Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Wonder that Was Afghanistan: Nashenas


This is a very special post. Indeed, it is probably the most significant post since the Washerman’s Dog began.  On offer tonight is a very rare (nay, extremely rare) collection of music from Afghanistan.  These recordings were made in 1990 as a ‘labour of love’ by one of my colleagues in the UN when we both were posted in Pakistan.

The late 1980s were a period of intense activity in Afghanistan. The Soviets had admitted defeat (unlike the Americans today) and were in the process of pulling their forces back to Mother Russia. The bearded fanatics from whom, a few years hence would spring the Taliban, were punch drunk from their victory and cashed up with Saudi and American dollars. For secular, progressive and moderate Afghans, whether in Kabul or the sprawling refugee camps floating like human oceans around Peshawar and Quetta in Pakistan, life took a decided turn for the worse. Many were assassinated and plenty more were threatened with the same fate. Educated Afghan professionals who had managed to survive the Soviet occupation fled to Pakistan in great numbers.  Although a peace accord had been signed in Geneva, on the ground, chaos was the reality.
Dr Md Sadiq Fitrat 'Nashenas'

Among the professionals who fled to Pakistan in the late 80s was Dr Mohammad Sadiq Fitrat, popularly known as Nashenas (The Unknown One). Although I was not, in those days, a fan of Afghan music, I was aware of the whispered ripples of news that made it to our office in Islamabad. Nashenas was here! His name and his unknown whereabouts deepened the mystery and made me want to hear his music.

A few months later I got the opportunity, via a double cassette produced by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and Pakistan’s venerable Lok Virsa (Folk Heritage) Institute.  A senior colleague, the Frenchman, Phillipe Labreveux, was the project’s sponsor. He knew of Nashenas’s music and as soon as he arrived in Pakistan made it his mission to record him and honour him as an artist and as a refugee. This tape has sat in a box in my garage for years and I am willing to bet my hind leg that there are very few copies of this amazing concert available anywhere in the world, in any format.

Nashenas enjoys the reputation of being one of the most popular Afghan singers, and is representative of a generation of amateurs from well-educated middle-class background who became professional or at least well known in the public domain. The fact that they turned to music, despite all kinds of social pressures, says a good deal about the progressive state of Kabul in the middle of the 20th century. Such a commitment to performance by amateurs is inconceivable in the Pashtun society of northern Pakistan, where musicians and singers are exclusively recruited from low ranking hereditary musician castes.

Dr Mohammad Sadiq Fitrat was born in 1935 in that most Pashtun of cities, Kandahar, a member of the Pashtun tribe called Kakar. From 1940-1947 he resided with his family in various cities in present day India and Pakistan, where he father was a representative of the Afghan National Bank. It was here that he learned Urdu; while this long exposure to the culture of what was then still British India undoubtedly had important musical influences.  He graduated from the Faculty of Law and Political Science at Kabul University in 1959 and was then employed by Radio Afghanistan as Director of Foreign Programs. In 1962 he was sent to Moscow University to continue his studies and was later awardee a doctorate in Pashto literature.

His singing career started in the 1950s.  Dr Fitrat was a self-taught musician who used to practice at home late at night, sitting under a blanket with his harmonium to deaden the sound, so that his father sleeping below should not know what he was up to. When he started singing for Radio Afghanistan he did so under the name of Nashenas (the Unknown One), in order to hide his identity. It was several years before he felt able to reveal to his father that he was by now the famous radio singer. Despite having recorded some 400 songs for Radio Afghanistan and various record and cassette companies, Nashenas is proud of the fact that he never made his living from singing. Music remained for him a true shauq, a hobby pursued with passionate fervour. As a singer he made various visits to India, Nepal, Pakistan, Iran to perform Afghan music on behalf of the Ministry of Information and Culture, but his career was mostly spent working for the Ministry, in it History Dept., and for Radio Afghanistan. He remained in Kabul and was demoted to a humble position within the Ministry because of his refusal to join the ruling PDPA party. Nor would he sing songs in support of the Communist pro-Soviet regime. From 1985-89 he was sent to the embassy in Moscow to keep him out of mischief. He returned to Kabul in 1989 and escape with his wife and children to Pakistan a few months later.


