Afghanistan Encounters with Music and Friends

Audio track " Jan-e Kharabatam," by Ustad Sarahang. Courtesy of Radio-Television Afghanistan

Series: Bibliotheca Iranica: Performing Arts Series 11
Availability: In stock
Published: 2013
Page #: xii + 160
Size: 6 x 9
ISBN: 1-56859-295-7, ISBN 13:978-1568592954
plates, bibliography, glossary, index, notes


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Quick Overview

Afghanistan Encounters with Music and Friends is a personal account based on the author’s past fieldwork experiences in different regions of Afghanistan and more recent work in Kabul spanning some forty-four years from 1966 to 2010. Although the fieldwork is ostensibly about music, it is the fieldwork experience that becomes the focus of the book. The individual journeys described in the book are more than simply routes or pathways from one place to another; they are about connections and encounters with Afghans who become the travel guides along the way and at destinations. The guides reveal the importance about being an Afghan; they convey their concepts of time, place, identity and music; they express their moral and ethical values; and they willingly share their customs and worldviews with the researcher who seeks a common bond with them. Readers who accompany the author on her journeys will gain a perspective of Afghanistan that is often overlooked or sorely lacking in the current popular discourse on the war in Afghanistan.

For the general reader the book is first and foremost about travels and encounters, and secondly about the music that necessitates the travels. For the ethnomusicologist, the book is about the music and the fieldwork experience. The main framework of the book is geographical and chronological, yet chapters include leaps in time and place to illustrate connections between the past and present, and between one place and another including Tajikistan, Kirghizstan, Pakistan and India.

The book is divided into three parts; the first two are about two extended periods of research in Afghanistan. The third part covers brief periods of research and projects in Kabul and outside Afghanistan in Pakistan and the United States. Ethnomusicologist Mark Slobin writes the foreword to the book. The work is illustrated by a political map of Afghanistan and three travel routes in the provinces, and by more than thirty photographs of people, places and events taken during fieldwork in Afghanistan. Song texts are transcribed and translated, including a translation of the late Ustad Sarahang’s rendition of "jan-e kharabatam" by author and translator, Dick Davis. A glossary of Persian terms used in the book is also included.


Hiromi Lorraine Sakata

Hiromi Lorraine Sakata is Professor Emerita of Ethnomusicology at UCLA. Before joining the UCLA faculty as Professor and Associate Dean of the UCLA School of the Arts and Architecture, she was Professor of Music and Head of the Ethnomusicology Division in the School of Music at the University of Washington. She is the author of "Music in the Mind: The Concepts of Music and Musician in Afghanistan" and the producer of the recording, "Ustad Mohammad Omar: Virtuoso from Afghanistan for Smithsonian Folkways." In addition to Afghanistan, she has conducted music research in Pakistan, India and Tajikistan.

List of Figures

List of Maps

Foreword by Mark Slobin


Note on Transcriptions and Orthography

Chapter 1:Introduction: Travels in Time and Place.

PART ONE: Afghanistan 1966-1967

Chapter 2: Kabul

Chapter 3:Travels with Bayazid

Chapter 4: Excursions

Chapter 5: Chasing After Genghis Khan

PART TWO: Afghanistan 1971-1973

Chapter 6: At Home in Herat

Chapter 7: Travels in Badakhshan

Chapter 8: Guests of the Wakil

PART THREE: Afghanistan 1978-2010





Jan-e Kharabatam. Ustad Sarahang.

Sarhadi Complete

Wakhan Folk Song

Wakhi Women's Song


“Ethnomusicology: the Journal of the Society for Ethnomusicology,” 59(2):346-48.

