The Art of Afghan Music: Ustād Mahwash, vocals

Afghanistan’s most beloved singer, Ustād Farīda Mahwash, performs romantic Persian poetry, Kabuli songs, and Afghan folk music. She received the BBC World Music Award for the CD Radio Kaboul. A former star on Radio Afghanistan, Mahwash left the country in 1991 and now lives and performs in the United States. Ahsan Ahmad on tabla (drums) and Khalil Ragheb on vocals and harmonium (keyboard) accompany her.


The Art of Afghan Music

Ustād Mahwash, vocals
Ahsan Ahmad, tabla (drums)
Khalil Ragheb, vocals and harmonium (keyboard)

Recorded in performance at the Freer and Sackler Galleries in January 2017, in conjunction with the exhibition Turquoise Mountain: Artists Transforming Afghanistan.
For this performance, Ustad Mahwash selected largely from this set of songs.
(Transliterations and translations from the Dari of Ustad Mahwash’s song notebooks by Sughra Hussainy.)

Bedil shuda am bahray dile tu.
I lose my heart for your heart.
Music by Wahid Qasimi; lyrics by Rumi

Paimana bedey ke khumar astum.
Give me (one more) cup of wine, so I can be intoxicated.
Music and lyrics by Ustad Tarana Saaz

Dar kunje delam ishqe kasi khana nadarad.
I don’t have even a little room in my heart for anyone’s love.
Music and lyrics anonymous

Tha safar kard yare jonie man.<
Since my beloved traveled . . .
Music by Ustad Rahim Bakhsh; lyrics by Ashqari

Ta ze ma pursan ta rasha bad hal dea pari.
You should come to ask about my bad situation, oh fairy.
Music by Kabir Sanan; lyrics by Fakkur

Duhktare Afghan
Afghan girl
Music by Ustad Sar Aahange; lyrics by Kohzad

Hamsafar sarway qadat dar naiestan nashkanad.
My fellow traveler, (I wish) you were like the unbreakable bamboo in the bamboo grove.
Music by Amani; lyrics by Ashqari

Az namadanet dil preshan ast.
My heart is distressed when you have not come.
Music by Amni; lyrics by Fakkur

Baad az khuda yagana khudaee dilam tuee.
After God, you are the only God of my heart.
Music by Mashoor Jamal; lyrics anonymous

Eashqe manee omid manee.

You are my love, you are my hope.
Music by Naiesaz; lyrics by Anisa Latif

Daran nafas ke bimeeram dar aarzuye tu basham.
Until my last breath I will wish that you can be (accepting of me).
Music by Ustad Hashim; lyrics by Saadi

Beshnao az nai chun hekayat mikonad.
Listen as the reed flute tells the story.
Music by Ustad Nai Nawaze; lyrics by Rumi

Ba tu naqshi suhbate man chie baja nishasta.
The way I describe you to others perfectly matches you.
Music by Ustad Qasim; lyrics by Beadil

Hama umr
All my life
Music by Kharabat; lyrics by Beadil

Shanidam az inja safar mikuni.
I heard you are travelling from here.
Music by Zaher Huwaida; lyrics anonymous

Khurshid gunaee man.
Your face is like he sun to me.
Music by Ustad Shad Rawan; lyrics by Karim Shadan

Gufti ke mebosam tora.

You told me, “I want to kiss you.”
Music by Ahmmad Zaher; lyrics anonymous

Kashidaee paa janana ze khanae man.
Stop coming, my dear, to my house.
Music by Wahid Qasimi Fakkur; lyrics by Fakkur


Vocal Art Music in Afghanistan

In the 1860s numerous professional musicians were brought to Afghanistan from the Punjab, and from that period two genres of distinctly Afghan art music were developed at the court of Kabul. These were the Kabuli style of ghazal singing and an instrumental genre known as naghma-ye kashāl.

The ghazal is a principal form in Persian and Pashto poetry, consisting of a series of couplets following a particular rhyme scheme. Ghazal singing is well established as a “semi-classical” form in Hindustani (north Indian) music; the Kabuli version is related to the Indian model but with certain local features. The Kabuli ghazal generally uses Persian texts, often written by such esteemed poets as Hafiz, Sadi, and Bedil. The music is based on the rāgas (melodic modes) and tālas (metrical cycles) of Hindustani music. The most distinctly Afghan feature of the ghazal form is a cyclical rhythmic organization, with fast instrumental sections closed by emphatic rhythmic cadences, interpolated between units of text. The use of parallel and serial polyrhythm and strong rhythmic cadences are features linked to Pashtun regional music. The Kabuli art of ghazal singing requires skill in the interpolation of apposite couplets from other poems. Such an interpolation, called a fard, is usually sung in free rhythm. This feature, which derives from Persian or Tajik music, may be compared with the folk genre known as chahārbeiti.

