The Art of Afghan Music: Quraishi, rubab

Enjoy music from Afghanistan as Quraishi performs on the rubāb. The twenty “sympathetic strings” of Afghanistan’s national instrument give this traditional lute a hauntingly beautiful sound. Quraishi performs folk melodies from across the country and Afghan classical music dating to nineteenth-century Kabul, when the city’s rulers imported outstanding musicians from Lahore.


The Art of Afghan Music

Quraishi, rubāb
Chatram Sahni, dhol
Hewad Wardak, tabla

This performance was presented on May 20, 2017, in conjunction with Turquoise Mountain: Artists Transforming Afghanistan.

Song Track
Rag Pilu 0:00–8:37
Kabuli song 8:38–14:05
Kabuli song 14:06–20:22
Pentatonic melody 20:23–28:53
Pashtun song 28:54–38:06
Rag Khamach 38:07–59:12
Northern Afghan song 59:13–106:38
Herat song 1:06:39–1:09:13




Quraishi performs folk music from south, north, west, and central Afghanistan as well as two ragas from the classical tradition.


The Afghan rubāb is a double-chambered lute with three melody strings (originally made of animal gut, now nylon), four frets, two or three long drone strings, and up to fifteen sympathetic strings (made of copper and steel). The instrument, traditionally fashioned from a single piece of mulberry wood with a goatskin face, was richly ornamented with bone and ivory inlay, occasionally encrusted with lapis lazuli or mother of pearl. 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 also was played in Kampur and in Punjab (northern India). Musicians in India modified the Afghan rubāb to become the well-known sarod of Hindustani classical music.

The tabla is a pair of hand-played, tunable drums that comprise the principal percussion instrument in north Indian classical music. It has also been used since the mid-nineteenth century in the Kabuli art music tradition. The larger of the two drums, called a bāyān, is a metal kettledrum whose pitch is modulated by pressure from the heel of the hand on the drumskin. The smaller of the pair, which is also called a tabla, is a wooden drum whose skin can be tuned to a precise pitch by adjusting movable cylinders beneath leather straps.

The dhol is a traditional double-headed drum used throughout the northern parts of South Asia.

Afghan Classical Music

The art music tradition of the Afghan rubāb is very much 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 rubāb. 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. During the 1860s, the ruler of Kabul, Amir Sher Ali Khan, brought a number of classically trained musicians from India to perform at his court. He gave them residences in a section of the old city adjacent to the royal palace so they could be easily summoned to court when needed; this area became the musicians’ quarter of Kabul. For the next hundred years, Indian musicians thrived there, and Kabul became a provincial center for the performance of north Indian classical music. The royal patrons of this music were Afghans who were at ease with both Persian and Indian cultures.

Notes adapted from annotations by John Baily, Farhad Kazemi, Theodore Levin, Mark Slobin, and Wais Noori in Homayun Sakhi: The Art of the Afghan Rubāb (Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, 2005).

Turquoise Mountain: Artists Transforming Afghanistan was 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).


Quraishi is one of the few rubāb players in the West. His music represents multiple links between classical Afghan court music and the golden years of Afghan radio in the 1970s as well as between the diverse immigrant cultures of New York City, his current home, and the future of
Afghanistan’s musical identity. Among other venues, he has performed at Lincoln Center, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Asia Society, and Symphony Space. Quraishi’s first CD, Pure and True Rubāb, features duets with percussionist Chatram Sahni on dhol (double-headed drum), interpretations of classical Afghan repertoire, and original compositions. In 2014 he released Mountain Melodies, which features a classical raga, Afghan folk songs, and original compositions.

Quraishi’s family lineage and earliest influences include musicians and instrument makers. His father made him his first rubāb. While growing up in Kabul, the self-taught Quraishi became well versed in the folk styles and regional genres of Afghanistan’s numerous ethnic groups, such as the Pashtu, Uzbek, and Tajik. Quraishi also immersed himself in the discipline and formalistic principles of Hindustani classical music. This genre has served as the foundation of Afghanistan’s art music—the repertoires supported by the royal courts—since Kabul’s rulers imported Hindustani musicians and composers from Lahore in the mid-nineteenth century.

Chatram Sahni, dhol, served his musical apprenticeship by playing on Afghan radio in the 1970s, when he was a favorite accompanist for famous Afghan singers. Chatram plays traditional rhythms on the dhol, a tunable, double-headed Afghan drum usually made from mulberry wood
with goatskin stretched over both ends.

Hewad Wardak, tabla, regularly accompanies Afghan singers on their North American tours. He appears on Quraishi’s latest CD, Mountain Melodies.


The performance was recorded May 20, 2017, 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, Ryan King for web design, Torie Castiello Ketcham for web assistance, and especially the musicians for granting permission to share their performances at the Freer|Sackler.