A brief overview of Afghan music on 78 rpm records

Ustad Qassim (2nd man sitting from the left) with Ustad Faiyaz Khan
Source: Book of commemoration for the first anniversary after Ustad Qasim’s death
(available on line – University of Arizona)

Ustad Qassim is sometimes considered as the father of Afghan music. He was also – to our knowledge – the first to be recorded with his musicians during a stay in Lahore, British India, in 1926.

Photo credit: Thomas Henry (Ceints de Bakélite)

Around 40 discs will be made from this stay. The titles appearing on the disc above are interpreted in Urdu / Hindi language thus recalling us the multilingualism of the Master (in particular by his origins of Kashmir by his father) as well as the influence of Indian music on his compositions. Most of his other songs known to date have been interpreted in Dari or Pashto. Some of the most famous Afghan songs up to nowadays, like “Ahsta Boro” or “Zuleikha Darom Emshab” were recorded at this occasion. Several were re-released on a CD in the United States a few decades ago and some are now available online. It is also during this stay in Lahore that will be recorded for the first time rubab solos by Qorban Ali whose son Gholam Mohamed also appears on the photo presented above and will later be known as Ustad Sheyda.

Photo credit : Thomas Henry (Ceints de Bakélite)

Qorban Ali was part of the ensemble of Ustad Qassim in which he therefore played rubab and at least two sides of these 1926 Lahore sessions were entirely consacred to rubab solo. His collaboration with Ustad Qassem dates back many years, when they officiated at the court of Habibullah Khan. One side of the records was consacred to the “Kabul string band”, including rubab, delruba and two sarangis according the picture seen in the Afghan list of the Gramophone company of India of june 1926 (cf. John Baily “songs from Kabul” – p.17)

In the following two years, at least three other artists will be recorded and edited by the Gramophone company of India Ltd in 1928: Mirza Nazar Khan, an amateur musician we have already talked about. A second one named Akram Khan whose one disc inherited from the collection of Charles Woff (a French music passionate who was among other musical critic and resistant under the Nazi occupation) has been digitized by the French Ethnomusicology Research Center (CREM) and is available online. The third one is finally Miran Bakhsh. At least six 78 rpm by him will be released in 1928.

According a picture featuring on the Afghan list of the Gramophone company of 1928, Miran Bakhsh ensemble was composed of a rubab, a sitar, tablas and two harmoniums. You can listen to one of his records on Gallica’s website.

The death of King Nadir Shah – illustration
Source: French magazine “Détectives” (1934)

Then, at least one another disc by Ustad Qassim was pressed in the 1930s. The title of the side A of the disc – “Nader Shah Shahid / Martyr Nader Shah” – allows us to estimate the appearance of this disc in the period following the assassination of the King that happened in 1933.

On the other side of the Durand line, in Peshawar exactly, the Gulshan and Banga Phone labels will publish discs in Pashto language during the 30’s and 40’s. The late Michael Kinnear wrote precious articles released on books and kindly on line recently by Janine Kinnear.

Photo credit: Personal archives

Begam Jan (from Kohat) on Banga Phone records label

There was indeed series of Pashto (sky blue labels) and Persian (red labels) language discs on Banga-Phone and some of the performers could have been from Afghanistan but we have no confirmation of this. Most of those recording Pashto songs for Banga-Phone were Peshawar area. On Gulshan, such Afghan artists like Ustad Nato or Ustad Ghulam Husain recorded some songs. Unfortunately, to date, none of these discs have passed before my eyes but a version of Mollah Mamad Jan by Ustad Ghulam Hossein is available on line and was probably featuring on one of these records. Ustad Nato then also recorded some songs released by HMV in 1946 for the first ever Afghan movie Ishq va Dosti.

In the late 40’s or early 1950s, there are traces of Afghan recordings in India via Ustad Sarahang, presented on the disc label as Mohammad Hussain from Kabul.The titles are interpreted in Hindi, reminding us that the Master was trained in India for more than fifteen years and that he did many stage performances thereafter and received many decorations.

Ustad Sarahang – Rag Hari Kaus (Sound’s source: Mathieu Clavel’s collection)

Meanwhile in Kabul, an increasingly particular style of music is developing since the 40’s, the fruit of the meetings of different musicians from all over the country and the work of the different radio orchestras.

On the left: Madame Leyla – On the top right: Nashenas – On the bottom right: Jalil Zaland
Photos credits: Personal Archives and Thomas Henry (Ceints de Bakélite)

Many records will be released in partnership with the Soviet State label (which took the name of Melodiya in 1965) based on radio recordings. The first discs appeared in 1957 (with the mention Kapisa that will then disappear) and several series were pressed until 1965.

This time, artists from all over Afghanistan gave their music to hear, from Herat (Ustad Madadi) to Nangarhar (Munawar or Seyed Alam) in passing by Kandahar (Abdulhamid Qandahari).

Photo credit: Personal archives

Nassim Ibrahim – Pia Taloudee
Source: Personal archives

Professional musicians established in Kabul for a long time rub shoulders with amateur musicians on the radio premises. John Baily’s books give a good description of the organization of radio Kabul at that time.

Last Afghan 78 rpm records were made in 1965. Then, vinyls records were produced in Iran or India and you can check the other articles of our website to get more informations about this.

Finally, we recently learned thanks to Sahraa Karimi – the director of Afghan Film Office in Kabul – that many 78 rpm records were preserved and are currently being archived. (Edit: Unfortunately since the talibans took the power back in august 2021, we dont know yet what will happen with these archives)

Photo credit: Sahraa Karimi

Rokhshanah – Adaki Mouri

To get more informations about Afghan 78 rpm records, you can also check excavated shellac blog, Michael Kinnear’s Bajakhana website and our friend Amir Mansour’s article about this subject

I want to thank especially Thomas Henry in France, Mathieu in Switzerland, Farhad and Mejgan in the US, Amar Nath Sharma and Suresh in India, Amir Mansour in Iran, our late friend Mads in Denmark, Janine and the late Michael Kinnear in Australia, who all shared their informations on the subject.

Lastly, I want to apologize for all the English mistakes you will find here and there, feel free to communicate if something seems really wrong 😉

We hope that this article will be enriched as time goes by and discoveries 🙂

Julien Thiennot (mars 2020 – mise à jour février 2022)


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