Pakistan: The undeclared ban on playing music lingers on

During the last decade, Pashto music has lost artists and singers of high repute. Some have preferred to seek political asylum in the foreign countries. Many are living a miserable life. Receiving threats from militants has become a routine matter. But have things improved lately?

Sher Alam Shinwari set out to investigate what the situation is like in Peshawar right now, on Music Freedom Day 2013. He found stifling sounds of Pashto music amid militancy and hostility.

Sardar Yousafzai

Sardar Yousafzai

A Music Freedom Day report from Pakistan – by Sher Alam Shinwari


According to a music critic, ‘music cannot be expressed in words, not because it is vague but because it is more explicit than words’.

But in the post 9/11 scenario, we have seen a dwindling trend of art, heritage and music as militancy adversely affected every sphere of our life. Artists and singers in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Fata are threatened, kidnapped and some have been forced to quit the profession.

Banr in Swat and Dabgari in Peshawar were two the main music streets. They worked as ‘learning nurseries’ where artists and singers used to transfer the art to their younger generations. These places were targeted by the militants, and Pashto traditional music suffered a serious setback. Hundreds of CD and DVD shops and music centres were also blown up.

Sardar Youafzai, a popular singer from Swat, and Gulzar Alam from Peshawar were fired upon by militants, while Haroon Bacha, a young folk singer, took political asylum in USA following threats from extremists.


It wasn’t always so. A Pashton is said to be born with tapa, rabab and mungay. These are the tools through which a man gives vent to his hard life. A Pashtun versifies his sufferings, miseries and romance in tapa – a couplet which consists of two irregular lines – and he turns to rabab and mungay to throw away his daylong fatigue and sings out both his heart and head.

Hujra and Jumaat represent a typical Pashtun’s religious, cultural and social life but modern age disturbed this balance in his routine life. Stuck between his religious obligations and social and cultural responsibilities, Pashtuns’ attitude towards art, culture and music became hostile, and militants exploited this changing mood in their own favour.

Pashto music touched new heights when a recording company, ‘His Master’s Voice’, recorded the first ever Pashto song in the voice of a Persian-speaking lady, Guahar Jan Kalkatavi, in 1902 in London.

Later, around 250 recording companies came to India and had a thriving business. Large number of Pashto singers emerged. Even some Hindus living in Pashto-speaking areas in the pre-partition era began singing in Pashto. Radio Kabul was set up in 1925 while Peshawar Radio was launched in 1935. This further gave a great boost to traditional Pashto music. PTV too played a significant role in promoting local art and culture, including music.


“Unless there is a change in mindset, the art of music will never flourish again,” Ustad Nazeer Gul, a senior music director, told Freemuse:

“Threats or no threat, our own people’s attitude towards music and singers has been hostile. Young female singers such as Rabia Tabbasum, Aiman Udas and Ghazala Javed, as well as Anwar Gul (a tabla player), and Shabana (a dancer), died tragic deaths while noted Pashto folk singers Rasool Badshah and Zarshad Ali fell victim to fatal diseases and a senior versatile folk singer such as Kamal Masood hailing from south Waziristan had migrated to Rawalpindi following threats from militants where he succumbed to serious burn injuries at his rented home caused by a gas cylinder blast,” he said.

Akbar Hussain, 72, a senior Pashto folk singer, said, “The conditions for Pashto music are not favourable in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Fata in many ways. My elder son was kidnapped three years ago by militants. They released him very fast, though. The feeling of being attacked from militants is still looming large.”

Musharraf Bangash, a young singer, too was kidnapped but was released after remaining for sometime in captivity of militants.

Laiqzada Laiq, an author and Station Director of PBC in Peshawar, who recently has written a book on the evolution of Pashto music told this reporter, “After digitalisation, Pashto music has gained widespread popularity. Every day a new singer joins Pashto music. Music bands with new experimentation also are getting momentum. I don’t believe singers have threats now from militants – most of them hype it in the local media just to gain the sympathy of some foreign donors. Yes, quality has suffered but quantitatively Pashto music today has more artists, instrumentalities and singers than it had a few years ago.”

The acclaimed singer Sardar Yousafzai who survived an attempt on his life on 15 December 2008, however, underlined that singers and artists in the scenic valley are still facing problems of insecurity and threats from militants:

“Hardly a week goes when I don’t receive threats from extremists. But we have to fight back militancy. I am used to it now. We need to uphold our cultural identity at all costs,” he determined.

Senior Pashto folk singers Zarsanga, Akbar Hussain, Hidayatullah, Gluab Sher, Mashooq Sultana and Qamru Jan are living a miserable life, they told Freemuse.

“There is an undeclared ban on playing music. Artists and singers cannot perform live in Fata, and in settled areas too they are reluctant to perform in open air, for instance at wedding ceremonies, because of fear being attacked by militants. Every moment the sound of music is being choked,” told Tajwali Khan, a music buff in Peshawar.




Sher Alam Shinwari is an active member of the Culture Journalists Forum in Peshawar, working for the freedom of expression, and welfare for the artists and singers in Pakistan – and in particular in North West province – the militancy hit – Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Fata.

The Takhleeq Development Foundation (TDF – which translates to ‘The Creativity Development Foundation’) and Culture Journalists Forum (CJF) will jointly celebrate Music Freedom Day (MFD) on Sunday 3 March 2013 at a local hotel in Peshawar where they will discuss issues being faced by artists and singers in this part of the world and also senior and new artists and singers will perform live. Sher Alam Shinwari will be posting a complete report from the event on musicfreedomday.org.



On 3 March 2013:
Pakistan: Music Freedom Day exhibition, seminar and concert in Peshawar



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