of this living tradition in a short album review. But an excellent debut album from Nasim Khushnawaz is impressive enough to make us try!
Running just over an hour, the album contains eight tracks of virtuoso plucking. Tabla accompaniment from Ramin Ahmadi offers a strong rhythmic platform. But it is the rubab which sits atop the pedestal. Khushnawaz works in mesmerising repetition and variation within the rag (or mode) of each piece. He climbs and descends intimidating rockfaces of melody, pitch, volume, and intensity. He turns sharply between extremes. With its multiple sets of strings (main, drone, and sympathetic), the rubab is an endlessly expressive instrument in the hands of an expert. The music here is embedded in the musical legacy of Afghanistan, especially the canon and playing styles of Nasim’s hometown of Herat (nicknamed the “pearl of Khorasan”). These are sonic subtleties that may escape us. But the sumptuous beauty of the music speaks even to inexpert ears.
Nasim is the son of Ustad Rahim Khushnawaz. A recognised master of the instrument (hence the honorific title “Ustad”), he helped put the rubab and the musicianship of Herat on an international stage. Fans of 1990s ethnographic recordings may have heard Le Rubâb De Hérat (recorded by John Bailey, a Western authority on Afghan music). It would be unfair to pick between father and son as proponents of their instrument. However, the younger musician does have the luxury of a twenty-first century recording studio. We hear every detail in great clarity, making the rapid fusillades of notes all the more enthralling.
The ethereal multi-layered structures of sound seem to transcend time and the worries of the mortal realm. Yet they do have a very pressing context in modern politics. Simon Broughton’s 2002 film Breaking the Silence gives a fascinating picture of Soviet, Mujahedin, and Taliban rule each altering twentieth-century music in Afghanistan. The Taliban’s strict restrictions on performance and recordings of music had the strongest impact. The film captures the tragedy of a vibrant musical culture damaged by iconoclasm and sent into hiding. It captures the dilemma of musicians choosing exile, preserving their livelihood and their national culture by leaving their country behind. Nasim Khushnawaz’s father was one of those who made this tough decision. Bailey’s 2015 book, War, Exile and the Music of Afghanistan: The Ethnographer’s Tale offers a more detailed account of the complex interchanges between politics, religion, and music.
Both Broughton and Bailey leave us on a positive note, as they capture a musical culture re-emerging from suppression and reshaping Afghan identity anew. Of course, 2021 saw the Taliban regain control with alarming speed. Their strict policy on music is again enforced. Nasim Khushnawaz remains exiled in Iran, like his father before him. Although Songs From the Pearl of Khorasan is not a protest album, its very existence is an act of resistance. On a more personal note, this is an album which tangibly reaches towards an inaccessible homeland. The lyrical tracks, like “Rag Jog”, seem to yearn for something lost, whilst climbing to a frenzied celebration of a vital tradition.
In Broughton’s film, Khaled Arman, another exiled advocate of the rubab, describes his role as “a kind of interface” between Afghanistan and the outside world. Khushnawaz performs the same role, smuggling listeners into a breath-taking musical practice which has again been displaced from its ancestral home. Setting aside the cultural significance of the Afghan diaspora, this is in simple terms a sublimely beautiful record, transporting us through an idealised geometry of exquisite sound. (Samuel Rogers)