The idea of “women in music” often suggests their starring roles in WAM (as in the T-shirt!) or Anglo-American popular music. But meanwhile gender has become one of the major topics in ethnomusicology (for some refs., see this post on women in flamenco; note also McClary).
Even in the more “classically” oriented confines of ethnomusicology, “women in music” may not immediately suggests the lives of female singers in Afghanistan.
- Veronica Doubleday, Three women of Herat: a memoir of life, love and friendship in Afghanistan (1998; most recent reprint 2009)
is an engaging, deeply personal story of her time in Herat in the mid-1970s before the Russian invasion. It’s a good illustration of thinking outside the (music) box.
Gradually cutting through the curtain of purdah, she befriends three young women with different experiences:
- The authoritative figure of Mariam, from a hereditary family of (male) musicians;
- Mother of Nebi, whose maraz mental breakdown as a young mother, attributed to jinns, had prompted her to become a diviner (cf. China);
- Shirin, negotiating the stigma of working as a professional entertainer (see also Veronica’s “Zainab Herawi: Finding acclaim in the conservative Islamic culture of Afghanistan” in Ruth Hellier (ed.), Women singers in global contexts: music, biography, identity (2013).
As Veronica enters their social world of domestic life and ritual celebrations, she learns to admire their warmth and strength. But her account is never sentimental, acknowledging their tribulations. She reflects cogently on her choice to adopt the veil while living among them; and in becoming a regular member of Shirin’s band and an accomplished singer, she gains direct experience of their tough life.
Veronica’s audio recordings from the period seem to have disappeared from YouTube, but these CDs are excellent:
Ever since those days in Herat, she has worked in partnership with John Baily, not only a fine exponent of the rubab plucked lute but a great maker (and theorist) of ethnographic films (see here), including
- Amir: an Afghan refugee musician’s life in Peshawar, Pakistan (1986)
- Lessons from Gulam: Asian music in Bradford (1986)
- A Kabul music diary (2003)
- Scenes of Afghan music: London, Kabul, Hamburg, Dublin (2007)
- Ustad Rahim: Herat’s rubab maestro (2008)
- Across the border: Afghan musicians exiled in Peshawar (2011).
Here’s a preview of Amir:
and Lessons from Gulam:
* * *
Veronica became a beautiful singer, moving both Afghan and other audiences deeply in more genteel concert settings. Here’s an early clip:
And more recently with John Baily:
Tracks on the CD Sweet nomad girl:
Three women of Herat is a model of participant observation, and an early instance of an ethnographic genre that has since flourished. Further to Veronica’s distressing original Epilogue, the 2009 reprint includes a new Preface and Postscript, giving valuable context on changes not only within Afghanistan but in Western perceptions.
She did manage to return to Herat in 1994 and 2004, just before and after the Taliban occupation; but after their initial visits in the 70s, long-term warfare in Afghanistan impelled John and Veronica to pursue their studies mainly among refugee and migrant communities—which was also to become a major theme of music ethnography.
For a sequel, click here.