The vocal and instrumental genres of Afghan art music were developed and perfected at the court of King Amanullah in the 1920s. The principal singer at that time was Ustad Qasem, the “father of Afghan music.” A master of ghazal singing, he combined a deep knowledge of Persian poetry with his broad training in Hindustani music. He and other singers recorded a considerable number of 78 r.p.m. records in India that grew in popularity with people of Kabul. From around that period it became usual for the ghazal singer not only to accompany himself with the harmonium but also to be backed by a small group of instruments, including rubāb (lute), tablā (drum pair), sārangi (fiddle), delrubā (fiddle), and the tānpurā drone. Apart from the rubāb, all of these instruments were adopted from India. Early radio broadcasting in Kabul in the 1920s probably helped consolidate this as an Afghan national music.

In due course, these court genres become more widely disseminated to other cities in Afghanistan, such as Kandahar, Herat, and Mazar-e Sharif, where musicians from Kabul would perform and acquire local pupils. In recent times the most famous singer from this court tradition was Ustād Sarahang, who was also well known in India as a classical singer in the Patiala style.

  • Excerpted and adapted from John Baily, “Afghan Art Music,” in “Afghanistan,” Oxford Music Online (oxfordmusiconline), accessed November 21, 2017.


Ustād Farīda Mahwash has long been considered the “voice of Afghanistan.” One of the most beloved singers in Central Asia, her robust, luminous voice and her subtle command of melodic ornamentation have dazzled audiences worldwide. She proudly shares her country’s rich musical heritage through performances and recordings.

Farīda’s mother was a teacher and reciter of the Qur’an, but religious doctrine denied female singers a professional career. When Farīda herself wanted to sing professionally, she received encouragement from the director of a radio station in Kabul. He gave her the stage name Mahwash, which means “like the moon.” She studied vocal music under Mohammad Hashim Chishti in the north Indian classical style that had been used to train Afghan singers since the nineteenth century. Mahwash went on to study with Afghan singer Hussain Khan Sarahang, who guided her rise as a radio star, and she achieved fame with songs written for her by Ustad Shahwali. A popular favorite was the song “O Bacha” (Oh Boy), which combines a series of regional songs in one extended cycle. Her performance of this demanding suite earned her the title ustad (master), an unprecedented achievement for a female vocalist.

Political turmoil forced Mahwash’s family to move to Pakistan in 1991. Warring factions wanted her to sing for their causes. Worn out and exhausted, she was granted political asylum in the United States by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in October 1991.

In 2001 Mahwash joined other exiled musicians to form the Kabul Ensemble. In addition to performing at major halls across Europe, the ensemble released the CD Radio Kaboul (Accords Croises) in 2003, which received BBC’s prestigious World Music Award. Four years later Mahwash recorded secular and sacred love poems for the CD Ghazals Afghans (Accords Croises/Harmonia Mundi). Since then she has performed with Voices of Afghanistan, an all-star ensemble of exiled musicians under the musical leadership of Homayoun Sakhi, who performed at the Sackler Gallery in 2016. At the One World Concert held in Syracuse, New York, in 2012, Mahwash performed with the ensemble along with Dave Matthews, David Crosby, Roberta Flack, Angélique Kidjo, Cyndi Lauper, A. R. Rahman, David Sanborn, Bebe Winans, and Whoopi Goldberg. She is the featured vocalist on the Voices of Afghanistan 2013 release Love Songs for Humanity (World Harmony Studios).

Khalil Ragheb, vocals and harmonium, was born in Kabul and recruited to the Radio Kabul orchestra as a teen-age percussionist. His start there coincided with the arrival of Ahmad Zahir, who became Afghanistan’s most popular singer and a legend following his early death. Ragheb accompanied Zahir for eight years. He first performed with Mahwash while he studied music and worked in television in Iran. With the Soviet invasion of 1979, Ragheb moved to Germany and, in 1988, to the United States. Ragheb’s latest collaboration with Mahwash is Voices of Afghanistan, an ensemble of émigré Afghan musicians. He also hosts the television program Sound and Image of Afghanistan.

Ahsan Ahmad, tabla, was born in Kabul but fled with his family to Pakistan due to conflicts in his homeland. He came to the United States in 1988, where he began to study the tabla. Eventually he became a student of Tari Khan and pursued the instrument professionally. He now regularly accompanies a range of Afghan vocalists and instrumentalists, including Mahwash.


This performance was recorded January 14, 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 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, Hutomo Wicaksono for photography, Torie Castiello Ketcham for web production, and especially the musicians for granting permission to share their performances at the Freer|Sackler.

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