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  Ustad Farida Mahwash
Ustad Mahwash Bookmark and Share Source:Afghanland.com: The 1960s and 1970s are remembered as the golden age of music, the heyday of Radio Afghanistan and Kabul as a cultural centre. Farida Mahwash, was the great woman singer of the time. She came from a highly respectable Kabul family. Her mother was a teacher of the Holy Quran, and she started work at the radio station as a typist. But before long her wonderful voice and exceptional musical abilities were discovered by Radio Afghanistan's director of music, and her career as a radio singer was launched.

Radio music was a modernizing force in a country that was still deeply conservative and slowly recovering from the brief civil war of 1929, when the progressive King Amanullah was deposed by a religious backlash that foreshadowed the extremes of the Taliban nearly 50 years later. Radio made it possible for amateur musicians to give voice in public. Some became Ustad Mahwash with Arman and Afghan Enssanble professional, such as Ahmad Zahir, son of a former prime minister, and the nearest Kabul came to a Presley or a Sinatra. Even more significant was the way that broadcasting overturned popular prejudices that connected women singers with prostitution.

Mahwash's rise to fame owed much to another famous Kabuli musician, Ustad Mohammad Hashem, whose ancestors came from India and were brought to Kabul in the 1860s as court musicians by the then ruler, Sher Ali Khan. Hashem was recognized as an ustad , a "master musician", for his artistry in playing the tabla drums. He was also a multi-instrumentalist, singing and playing various stringed instruments. In 1976 he proudly played me his latest recording, five minutes of virtuoso tapping on a matchbox and scraping its corrugated sides, like a washboard. "See," he said. "I can make music out of anything." He followed the path of mystical Islam (Sufism) and believed in the spirituality of music - ideas that were diametrically opposed to the Puritanism of the Taliban.

Ustad Mahwash in ConcertAccording to afghanland.com sources, Hashem became Mahwash's mentor, and composed many songs for her to sing over the radio. One of the best known was O Bacheh (Oh Boy), which brings together half a dozen regional songs in one extended modernized song cycle. Not all musicians were impressed. One said to me: "What's this? 'Oh boy, oh boy. Come so we can dance the cha cha cha. Let's dance to the Logari tunes?' This poetry is trite, it has no meaning."

But Hashem also taught his protégée some Indian classical singing - and, on the basis of this, Mahwash was awarded the title of ustad in 1977 by the ministry for information and culture. This was a controversial step, as the honorific is normally reserved for men.

Ustad Mahwash in LondonMahwash's regular accompanists were Hashem on  harmonium, and his two younger brothers, Asif and Arif, who both play tabla drums. The three Mahmood brothers dominated the world of classical tabla playing in Kabul. They numbered several Americans among their many students, and in 1978 toured the US. That same year, Taraki staged his coup and a communist government took over the country. The golden age of music had come to an end.

Mahwash and the Mahmood brothers remained in Kabul. The communists were great patrons of music, which they regarded as a sign of social progress, but there was heavy censorship. Songs in any way supportive of the rebels were banned, and artists were often asked to perform songs on radio in praise of the regime. While Kabul remained relatively secure and free from fighting, in the provinces the war raged and many thousands of Afghans were killed by the communist government and the Soviet troops who had been sent in to support it.

It was a time of deep uncertainty, with younger men likely to be called up to fight. Many lived in fear of a midnight visit from the secret police. One by one, the three brothers escaped: Hashem to Germany, Asif to London, Arif to Pakistan. Mahwash stayed in Kabul until 1991, when she too managed to get to Pakistan. I met her that year in Islamabad, living in fear of assassination from both sides in the war. President Najib had reminded her that one in every 10 Afghan refugees in Pakistan was an agent of Khad, Afghanistan's secret police, and that she would be assassinated for deserting her homeland. And the mujahiddin threatened her life because she was a singer - a woman singer - who had remained in Kabul.

Philippe Labreveux of the UNHCR in Islamabad heard of her plight, and organized recording sessions for a cassette to celebrate UNHCR's 40th anniversary. Hashem's brother Arif accompanied her on tabla. Through the contacts made with the UN, and in recognition of the special threat to her life, she was granted political asylum in the US. For the past 10 years she has lived in California.

Mahwash's teacher, Hashem, died in Germany, but, she reunited with his two brothers, Asif and Arif, at the London Concert for Afghanistan, on March 14 2002 a charity event in aid of Care, Medicines sans Frontières, Ockenden International and Save the Children. They were joined by Asif's son, Yusuf, another exceptional tabla and harmonium player, who is music director for the concert. With Yusuf dipping for his uncle Hashem, they recreated Mahwash songs from the past, and offer the kind of tabla trio performance that was once the talk of the cognoscenti of Kabul.

Ustad Mahwash's CD Radio KabulUstad Mahwash has performed in many European cities in 2001 and toured the Americas. She has received many awards including the award of "Golden Voice" in Europe and the first afghan singer to receive the coveted "Janis Joplin Award" 

From her tour with the Kabul ensamble she has released this CD entitled "Mahwash: Radio Kaboul" Listen to a clip

 

There used to be a musicians' district in old Kabul. But it became the frontline during the mujahiddin fighting of 1992-96.

"There are no more masters to teach a new generation of musicians," explained Ustad Mahwash, one of
Afghanistan 's best-known female singers, as she prepared for a concert in Paris this month.

As her title 'Ustad' indicates, Mahwash is herself a "maestro". She is one of the few Afghan women to have trained with the classical masters and continues, 36 years after she turned professional, to pass on that heritage.

But she does so from exile in
California .

"When I heard there was relative peace in
Afghanistan I wanted to go back and do a big concert. But there are still remnants of the Taliban there and I was worried they wouldn't let me into the country, let alone sing before a huge crowd.

"My husband told me: 'Don't go. Maybe there'll be saboteurs and they'll plant a bomb. Then lots of innocent people will be hurt and you'll be blamed'."

So Mahwash sings abroad -- for Afghans in exile, for Westerners who have only recently discovered where her country is and for US Secretary of State Colin Powell, who recently invited her to perform at a reception he was hosting.

"It was an
honor for me that the Americans chose Afghan music," she said, sidestepping the politics. "It's an honor to represent Afghan women, whose voices have been suffocated."

Mahwash performed in Paris with the Kabul Ensemble, a new generation of Afghan musicians, again operating in exile.

Thus many of Mahwash's songs are classical dari poems set to music whose structure is that of classical ragas, with rhythms reminiscent of
tabla drums and the North African derbuka.

The Kabul Ensemble has updated part of their traditional repertoire, swapping the original love lyrics for the nostalgic yearnings of the exile.

But neither they nor Mahwash have been tempted to Westernize their music along the lines of
Pakistan 's most prominent singer, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, who introduced electric bass and synthesizer to the spiritual sufi music of his forefathers.

"I don't see the need to change style. Our music is rich enough," Mahwash explains.

That determination has paid off.  Mahwash received an award in
Italy
for services to music and last year she performed with South African doyenne Myriam Makeba.

World Music Award Presentation to Ustad MahwashShe was also nominated along with Kaboul Ensemble and won the coveted "World Music Award" presented by Jon Snow sponsored by BBC.


"I got married at 18 and used to hum a lot around the house. My husband was impressed and with his permission I started taking classical lessons under the great masters and singing for national radio," she explains.

Mahwash is resolutely diplomatic on this point: "I'm a singer and I've been away. I don't know what the policy is and I've never touched politics," she says.

Then she leans forward, suddenly serious: "Art," she stresses, "is about affection and kindness."

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Monday March 11, 2002 The Guardian
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