Afghan Rabab Comfort Child of the Moon

© Ehsan Azari Stanizai

The music ensemble, Casa Del Mar -- home by the sea -- has introduced Afghani Rabab to a famous Spanish song, "Hijo de la luna" -- "the child of the moon.' This is for the first time that the sound and rhythm of the Afghan popular solo instrument, rabab intermingles with the sound and beat of modern Western music and the Spanish acoustic guitar. The new version of the song radiates fusion of the exotic Eastern and adventurous Western cultures. The Spanish guitarist and composer, Paco Alonso, plays the Afghani rabab, with its indigenous sensuous style. Like British singer and songwriter, George Harrison who introduced the Indian sitar to the West, with Alonso the Afghan instrument made its way to Western electronic music. He learned how to play the Afghan instrument from a German-based Afghan maestro, Mr Daud Khan Sadozai.
Flamenco singer, Carmenmary and her excellent performance, blends flamenco clapping and rhythm and a flavour of the whirling dancers of the Rumi's Whirling Dervishes to the mythical lyric of the song.

The lyrics of Hijo de la lunar, depicts a gypsy lady, who prays to the moon for an ideal husband. After making a deal, something of a Faustian kind, the moon should have to take the woman's first child as compensation. When the prayer was answered, the dark-eyed and dark-skinned parents found that their child was a 'lunar albino.' The angry husband then stabs his wife to death and takes the child away only to abandon him in the wild to die. But the moon rescues the abandoned child and became his comforting mother. The underlying symbolism of the myth reveals the phases of the Moon, just as whirling of Rumi's dervishes symbolize the revolutions of the solar system.

Like the Spanish song, rabab enjoys an idyllically link to mythology, spiritualism and Sufi mystical ecstasies. Invented by the Afghan mountainous tribesmen, rabab epitomizes the spirit of the Afghan tribes and popular music. A Pashtu poem associates rabab with the very character of an Afghan.

An Afghan is no-Afghan without having pride, a shining sword and a singing rabab.
The exotic instrument is made from solid wood of mulberry trees and is often ornamented with ivory and jewels. Its hollow bottom and body function as a sound-box and resonator. The sound-box is covered with goatskin parchment. Like classical guitar, rabab has three and its modern designs four gut or nylon strings and 14 sympathetic tiny metal strings called bajgi. Unlike guitar, rabab has a shorter neck and a small number of frets. It is played with a plectrum called, zakhma.

There are many theories about the origin of the name rabab. A popular theory suggests that the name was originally ruh-bab, which means music for the soul. The Afghans believe that playing rabab heals your souls and keeps you timelessly young. Other similar instruments such as rud, oud, tambour, dutar (two strings), which are popular in south and central Asia may be adapted and fashioned on the basis of rabab. A penetrating and deep sound of rabab was first discovered and introduced to India by Hindu Maharajas during the Ghaznawid civilisation of Afghanistan in the 10th century. The Afghan instrument is still called in India as Pathani, Afghani and Kabul rabab. The Sikhs' Guru Baba Nanak also loved and played rabab in order to get inspiration for writing his messages to his followers. The Indian string instrument, surud is an obvious offspring of the Afghan rabab. Nowadays, several antecedents of rabab are popular in the Indian subcontinent, Afghanistan, Iran and Central Asian countries; none share the qualities of Western chordophones. This explains why the traditional Oriental musical instruments are identified as melody-oriented and their Western counterparts as suitable for tonal harmony.

Western guitar shares its ancestry with rabab. The Guitar itself has been a modified version of four-stringed oud, which was introduced to Europe by the Africans conquers, the Muslim Moors in 12th century. One version of oud was adapted and refashioned as a guitar in Spain and the other version as a lute in ancient Rome. Great Muslim philosopher of the 9th century, Al-Farabi links the origin of oud to a gloomy legend. He writes that Lamech, the sixth son of Adam built the first oud. While grieving the loss of his son, Lamech hangs his dead body from a tree, and his sun-bleached skeleton becomes a model for oud. The oriental oud, developed into two versions of guitars in the 13th century, Latin guitar and guitarra morisca, Moorish guitars. Both versions are still used in Spain.

Maulana Jalaluddin Mohammad Balkhi of Afghanistan, known as Rumi, is said to have played rabab. Rumi is loved and read in the West for centuries. He was a best seller poet in 1990s in the United States. He made rabab part of his mystical and ritualistic performance of dance and music called, sema. Following the disappearance of his legendary mentor and Muse, Shams, Rumi added a new string to the rabab and changed the shape of its cavity in order to give the instrument a loud and wailing sound. "In Shams' love," Rumi says, "I am like a wandering particle, restless and lost insomniac." Rumi devoted his Divan of 2,500 love poems to his mentor and wrote the name of Shams as his signature. However, some scholar believes that Rumi's rabab was different and was played by a bow.

Rumi appears the wisest of the world in Voltaire's Candide, and his fellow French writer Maruice Barres remarks, "When I experienced Mevlana's poetry, which is vibrant with the tone of ecstasy and with melody, I realised the deficiencies of Shakespeare, Goethe and Hugo."

Like reed flute, rabab was for Rumi a symbol of separation of the human soul from divinity; and the ethereal sounds of the instruments, as wailing object for bridging this divide. Rumi makes allusion several places in his poetry to Abubakr-e-rababi, (rabab-player), who was the maestro of his sema.

Another great Afghan Sufi poet, famous in the West as the Nightingale of Peshawar and the Frontier Rumi, Rahman Baba of the 17th century, also loved and played rabab.

As soon as a musician starts off twisting a rabab's tuning-peg,
My heart goes off in smoke.

After watching the production of Casa Del Mar, I regret why I didn't learn to play rabab. My hobby is playing classical and Spanish guitar. I still recall the delight I took in my childhood when my father was away from home. I would sneak into his room and played with his rabab. The Mullas in our district like everywhere else in Afghanistan loved to beat the musicians and destroy their instruments. But while they were visiting our home, they would show their crude hypocrisy. Being an influential person in local community, my father never was troubled by the Mullas. "Oh, this kind of music is not haram (sinful), because it is meant for personal pleasure not spreading vice," the Mullas would say whenever they visited our house and looked rabab, resting on the top of other instruments with solemn pride. Being hell-bent on destroying Afghan musical culture, the medieval Taliban buried rabab and forced musician to hide, when in power in 1990s.

Dr Ehsan Azari Stanizai is an Adjunct Fellow, Writing & Society Research Centre, and University of Western Sydney. He also teaches at the School of Humanities and Communication Arts, UWS.