When Farhan Bogra himself was learning to play the rubab, an ancient instrument played by the Pashtuns, 15 years ago in Peshawar, he was unaware that his home province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa was on the brink of a war that lasted for more than a decade.
The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP, also known as the Pakistan Taliban) was formed a year later, killing thousands of Pakistanis across the country with indiscriminate bombings and shootings. The Taliban – many of whom were of Pashtun origin – banned musical performances and imposed a conservative form of Islam in areas over which they had influence.
As representations of the Pashtuns in Western and Pakistani popular culture focused on extremism and violence, the Pashtuns – who make up about 20% of Pakistan’s 207 million people – have come to be associated with violence, rather than as victims of the rise of the Taliban.
“A good image was not represented [Pashtun] musical instruments, ”Bogra said, speaking to Al Jazeera about the class taboo around music in Pashtun culture. “People didn’t let their kids play rubab. Even I have encountered a lot of resistance from my family.
As the military drove the TTP out of its northwest strongholds from 2014, violence has declined significantly over the past three years. But rights groups such as the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM) say widespread discrimination against Pashtuns, especially by Pakistani security forces, continues unabated.
Amidst all of this, Pakistani folk music group Khumariyaan, of which Bogra is a part, is changing the narrative around their ethnic group through music.
Bogra and his fellow Pashtuns Sparlay Rawail, Shiraz Khan and Aamer Shafiq, all from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, wowed Pakistanis for the first time in 2009 with their distinct combination of the soft, floating sound of the rubab – a string instrument popular in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran – masterfully combined with guitar melodies and percussion.
Since then, the distinctive sound of Khumariyaan has reinvigorated a rich and varied musical genre embodied by the queen of Pashtun tappay (folk songs), Zarsanga; the poetic ghazals of Afghan singer Nashenas; Pakistani Sardar Ali Takkar, who sang for Malala Yousufzai at the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize ceremony; and pop music from artists such as Gul Panra and Rahim Shah.
The group was eager to reach a generation of young Pashtun graduates from their native Peshawar who were thirsty for new and modern music that spoke about their cultural heritage.
“We felt that Pashto folk music, in general, had become a bit stagnant,” explains guitarist Sparlay Rawail. “If it wasn’t Sardar Ali Takkar or Nashenas and you were listening to Pashto music, it meant you belonged to [the lower] classroom.”
Bogra, who also works to preserve the traditions of Pakistani artisans and musicians, quickly saw the rubab, an irreplaceable cornerstone of Pashtun culture, disappear before his eyes.
“I remember giving a rubab to a friend [in 2006]. But his dad broke it, gave him a guitar instead, and said rubab is the sound of the lower class, of [rickshaw] drivers, ”he recalls.
Today, the Khumariyaan are part of a creative new generation of young Pashtun musicians resurrecting respect for Pashtun folk music in the Pakistani national consciousness.
In 2018, their cover of the classic Pashtun folk song Ya Qurban in the live music series Coke Studio Pakistan (sponsored by the multinational beverage company) propelled the group onto the global stage, with the video garnering over 13 million views on Youtube.
Rawail said this movement to revive Pashtun music has sparked not only a new love for the resonant sound of the rubab, but a desire to play the instrument as well.
“In 2000, the production of rubab [in Pakistan] had completely gone down, ”Rawail said. “People weren’t listening to him. Now everyone wants to buy a rubab […]. “
Even though neo-Pashtun folk music like Khumariyaan’s steps towards modernity, Karan Khan, one of Pakistan’s most prominent Pashtun folk singers, claims that the richness of the Pashtun language and the transcendent power of rubab combined with instruments contemporaries have drawn audiences, young and old, to its unique sound.
“When [musicians] sing our folk compositions with new instruments, they are modernized, but they remain folkloric in their taste and color, which is why these [songs] attract people, ”says Khan. “These ancient compositions and lyrics were powerful enough to introduce these modern instruments to the public.”
Khan was forced to flee Pakistan’s northern Swat Valley in 2008 with his family, along with over two million other people who were internally displaced after the province became a battleground for the offensive of the Pakistani army against the Taliban. His musical career materialized from struggles and travels at a time when music was stigmatized.
But for a new generation of Pashtun musicians emerging from the northwestern provinces that were once eclipsed by violence, Khan says that is slowly changing.
“Look at the families these boys belong to, then look at the villages where their families are,” he said.
“Ten, fifteen years ago people didn’t consider music a respectable profession. Now the boys in the universities are [increasingly] interested in music.
“Rubab is a magnificent instrument in fusion,” he says. “It feels good as an autonomous instrument, in Sufism, parties, attan, it looks good in jazz, rock, pop, hip-hop, it feels good in all these forms of music.
A brief history of rubab
Although different variations of the rubab exist in Pakistan, Iran and Uzbekistan, its roots go back to Afghanistan, where it is the national instrument.
“The rubab that Khumariyaan plays dates back to medieval times as a uniquely Afghan instrument, although possible ancestors can be seen in 4th century Buddhist carvings in the Afghan-Pakistani border regions,” says literary historian and Pashtu Culture School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London.
The rubab was particularly revered by the 16th-century Sufi Roshaniyya movement, led by the Pashtun poet-warrior Bayazid Pir Roshan, who also allegedly created the first Pashtun alphabet.
“In the 16th century, some of the earliest Pashto texts describe the use of rubab in Sufi rituals which were intended to open a conduit between our embodied senses and the higher spiritual realms,” said Dr. Caron.
The instrument has evolved over the centuries, with today’s Afghan and Pakistani rubabs being quite different from the shape of the 10th century instrument, according to ethnomusicologist Professor John Baily of the Goldsmiths’ Afghan Music Unit. University of London.
“There are accounts of mounted troops from [Pashtuns] being led into combat on horseback, singing Pashtun patriotic and nationalist songs and playing the rubab, ”Baily said.
Dancing to this music, known as attan, has in modern times become a traditional part of Pashtun weddings, celebrations and folk music performances around the world.
Fight anti-Pashtun sentiment with music
The rise of the Taliban and the so-called “war on terror” have devastated music production in the region. As the TTP gained influence in more and more territories, including Peshawar, the streets of Pakistan, which once resonated with all forms of music – qawwali, folk and contemporary – fell silent as music has been banned in many places, instrument makers have been shut down and musicians have been killed or threatened.
These threats sparked an exodus of Pashtun musicians, including figures such as Sardar Ali Takkar and Haroon Bacha, who sought asylum abroad.
The military’s anti-Taliban operations have brought their own allegations of anti-Pashtun discrimination, with the PTM documenting thousands of cases of enforced disappearances allegedly carried out by the military.
The military succeeded in breaking the Taliban’s grip on most of the province, and with it the ban on music that prevailed for years. From South Waziristan to the Khyber, public performances have slowly started to come back in the streets of former Taliban strongholds.
“Our music is for anyone with preconceived ideas about the Pashtuns,” Rawail says.
“If the story says that the Pashtuns are backward, that they are not well educated, that they do not know how to be ‘civilized’ and that they do not know how to create art and be creative, then we let’s definitely break down stereotypes. “
The group took it upon themselves to carry this torch. In the days following the massacre of 148 people, mostly children, at a school in Peshawar in 2014, Khumariyaan staged a public concert for a grieving town.
Driven by the desire to build a musical bridge between the Pashtuns and other groups, and to launch their own Cultural Revolution, the group attempts to bring people together – not just in Pakistan, but around the world.
“Everyone celebrates their rich musical culture,” added Rawail, “and it’s high time we did too.”