I have to admit to a certain feeling of helplessness when faced with a collection like Afghanistan Untouched: it is, much more than entertainment, an ethnographic document, as much as a study of northwest Australian wangga or a collection of Icelandic rímur. This is borne out by the substantial documentation included in the accompanying booklet, which includes an overview and sections discussing the role of musicians in the life of the various ethnic groups that make up the country and commentaries on the various selections presented.
One thing is quite obvious from the first glimpse of the map on the back of the book: what we tend to forget with the example of what I can only call the “uniform heterogeneity” of the United States and our orientation toward the old countries of Europe, which over the centuries have pretty much settled themselves along ethnic lines, is that Afghanistan is a patchwork of ethnic groups, speaking different languages and with different traditions. The selections on this disc do as much as possible to cover this diversity, with the result of pointing up some strong commonalities.
The music of Afghanistan is, in spite of the regional differences, firmly a part of that broad sweep of the pan-Islamic cultural tradition that stretches from North Africa in the West to India in the East, and even reaches into southeast Asia and the Pacific. Sounding like what we in the West are likely to think of vaguely as “Middle Eastern,” the music displays, within that broad tradition, some intriguing differences, although they seem to be, to my relatively inexperienced ears, more matters of instrumentation and vocalization rather than basic concept. It’s a matter of listening and recalling similar songs from, perhaps, a recording of music from Egypt or even early Spain, but. . . .
There is a lot of information on this set — it is composed of two discs covering the music of the Tajiks, Uzbecks, Pashtuns, Herati, Kazakhs, and Turkmens, which are most, if not all, of the ethnic groups in the country, all recorded between 1967 and 1972 — before Afghanistan became a synonym in the West for civil chaos and governmental repression. (To that extent, this recording becomes a political document as well.) It’s fascinating, but I recommend taking it in small doses — with 34 substantial selections, it’s a panoramic but exhausting view of a fascinating mosaic.
(Traditional Crossroads, 2003)