he best—and, perhaps, only—way to hear traditional music from remote regions around the world is to go directly to the source. Since most of us can't get to these remote regions (that's why they're remote, dummy), the nearest analogs are field recordings made by ethnomusicologists with a tape recorder (or, more recently, a DAT recorder). People like Jean Durin, Theodore Levin, and Mark Slobin have traversed some of the most remote areas of Asia (such as Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Tuva, Altai, and the Xinjiang province of China) and have recorded music that, before this time, had rarely been heard beyond these borders. These researchers recorded all types of traditional music from all types of musicians (amateur and professional alike) in all types of locations (their homes, their neighborhoods, their bazaars, or anywhere else that music is played on an everyday basis). These field recordings, the staple crop of ethnomusicology, can never be described as purely "authentic" creations—the very presence of an outsider (the ethnomusicologist) and a recording mechanism prevent this. But this is as close as most of us are every going to get to being part of these remote corners of the world, and for this reason alone these recordings are priceless.
I've heard a wide variety of field recordings of music from Central Asia, and the newly released Afghanistan Untouched is right up there with some of the finest. Part of this is the music's historical relevance. It was recorded in 1968 by Mark Slobin in the northern parts of Afghanistan, where Tajik, Uzbek, and Turkmen groups are more prevalent than the Pashtuns (who are the majority in the rest of the country). The time of these recordings is key. Only a few years later, Zahir Shah, the country's constitutional monarch, was overthrown, and from this point to today, Afghanistan has been at war: first the Soviet invasion, then the civil war, then the Taliban, and now (of course) the US "occupation." The Afghanistan heard on this two-disk album no longer exists; hence, the relevance of this music is undeniable.
Moreover, the music itself, while primarily performed by amateurs, is far more sophisticated and more interesting than one might expect. These are traditional songs that have been sung, performed, and passed down for hundreds of years; the amount of concentration and determination put forward by these artists can be felt with every string plucked, every reed blown, every drum tapped, and (above all) every vocal cry. Although the locations of these recordings (bazaars, teahouses, hotels) lend the work an informal, even casual air, and although the recordings themselves contain faults (on a few occasions, the music fades in and out, due perhaps to a particular musician's inability to stay near a fixed microphone), the artists' dedication to their craft is always evident, as is the serious role that music held in this culture. During one particularly playful song, "Songs with Qairaq," which includes a few nonsense children's verses and an extremely happy, bouncy rhythm, a man in the crowd can be heard yelling "Bas!" ("Enough!")—and so the musicians stopped. You see, Slobin had asked an elder to play some music using a particular instrument, a qairaq (made out of polished stones), and the musician had complied. However, the crowd of men could only tolerate so much playfulness before the music progressed to something more serious.
Yes, music in Afghanistan in 1968 was an elemental part of everyday public life. The artists performed passionately, not for riches but for camaraderie and for respect. Moreover, few outside influences had ever been incorporated into this music, making this a very insular culture. Still, as I said earlier, the key to this work is its historical context. Despite the joy and passion of the music here, the album is a sad work—not because of the music but because of the suffering that these musicians and their audiences have (most likely) endured since these recordings were made. Even if Afghanistan recovers from its endless cycle of horrors, the musical culture represented on Afghanistan Untouched is gone forever.
Reviewed by: Michael Heumann
Reviewed on: 2003-09-01