Revival of Music in Afghanistan – The Afghan Star
Throughout the human history, growth of art, either in the form of painting, architecture, sculpture, dance, theater or music, has been a sign of progress and prosperity. Like the wild birds that move on green gardens and fields, art also grows in a society where its people have the freedom to communicate their inner feelings, creativity and emotions to their outer world through exploring and presenting the aesthetic aspects of their lives. Indeed, it is the richness of art that portrays the richness of a nation’s culture and civilization.
One of the prominent but controversial arts in Muslim societies has been music which is variously defined from any euphonious and pleasing sound to any organized sound/s. In Afghanistan, art of music has seen its ups and downs in different regimes and eras of the history. Every regime throughout the history, including the Taliban has inevitably used music as a powerful voice to impose their political ideas on masses. Though music has never been treated as a language but it has always spoken the unspeakable, the ups and downs of society because culturally, music functions as a mirror that can reflect the image of the society to its outer world.
The complexity that exists in the nature of music has still kept it an un-defined term. McNeil & Freiberger (1993) rightly note that as complexities rise, precise statements lose meaning and meaningful statements lose precision. But as there is a famous saying in Persian that anything stems from the heart, will likely be grasped by the heart. Music is from among those magical powers that once raised from the heart will touch it indelibly, resurrect the listener’s soul and takes them to their worlds of imaginations. If our senses are the gates leading us towards paradise then music would be the flavor and joy within the paradise itself.
As part of a cultural genocide, the art of music was heavily suppressed during the Taliban regime. The Afghan society had lost the track of its own musical culture and the flavor of local music was replaced by the imported music from the neighboring countries. With the collapse of the Taliban regime, conscious efforts were made to enliven the culture of music in Afghanistan. Afghan Star (Sitara-e-Afghan) is one of the programs that have helped a great deal in reviving the essence of music and its culture in Afghan society. This program was initiated by Tolo, a widely watched TV in Afghanistan, in September, 2005. This program starts with auditions of the aspiring singers from different provinces of Afghanistan and the Afghans residing outside the country. Only a number of qualifying auditioners are selected by the judges and they are put through to the public voting round of the contest. Each week people vote for their most preferred contestant through their mobile phones and the one with least number of votes leaves the competition until only one is left who is considered as the winner “Afghan Star”.
This program has exposed the hidden musical talents that exist within the Afghan society. It functions as a platform for all afghan boys and girls to transform their artistic identities to an extent that may need years or even a lifetime otherwise. In a short time it redresses Afghan boys and girls with nationally renowned personalities and closes them to the hearts of Afghan people. After a decade of the overthrown of the Taliban regime, once again the Afghan music is dominating the musical weather in Afghanistan. This program has found the hidden talents and now those talented singers are re-writing, re-singing and re-presenting Afghani music that has grown the interest of Afghan people to value and listen to their own music.
Furthermore, through this platform the cultural barriers that limit women to remain inside the wall boundaries of houses has also been addressed can be broken. It provides a platform for the talented Afghan females to stand in front of the world and perform. During the past eight seasons of Afghan Star different female contestants took risks of their lives but still stood on the stage of Afghan Star and competed even from Kandahar province, the stronghold of Taliban. Many females sacrificed and took the risk of their lives competing for the title of Afghan Star but now it seems that their dreams have been realized by paving the way for their female counterparts to step in and perform in front of the world. Now, standing and presenting on the stage is neither a shame nor a ‘dishonor’ it is rather a fame and dignity. This program has transformed the idea of seeing ones sister, mother, or wife on the stage performing an artistic piece as an honor rather than caging them inside the wall boundaries of houses.
Despite all the above mentioned positive points, it has not been a flawless process. The transparency of this program is one of the major areas raising many unanswered questions. Although it is based on votes of people and it’s the number of votes that decides who should be the Afghan Star, either it is the people voting for the selected participants or the participant themselves is a question. It is because from each mobile phone limitless votes can be offered to any contestant which provides a space for the contestants themselves to vote for themselves. If one vote was allowed from one mobile phone it could have added to the transparency of the process but now the possibilities of limitless votes from one mobile phone means that it is the money that decides ‘the Afghan Star’ not the votes of the masses.
Furthermore, the title “Afghan Star” itself goes beyond the scope of this program because “Afghan Star” is a heavy title to be given only to a naïve singer who perhaps does not possess all the competencies needed for such title. This title has less to represent the essence of this program which is an entertaining program rather titles such as “Afghan Musical Star” could have made more sense considering the nature of the program.
Moreover, this program could not take itself out form the ethnic circles and is stuck to the boundaries of ethnicities. Expectations that this process will bring different ethnicities together that they vote to their most loving singer based on their merit and talent without considering their ethnical background got failed badly. It could not introduce any nationally accepted contestant to whom people from different ethnicities could have voted irrespective of their background, it has rather widen the gaps between different ethnicities. People votes are mostly directed on the basis of ethnicity, race, background and community rather than considering the potential, merit or the capacity of the contestants for this title.
Decades of civil war have made the Afghan society “ethnic sensitive” and the years of democratization has hidden these sensitivities “under the skin” which by no means are eliminated from the Afghan society. The reaction of different ethnicities can be a natural process demanding more time for the society to build the capacity for appreciating the merits and competencies in its true sense. Considering all the these shortcomings, Afghanistan has a thirst for such types of programs that provoke the hidden aesthetic talents, potential and abilities of Afghan people to grow and be utilized for the development of the society. And we hope that Afghan society gets greener day to day so that the wild singing birds make it their nests forever and once again Afghanistan become the symbol of arts and creativity in the region.
Omidullah Khawary is a graduate of Aga Khan University and is currently working as a Programme Development Officer at the Aga Khan Education Services, Afghanistan.