New York Times, With a Slight Western Inflection, Culturally Charged Pashtun Folk Melodies

New York Times, With a Slight Western Inflection, Culturally Charged Pashtun Folk Melodies

Oct 13, 2014


There’s more to Khumariyaan than the twangy, accelerating melodies and snappy rhythms that eventually got the audience at Asia Society on its feet and dancing on Sunday night. During the concert Sparlay Rawail, the four-man group’s lead guitarist, matter-of-factly described its repertory as “music of the oppressed.” Khumariyaan means “intoxicators.”

The group’s repertory is not protest songs but instrumentals: Pashtun folk tunes and its own compositions. But in its hometown, Peshawar, a Pakistani provincial capital near the Afghanistan border, Khumariyaan’s music holds a symbolic charge. The concert was part of Khumariyaan’s American tour sponsored by Center Stage, a cultural exchange program of the State Department.

Pashtun folk traditions have been embattled in recent years from two directions: from a modernizing, status-conscious culture that associates the rubab and other folk instruments with the lower classes, and from fundamentalist Islamic opposition to secular music, which has restricted performances and destroyed music shops. Mr. Rawail described Khumariyaan’s approach as an “incremental evolution” to help the music survive. The opening piece was “Bela,” which means a place where two rivers divide or converge.

The center of Khumariyaan’s sound is Farhan Bogra on rubab, a traditional lute with three plucked strings and 11 sympathetic strings; to an American ear it sounds like a sharper-toned banjo. Mr. Bogra is a determined preservationist; he has posted rubab lessons on YouTube. The rubab delivers the melodies in rapid-fire picking with insistent repeated notes, accompanied by hand drumming by Shiraz Khan on the goblet-shaped zerbaghali and by Mr. Rawail and Aamer Shafiq on acoustic guitars. Mr. Rawail also wore an ankle bracelet with jingle bells called ghungroo, a bit of percussion generally used by female dancers.

The group’s two guitars, modestly adding chords behind the rubab, are a Western, younger-generation element. To harmonize with them, the rubab uses only one of its many traditional scales. A few of the pieces turned westward, placing the rubab tune over a waltz or a gentle rock beat and basic chords. But far more of the music savored its Pashtun roots: the modal scales, the percussive attack of the rubab and the odd meters, often 7/4, that never prevented the tunes from sounding like dance music. (One of the group’s more Western-sounding pieces, “Pearl,” which started with the musicians whistling the melody, was also in 7/4, a sly fusion.)

With the directness of many folk traditions, most of the pieces simply set out a melody and cycled through it again and again, growing faster, louder, more virtuosically ornamented and more kinetic. Now and then, one of the group’s members put down his instrument and stepped forward to hop or twirl a traditional dance.

In one piece Mr. Bogra switched from rubab to the Pashtun sehtar, a lute with a much longer neck and a deeper, more plangent tone. In Peshawar, he said, there is only one sehtar maker left, and one teacher. But the concert was anything but sorrowful. The music darted forward — nimble, vital and determined.

A version of this review appears in print on October 14, 2014, on page C5 of the New York edition with the headline: With a Slight Western Inflection, Culturally Charged Pashtun Folk Melodies.