The Art of Afghan Music

Homayun Sakhi, rubāb; Salar Nader, tabla

Enjoy Afghan folk and classical music performed by Homayun Sakhi, a leading exponent of the eighteen-stringed rubāb (lute). He performs folk songs from Kabul, dance tunes from the Panjsher Valley, and Indian ragas that Afghans have prized since the Mughal era. Homayun Sakhi has performed at Carnegie Hall with Salar Nader and is featured on two Smithsonian Folkways recordings. His appearances at the Freer|Sackler were presented in 2016 in collaboration with the Aga Khan Music Initiative and in conjunction with the exhibition Turquoise Mountain: Artists Transforming Afghanistan.


The Art of Afghan Music

Homayun Sakhi, rubāb; Salar Nader, tabla

Recorded at the FreerǀSackler on April 1‒3, 2016

Title Time
Qarsak dance (Panjsher Valley) 0:00‒6:25
Qataghani (Kabuli song) 6:30‒11:50
Raga Mishra Pilu 11:58‒37:00
Raga Yaman 37:10‒1:03:55
Qataghani (Kabuli song) 1:04:00‒1:10:05
Raga Madhuvanti 1:10:12‒1:40:42
Anar, Anar (pomegranate) 1:40:48‒1:47:50


Afghan Classical Music

The art music tradition of the Afghan rubāb is a hybrid creation. Indeed, Afghan music represents a confluence of cultural influences whose sources lie to the east, north, and west of present-day Afghanistan in the historical empires of Persia, Central Asia, and India. The rubāb itself is of Central Asian origin, one of a family of lutes that includes the Iranian tar, Tibetan danyen, and Pamir rubab. While rooted in the raga tradition of North India, the art music performed on the Afghan rubāb also has stylistic links to Iran. The tabla (drum pair) is indisputably Indian, but its creators seem to have drawn inspiration from older forms of Central and West Asian kettle and goblet drums.

Homayun Sakhi’s musical lineage dates to the 1860s, when the ruler of Kabul, Amir Sher Ali Khan, brought a number of classically trained musicians from India to perform at his court. He provided them with residences near the royal palace so he could easily summon the musicians to court whenever he liked. For the next hundred years, Indian musicians lived in this section of the old city, and Kabul became a provincial center for the performance of North Indian classical music. Royal patrons of this music were Afghans at ease with both Persian and Indian cultures.


The Afghan rubāb is a double-chambered lute with three main strings (originally made of animal gut now formed of nylon), four frets, two or three long drone strings, and up to fifteen sympathetic strings (made of copper and steel). It was probably invented in the eighteenth century in Kandahar, Kabul, Peshawar, Ghazni, or another city with a sizable Pashtun population. By the nineteenth century, the instrument was also known in Rampur and in Punjab (northern India). Indian musicians modified the Afghan rubāb into the well-known sarod of Hindustani classical music.

The tabla, a pair of hand-played, tuneable drums, is the principal percussion instrument in North Indian classical music. It has been used since the mid-nineteenth century in the Kabuli art music tradition. The larger bāyān is a metal kettledrum whose pitch is modulated by pressure from the heel of the hand on the drum skin. The smaller tabla is a wooden drum whose skin can be tuned to a precise pitch by adjusting moveable cylinders behind leather straps.


Homayun Sakhi

Homayun Sakhi was born in Kabul in 1976 into one of Afghanistan’s leading musical families. He studied the Afghan lute, rubāb, with his father, Ghulam Sakhi, in the traditional form of apprenticeship known as ustad-shagird. Ghulam Sakhi was the heir to a musical lineage that began in the 1860s, when the ruler of Kabul, Amir Sher Ali Khan, brought a number of classically trained musicians from India to perform at his court.

Sakhi’s musical studies were interrupted in 1992 when his entire family moved to the Pakistani city of Peshawar, a place of refuge for many Afghans escaping the political chaos that enveloped their country following the Soviet invasion of 1979. In Peshawar, Homayun became a popular entertainer. After the fall of the Taliban in 2001, many Afghan musicians in Peshawar returned to Kabul, but Sakhi was on his way to Fremont, California, which claims the largest concentration of Afghans in the United States. In Fremont, just as in Peshawar, Homayun established himself as a leader of the local music community.

Since he moved to the US, Sakhi has opened a school to teach Afghan music to children, recorded albums of popular Afghan songs, and become a sought-after performer. He also maintains an active performance schedule that takes him to cities around the world. Sakhi appears on two CDs issued by Smithsonian Folkways: Homayun Sakhi: The Art of the Afghan Rubāb (Music of Central Asia, vol. 3, 2005) and Rainbow: Kronos Quartet with Alim and Fargana Qasimov and Homayun Sakhi (Music of Central Asia, vol. 8, 2010).

Salar Nader

Salar Nader was born in Hamburg, Germany, to Afghan parents who were forced to flee their home during the Russian-Afghan war. Nader was five years old when his family settled in the San Francisco Bay Area. By age seven, he was already playing tabla and was familiar with the basic rhythms of Afghan and Indian folk and pop music. He began studying with the tabla virtuoso Zakir Hussain.

Nader began his professional career accompanying classical South Asian musicians during their visits to San Francisco. Among them were Pakistani vocalist Salamat Ali Khan and his sons, Indian sarangi (fiddle) virtuoso Sultan Khan, and Afghan singers Farida Mawaash and Ahmad Wali. Through his long association with Homayun Sakhi, Nader cofounded the Afghan music ensemble SARA. Featuring instrumental music, vocals, and dance, the group debuted in 2009 in Abu Dhabi. The duo then performed in Afghanistan, a first for Nader. Afghan novelist Khaled Hosseini commissioned Nader to compose and perform a musical score for the stage adaptation of his novel The Kite Runner.


This podcast was recorded April 1‒3, 2016, within the exhibition Turquoise Mountain: Artists Transforming Afghanistan, organized by the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and the Turquoise Mountain Trust. This exhibition was made possible by the support the American people have given to Turquoise Mountain through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

Podcast notes were adapted by Michael Wilpers from annotations by John Baily, Farhad Kazemi, Theodore Levin, Mark Slobin, and Wais Noori in Humayun Sakhi: The Art of the Afghan Rubab (Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, 2005).

Podcast coordination by Michael Wilpers, F|S manager of performing arts. Thanks to Andy Finch for audio recording, SuMo Productions for audio editing, Nancy Eickel for text editing, Torie Castiello Ketcham for web design, Hutomo Wicaksono for photography, and especially the artists for granting permission to share their performances at the Sackler Gallery.

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