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Afghan Musicians: Once Outlawed by Taleban, Yet Still Threatened

Afghan musicians, once driven underground by the Taleban, are now slowly returning to one of Kabul's most famous neighborhoods. Many musicians have come back from exile to again practice their craft. But, the past is not easily resurrected.

"I search for Kharabat Street," laments singer Bashir Ulfat, "but find that it is destroyed."

In the days before war and civil strife, Kharabat Street was the hub of the Afghan music scene. Master musicians and apprentices lived on the street, and the sound of voices and instruments could be heard everywhere.

John Bailey, a British ethnomusicologist and expert on Afghan music who frequented the area in the 1970s, says Kharabat Street embodied the soul of Afghan music, with musicians watching and learning from each other. "In the past, this Kuchi (street) Kharabat was the focus of a lot of the music in Afghanistan. It was an extraordinary hothouse of musical activity. In a way, it was almost like a conservatoire (conservatory). It was an extraordinary place of musical innovation and activity," Mr. Bailey said.

Now Kharabat street is gone, destroyed in the factional fighting that began in 1992. The area looks like a recently uncovered archeological dig of some past civilization. The street is today nothing more than a dirt track. The houses, many made of mud and straw and wood, are little more than shells.

But the musicians are coming back to Kharabat street. They struggle to rebuild destroyed houses and try to revive the spirit that once flourished there.

Ustad Amruldin, 74, is a master of the haunting-sounding delruba, an instrument that has the neck of an Indian sitar and is played like a cello. He says he thinks Kharabat Street might someday be even better than before. "Yes," he said, "I am certain that Kharabat street will become the Kharabat street of the times when there was no fighting. And especially if our friends continue to help us, I can say it will get even better."

Most of the musicians of Kharabat street make a living playing at weddings. But they have run into opposition, apparently from Taleban members or sympathizers who object to music. There have been several attacks on musicians lately. Two musicians were killed recently when hand grenades were thrown at them at a wedding party. At another wedding, the musicians were beaten and locked in a room.

At a music session at his house, Ghulam Hussain, who plays the 19-string rebab says his family is worried that being a musician has become a dangerous occupation. "They were concerned and they were saying that you say that we will go to Kabul and it will be peaceful. But after the incident happened, they said that if anything like this goes on, we will have to leave Kabul and we will have to go back to Pakistan because musicians are targeted," he said.

Mr. Bailey says Kabul is dangerous enough for musicians; the countryside is even worse. "I think that for musicians within the precincts of Kabul, there may be some pressures. There may even be some dangers," he said. "But as soon as you get outside, then you are in danger of some fanatic coming along who thinks that music is that terrible thing that really has to be stamped out, and is prepared to take action to pursue that line of thinking."

Even under threat from extremists, Afghanistan's musical soul lives on, having been nurtured in exile and replanted in the dry, dusty soil of Kharabat Street.