Nashenas has greater vocal range and more interest in timbrel and dynamic variety than many Afghan singers. He performs in a number of vocal genres including Pashto folk and Afghan popular songs. He is also noted for his rendition of Hindi geet and has often been compared to the great Indian singer Saighal. He is also knowledgeable about Afghan classical music. What really distinguishes him as a performer is his great knowledge of Persian and Pashto classical poetry. Many prominent ghazal singers in Kabul who are from hereditary musician families are non-literate and treat this poetry was though it were an oral tradition. Fro the point of view of the Afghan literati their son texts were often incorrect, with all sorts of errors and other transformations creeping in. Problems of this kind do not arise with the singing of Nashenas.

These recordings were made under the auspices of UNHCR and Lok Virsa, in Islamabad. It was agreed in advance that Nashenas would record a set of ghazals in the style of Kabul, and several musicians were engaged as accompanists: Amir Jan Herawi (rubab), Seid Gol (sarinda), Arif Mahmud Chisthi (tabla) were all Afghan refugees.  Ustad Bahktiar (rubab), Allah Rakha Khan (sarangi) and Irshad Ali (tampura) were Pakistani musicians.  Nashenas put in a great deal of preparation into the choice of poetry, both the ghazals and the interpolated couplets he would add to them (like picking a bouquet of roses, with a flower from here and flower from there as the Afghan ghazal singers are wont to say) and made copious hand-written notes for his song texts. For some of the ghazals accompaniment is provided only by sarangi, tabla and tampura, while in others rubab and sarinda are included. (Liner Notes)



Track Listing
01 Ey saba, an che shenidi
02 Man-e-sang-dil che asar
03 Dil-egarm-e-man
04 Da saba bada gozar
05 Mey-paraste-ijad-am
06 Haselam zin mazra-e-bi-bar
07 Khat par mukh da sanam
08 Man jan-e-kharabat-am




17 comments:

tawfiq said...

Thank you very much for these precious recordings. Unfortunately the last two tracks of the Nashenas cassette seam to be damaged or incomplete. Can you please cheeck this? Thank you

ajnabi said...

Tawfiq,
thanks. I'll check and fix them asap.

ajnabi said...

Tawfiq,
I'm sorry but the recording seems to have been damaged and this is the 'sad' state of those two tracks. It is unfortunate indeed, but I think and hope there is enough in the other 6 tracks to make up . Such is the drama of working with tapes that are more than 20 years old!

tawfiq said...

Thank you anyway. Have a beautiful day.

Anonymous said...

Amazing stuff, and great story. Thanks! I'm having problems with just the final track, "Man jan-e-kharabat-am". The file seems to be corrupted, and ends abruptly at various points during the second half. It also won't sync with my mp3 player, though the others are fine. Huh!

ajnabi said...

I do appologize. These are old tapes and there has been some damage. It galls me too. I'll check track 8 as i have no problems with that one in my itunes and get back to you.

Nidar said...

Hello. Thank you for for your wonderful blog. I noticed the name of Philippe Labreveux as well and wonder if you know his news or where he is now. I last saw him in Athens in the late 1980s and am hoping to get in touch with him again but have lost all contact. If you can post any info, I'd be grateful. Thank you. Anna

ajnabi said...

Hi Anna,
Sadly, I am not aware of where he may be now. I can try to find out if you like. My UN career is sometime int he past but I can make some inquires if you like.

Anna said...

Hi Ajnabi, if it is at all possible to make any enquiries and if it's not too much trouble, I would be extremely grateful. I believe he has retired from the UN as well. Here's my email address so that any information about him can remain protected, or you can email me should you wish more information about me to forward to him or to whoever may know of him. I am based in New Zealand now so it is quite hard to actually look for him myself by hopping on a train to Paris. Much appreciated. Anna

ajnabi said...

will try Anna.

mamshad said...

but the vhs cassette by lok virsa had 33 songs. what aout uploading remaining songs.

ajnabi said...

Mamshad,
this is not a VHS cassette. it is a music cassette. All songs have been uploaded, sadly.

mamshad said...

the vhs cassette by lok virsa also had an incomlete interview of nashenas in pashto.the audio video quality was not so good but it was a great work for legendary nashenas.i have got the vhs converted in dvd and intend to upload all 33 songs,time permtting.i live in karachi.

mamshad said...

interestingly,i have huge collection of great nashenas songs.around 300 to 400 songs are still not available in any format on net.collection was made from afghan music shops in bilal market, hayatabad peshawar and alasif square khi.max songs are in dari and very few in urdu such as babul mora even sung better than saigal.intend to upload yet, time permitting.

Anonymous said...

can u tell me nashenas current address???

Anonymous said...

Thank you thank you thank you!
You are all wonderful people!

Anonymous said...

Pending:
33 VHS conversions and upload
Nashenas' contact
300-400 audio songs' upload