Hiromi Lorraine Sakata’s memoir of her field research in Afghanistan is a rich companion to her important book on Afghan musical life, “Music in the Mind: Concepts of Music and Musicians in Afghanistan” ([1983] 2002). Along with Mark Slobin, John Baily, and Veronica Doubleday, Sakata was part of a small but exceptional group of music scholars working in Afghanistan in the 1960s and 1970s. As demonstrated by Slobin’s website (afghanistan.wesleyan.edu), Baily and Doubleday’s work since 2002 with the Afghanistan Music Unit (www.gold.ac.uk/amu/), and Sakata’s new book, these scholars have each returned to their Afghanistan research in various ways, giving us an important look at a country that was completely upended by the Soviet Afghan war (1979–89) and the Taliban’s ensuing destructive regime.
Sakata’s book is based on her field notes from two periods in Afghanistan. “Part One: Afghanistan 1966–1967” recalls her yearlong stay as a Fulbright scholar aiming to study the music of the Hazaras in central Afghanistan for her Master’s thesis. This section is the longest and most involved part of the book, and Sakata does an excellent job describing the haphazard and difficult nature of her fieldwork as she attempted to navigate language barriers, health issues, and interpersonal relationships. She and her husband Tom traveled to Kabul, Kandahar, Herat, Mazar-i Sharif, and numerous villages in between, actually only making it to the Hazarajat at the very end of the year.
“Part Two: Afghanistan 1971–1973” details Sakata’s time among Persian-speaking Afghans for her doctoral research and “Music in the Mind.” In comparison with Part One, Part Two is a much shorter account of a longer period; Sakata was a more experienced researcher at the time and perhaps her field notes focused more on the musical materials she was discovering and less on challenges posed by doing research in Afghanistan. “Part Three: Afghanistan 1978–2010” is really only an eight-page epilogue, but Sakata’s description of attempts to save and digitize the Radio Afghanistan archives is of great importance. One cannot help but be moved by the efforts of Afghan archivists such as Mr. Siddiq, who protected and preserved the Radio’s tapes during the Taliban years. Indiana University has agreed to take custody of this archive, but apparently the file transfers have yet to occur.
In “Afghanistan Encounters” Sakata describes the musical performances she analyzed in her earlier research, but this time we can situate the performances in specific times and places. We learn how local musicians throughout Afghanistan worked to gather performers for Sakata to record, and the particular circumstances surrounding her relationships with those who provided her with information. It is fascinating to revisit figures such as Ghulam Haidar, identified in “Music in the Mind” as Sakata’s dutar teacher (2002:86–87) and “main musical informant in Herat” (2002: 206), and also mentioned as the performer of several songs analyzed in that book. Now we learn some actual details about their relationship: how he taught Sakata by having her repeat phrases, how he had her soak her fingers “in a liquid of boiled pomegranate skins every night until [she] built up some calluses,” and how he initially expressed his “disappointment” in her lack of preparatory work before coming to [her] first lesson” (2013:93). Sakata is sensitive to the many individuals who play a crucial role in field research and yet are often invisible in ethnographic accounts, such as Khairuddin, the cook who she identifies as “the single most crucial person to affect our life in Herat” (90). Gender roles and restrictions are constant factors in her research experiences, as when Khairuddin’s wife organizes a secret recording session in order for Sakata to work with her friend, a woman with a large repertoire of Herati folk songs (90–91; this is evidently the story behind Sakata’s recording and transcription of “Heina Ba Kara” [Henna is Needed]; see 2002:142–44).
The essence of “Afghanistan Encounters” is the portrayal of the many kind and generous Afghans who devoted tremendous time and energy to ensuring the success of Sakata’s research, organizing musical activities, and providing safe travel over the most difficult terrain. All ethnographers owe the deepest of debts to these friends whom we encounter in our work, and I am so pleased that Sakata has shined a light on her Afghan colleagues in this book. Throughout, we are also reminded of the unpredictable, fickle nature of field research, and the extremely specific social conditions and interpersonal dynamics connected to the data presented in ethnomusicological scholarship. But although Sakata reveals the protean nature of ethnography, she is comfortable with the process and approaches her research in a straightforward way. She gathers as much information as she can, she is generous and polite, and she appreciates and maintains professional relationships with many of her local contacts and the remarkable people she meets.
Over the course of this enjoyable and refreshing book, Sakata is engaging, humorous, and honest. Her voice here could not be more different than the generally authoritative tone of “Music in the Mind.” I greatly appreciated Sakata’s frank accounts of her inability to understand many of the languages in Afghanistan besides Persian/Dari. (“They seemed happy to sit and talk to me in Wakhi even though they must have known I couldn’t understand a word of it” [2013:104].) Some of her descriptions of the challenges of travel are also marvelously expressive. For example, “I was cold, tired and saddle-sore. I was ready to get down and lie on the ground and ask everyone to leave me there to die” (109). Or, “[T]hat night, I prepared for battle with the mice by covering up the hole with a heavy rock, but other mice already in the rafters scampered around and peed on us from above. No one seemed to notice this outrageous act but me” (117).
Aside from the many virtues of “Afghanistan Encounters,” the book perhaps relies too heavily on dated references, especially for historical material and discussions of ethnic groups. And although Sakata’s decision to focus her narrative on her field experiences is to be applauded, the lack of a more comprehensive look at the entire period, interpreted from the vantage point of her remarkable career, seems like a lost opportunity. As one of the very first--and still one of the very few--researchers to study music in Afghanistan, a fuller account of Sakata’s perspective on the decades following 1973 would surely be valuable. I finished the book especially interested to learn more about her Afghan colleagues, whom she visited in India and Pakistan during the 1980s and 1990s (including Amir Mohammad, the subject of John Baily’s documentary), to hear the stories of her friends who came to the United States due to the Soviet-Afghan war, and to read details about her five trips to Kabul since 2004.
Finally, I would direct the reader to the book’s companion website: www.mazdapublishers.com/book/afghanistan-encounters-with-music-and-friends. The beautiful color photos reproduced here are vastly superior to the black and white photos in the book itself, which are dark and difficult to see. The website also features a stirring audio recording of Ustad Mohammad Hussain Sarahang performing “Man Jan-e Kharabatam” (I am the Soul of Kharabat), translated by Dick Davis in Afghanistan Encounters (20–24). (The other three audio recordings at the website are also available among the forty already released with the CD accompanying “Music in the Mind.”) Best of all, the website has three videos made by Sakata in the Hazarajat (see 2013:113–15): a circle dance, a teke bazak (dancing goat marionette), and a deo-pari pantomime. It is quite illuminating to move from the brief three-sentence description of deo-pari in “Music in the Mind” (2002:33), to the more detailed and contextualized discussion provided in “Afghanistan Encounters” (2013:114) of the specific deo-pari performance Sakata witnessed, to actually watching a video of that very same performance on the Internet. As these multiple encounters with the deo-pari demonstrate, it is a privilege to accompany Sakata on revisitations of her field research in light of technological advances, shifting perspectives on ethnography, and her own changing attitudes regarding her work over the course of her long engagement with Afghan music and musicians.
Sakata, Hiromi Lorraine. (1983) 2002. “Music in the Mind: Concepts of Music and Musicians in Afghanistan.” Kent, OH: Kent State University Press. Reprint, Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press.
Evan Rapport.
Eugene Lang College and The New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music..
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