‘The love for music is still there’: saving the sounds of Afghanistan one cassette at a time

A shopkeeper in Pakistan has collected more than 1,000 rare music tapes in a bid to thwart the Taliban’s cultural vandalism

Afghan music fans from Kabul and Jalalabad have crossed the border to the city of Peshawar in Pakistan to offer thousands of rupees to Mohammed Hasan Zamri’s workshop for just one cassette.

Zamri, an Afghan refugee, refuses them all as he continues his quest to copy and, one day he hopes, digitise his collection of more than 1,000 rare and old Afghan music cassettes of various genres.

It is his contribution to help preserve a musical culture that existed for centuries before the Taliban existed.

Since retaking control of the country in 2021, the Taliban have imposed their rigid interpretation of Islam, restricting and even criminalising music and arts. In July, they publicised a bonfire of seized “illegal” musical instruments, reminding Afghans that the sale of instruments was a punishable offence.

“The Taliban just use religion as an excuse to ban music and say it is haram, prohibited, in Islam. This is not true and it is part of our culture for centuries, but the Taliban have senselessly put a ban on it,” says Zamri.

Zamri fled Afghanistan during the Soviet invasion and went back for a few years after the war had ended and the Taliban had started to consolidate their power. He left again in 1996 and has been running a workshop fixing tape recorders and TVs ever since.

Man in a tiny shop crowded with cassette players and music cassettes on shelves lining the walls.
Zamri has been running his electrical repair shop since leaving Afghanistan in the 1990s. Photograph: Shah Meer Baloch

Most of the space in his small workshop is taken up by stacks of cassettes, neatly arranged on a wall opposite the entrance. His collection includes tapes of renowned Afghan musicians including Munawar, Nashenas, Taj Mohammad and Haikal.

“I have done recordings of many singers myself who had fled Afghanistan in the 1990s or had come to Peshawar, which has been a thriving hub for Afghan refugees and musicians,” he says.

“The love for music is there but the musicians, music and art is banned in the Taliban’s Afghanistan. Today, we have many singers but because of the ban, they cannot perform. They have fled Afghanistan.”

Listening and copying his cassettes, Zamri reminisces of times when Afghan audiences could enjoy music and culture with freedom – the same freedom afforded to musicians and artists, men and women.

“Those were the old golden days and today’s generation sadly don’t know much about those days of music – and coming generations will know nothing.”

Regretfully, he says, his own children, like many of the younger generation, have little interest in the music.

“The people who have heard these songs or lived through the era are the ones who come to buy cassettes. It really breaks my heart that the new generation doesn’t listen to them. These songs are about how malign war is and the importance of peace.”

“Naseema, Kashan, Benazir and Zarghona were the best female singers who dominated Afghan music three to four decades ago. Now, if they do not allow men to sing or create music, how will they allow women?”

Man sitting in a tiny shop crowded with a TV and cassette players and music cassettes on shelves lining the walls.
Since being featured on local media for his attempts at preserving Afghanistan’s musical heritage, Zamri has received both threats and messages of support. Photograph: Shah Meer Baloch

Until a month ago, Zamri was unknown to many Pashto-speaking people until local media featured his attempts at saving Afghan music cassettes. He has since received both threats and messages of appreciation.

“I have been threatened on Facebook from people to stop my work and they would burn down my shop and that this is against Islam. But there were some positive and appreciative comments too.”

Zamri fears someone could burn down his shop and that he is often asked why he is so fond of decades-old songs.

“They don’t understand. They either don’t have a soul, or brains to like music. Some people are addicted to smoking, some people love pets and some are fond of many other things. I am addicted to Afghan music. It is my hobby and passion,” he says.


Shah Meer Baloch in Peshawar

The GuardianTramp

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