“Afghan Star” or Setara-e-Afghan, the war-torn country’s version of “American Idol”, is continuing to inspire young music lovers in Afghanistan. Together with the pop music show “Hop,” Afghan Star has created a platform for thousands of hopeful, talented singers from Afghanistan, as well as Pakistan and Iran.
Recently, three female Hazara singers participated in these shows and established themselves both as pioneers as well as preservers of their people’s traditional folk music. The Hazara are an ethnic and religious minority, relegated to the barren mountains of central Afghanistan.They are amongst the most economically deprived people in the country, viewed by many Afghans as having a lower cultural status than other ethnic groups.
Pursuing a musical career is considered taboo for many Afghan women, Hazaras in particular. But thanks to Setara-e-Afghan, Elaha Sorur, Safia Noori, and Anahita Ulfat are now some of the most popular female singers in Afghanistan and potential change agents for their country. These women openly identify as Hazaras, giving voice to an oppressed group ignored by Afghan society. Their boldness and courage to participate in Afghan Star has also pushed social boundaries in a male dominated society, where many women are not allowed even to freely choose what they wear.
An Ancient Art Form
Most Hazara music features the “Dambora” (a regional long necked stringed musical instrument popular among the Hazaras of central Afghanistan) and is structured as ‘Dobaiti’, a type of classical poem. In some ways, the Dobait is the Hazara lullaby. Lullabies are important to Hazara culture, musically binding a child to its mother and children to women generally.
During the 1970’s some Hazara male singers, such as Safdar Tawakoli, Sarwar Sarkhosh, and Safdar Khair Ali Malistani, became very popular for their skills in playing the ‘Dambora.’ While female singers were almost unheard of, there was one important exception: Dilaram Aaghai. The Hazara musical legend was born in Malistan, Ghazni province in 1929. She sang from early childhood and learned to accompany herself on the Dambora. When her first audiotape was released, Dilaram immediately became the Hazara community’s most popular female singer. Her songs and compositions have inspired generations of singers and musicians.
Despite facing pressure from her family to stop singing and playing, Dilaram continued to pursue her passion. Eventually her audiotapes were featured on air through Radio Pakistan. Mesmerizing millions of music lovers in Afghanistan and beyond, Dilaram’s fame rose and eventually forced her into exile on charges of social disobedience. This ultimately resulted in a prison sentence during the 1950s, which she served. Even while in prison, Dilaram kept singing. Inspired by her exceptional art, a prison warden eventually helped secure her release.
Today, Dilaram Aaghai, who was also known as Aabay Mirza, is considered the original Mother of Hazaragi folk music. She is also held in great esteem by local poets and continues to be an inspiration for other folk singers. It is safe to say she holds a special place in the Hazara collective memory.
Building on a Great Legacy
The young Hazara women of Afghan Star have picked up where Dilaram left off.
After over two months of competition, the final episode of Afghan Star Season 9 was held on March 21, 2014. Anahita was the only female who made it to the ‘Top 5’, a hopeful moment for women across Afghanistan. Although she was initially eliminated, a wildcard brought Anahita back onto the show. Her self-confidence and thoughtful observations earned her a tremendous amount of popular support, from both men and women. Although she did not ultimately win the competition, Anahita has since released two new tracks, ‘Hesitate’ and ‘Alai jo’.
While her performance has had cultural and political effects, Anahita’s motivations appear to be deeply personal. “Music is something that gives me comfort and helps me relax. At the same time I see [that] this field of art could lead me to my wish of being a professional singer. Singing is my passion. I hope in the near future I will be able to transform the pain of my people through my songs,” said she said to the Kabul Press.
Anahita sings traditional love songs, including those that recall the tale of a Hazara boy enslaved and taken away to Central Asia by bandits who plundered his village. Anahita’s music echoes the pain Hazaras have and continue to suffer; the pain of being ignored, of being discriminated against, and of being excluded. She sings songs that are steeped in fear of being laughed at, and condescend to. Though her music, she cries out for a people who have experienced overpowering deprivation.
Elaha Sorur was another charming contestant on “Afghan Star,” who debuted on season four in 2008. She spoke publicly about her dream of becoming a singer and inspiring Afghan women to make their own destinies. “Art is in the blood of Afghans and has been for centuries, and it is still,” she said. “During the years of fighting, the people haven’t been able to use their artistry, but with time, it will get better and better. Afghanistan and the people of Afghanistan are ready for a change.”
Safia Noori, another bold contestant on “Afghan Star” said: “In Afghanistan professional music [has] not yet taken its place, as it should. But I believe in [the] near future the Afghan people will become more familiar with the standards [of] professional music and melodies…”
Afghan entrepreneur Saad Mohseni and his family, who returned to Afghanistan in 2002 after living abroad in Australia for 20 years, founded Tolo TV, which airs “Afghan Star.” Mohseni admits “Hop” and “Afghan Star” have generated angry complaints from Afghans who think it promotes un-Islamic values. But Mohseni justifies the programs by pointing to their immense popularity. “Yes, we are promoting social change, but we cannot push Afghan society where it doesn’t want to go. This is a commercial enterprise, and it reflects what people want,” says Mohseni.
That these programs have given Hazara women a platform to express themselves individually and represent their people is critical for the development of art and society in Afghanistan.