The conclusion of the day is that old traditions have been lost irrecoverably to the new age, trends and globalisation. But among Pashtuns, the vanishing tradition of old music and classic instruments is being held on to strongly.
In the olden times, popular folk singers were invited to wedding ceremonies where the guests would form a circle around the performers and throw money at them in appreciation – even being moved to jump up and let their bodies sway to the tune of the dance at times.
Those were the times when traditional Pashto musical instruments – Rabab and Mangai used to be the essential ornament of every typical Pashtun hujra. When a hardworking Pashtun would come back home after a long day of trudging in his fields, the velvety voice of singers accompanied by the melodious strings of the Rabab would be his source of getting rid of all the tension in his tired muscles.
Not just limited to music, literature was a source of expressing emotions. The Pashto tappa – the two lined couplet – would become means for an outlet to his pent-up emotions and a catharsis for the hard day of the high land Pashtun.
But today, as the traditions are no doubt gradually losing their appeal for the new generation, the musicians who have mastered Pashtun instruments and songs as well as those who are as yet amateur, are holding on to their treasured knowledge.
“I have loved Rabab playing since my early childhood and even though I never had a regular Ustad (mentor), I learnt its intricacies out of my love for this unique musical string instrument,” explained Nazeer Khan, a resident of Gandaf, a village near Gadoon Amazai industrial estate.
“After two decades I am now able to play different tunes on it. I am an amateur Rabab player,” Nazeer Khan shared happily. Nazeer is a driver by profession but says that Rabab playing is a spiritual experience for him.
“When I am alone and pick up Rabab and begin playing its soft strings, it drives away all my worries. I have an emotional attachment with it. Playing it is an art; modern electronic musical instruments don’t inspire me,” he said.
There are many amateur singers and music players in our village, says Nazeer. “You will find hardly any hujra in our village without musical instruments like Rabab, Harmonium or Tabla,” he revealed. Most villagers love simple traditional music.
Popular septuagenarian folk singer Ustad Ahmed Gul has experienced their love throughout his career. “I started my singing career in my early teens and for 55 years I have performed live,” informed Ahmed Gul.
“Traditional Pashto music”, he explained, “is in fact the voice of folk. It flows out directly from their hearts when they sing it, out through the tappa or any other folk genre, and goes deep into their hearts and brings them another life.”
Ahmed Gul strongly believes there would be no time when music lovers will stop listening to traditional tunes. “Death cannot come to traditional Pashto music. It is the soul of original music”, declared Gul.
But maintaining these traditions is no easy task. As the masters reveal, it is a matter of hard work and learning the intricacies of the beauties that make Pashtun music. And when the intricacies are appropriately mastered, then even modern techniques and sound effects can be adapted to the Pashtun tradition.
“New singers need lot of hard work,” because music, he argues, “is not everybody’s cup of tea. They should learn the intricacies of music from a seasoned mentor”, he stressed.
Living legend Khial Mohammad agreed with Ustad Gul and remarked the problem with the new singers is that they have taken music for granted. “There is always room for new talent in every field but everybody cannot become a maestro. I think Sardar Yousafzai, Rahim Shah, Haroon Bacha, Nazia Iqbal, Bakhtiar Khattak, Humayun Khan, Wisal Khial and few others have great potential and talent but still music is like an open sea, you always need riaz (practice), learning and training in this field,” Khial opines.
He emphasised that traditional Pashto orchestra is about understanding the soul of the music and not just the instrument. “Rabab, Tabla, Chitrali Sitar, Banjo, Flute, Harmonium and Clarinet and even electronic instruments can be amalgamated into any Pashto flavour,” said Khial, adding, “Ours was a golden period, great poets and music composers would compose numbers for us. But now, hardworking musicians have become a rare commodity.”
And this is the strength of the Pashtun music tradition. It might be old, but its masters believe in innovation. Noted folk singer Gulzar Alam was of the same opinion and remarked that traditional orchestra and traditional folk poetry will never lose its charm. “New trends will continue to emerge but the classic traditional music shall live forever deep in the hearts of the folk,” opined Gulzar.
“Pashto music lovers still cherish the beautiful voices of the matchless folk singers of the yore days including Ahmed Khan, Zarsagna, Nasim Begum, Mashooq Sultan, Kishawar Sultan, Gulnar Begum, Naveeta Khan, Khial Mohammad, Gulriaz Tabassum, Ahmed Gul, Ahmed Khan, Gulab Sher Sardar Ali Takkar, Shah Wali, Qamar Gula, Nashshnas and a host of others,” said one Mohsin Khan, an avid music fan.
“Those were the real singers and great professional because for them singing was an art. There will be real singers again and there will be new singers everywhere but they will all need to learn from an experienced music teacher because music is not a part-time job, it needs full dedication and spiritual devotion,” said Mohsin Khan. And among high expectations of music fans from their musicians, the Pashtun music tradition thrives on.