The Secret Musicians of Afghanistan

Despite the Taliban's ban, behind closed doors people are still learning to sing and play instruments

The Secret Musicians of Afghanistan
Nilofar practices the harmonium while her sister Mahsa reads handwritten notes from their brother. (Photo courtesy of Nilofar and Mahsa)

Editor’s note: The names of the Afghan musicians and singers featured in this story — apart from Aryana Sayeed — have been changed to protect sources’ identities.

Day breaks in western Afghanistan. Outside, gunshots fired by the Taliban pierce the hazy sky. A loudspeaker plays a cappella chants — or taranas — that demand the attention of citizens. Emergency vehicles transferring bodies broadcast recitations from the Quran. As children fight and play on unpaved roads, the chant-like prayers of mullahs reverberate across the city five times a day. There’s only one sound that’s missing — music.

Under the Taliban’s regime, music is sinful and a crime. But for many in Afghanistan, especially musicians and K-pop enthusiasts, it’s an escape. It’s a secret symbol of peace.

Neima Naqshi secretly teaches music to a handful of students, including girls, despite the Taliban’s harsh measures that prohibit people from listening to or creating music.

“A large part of our energy is spent on security arrangements so that we do not fall into the trap of the Taliban,” he told New Lines. “If you tell this story to people of the Western world, they will either not believe you or they will laugh at you. But we live in a part of the world where this situation has become a part of our life.”

Since their takeover of the country, the extremist group has not only banned music and music education but has also prohibited girls from attending classes past sixth grade. Women are told to stay home and can’t go to the gym or to a park. They can’t work for an NGO. They can’t get a driver’s license. The list goes on.

For Nilofar, 26, and her sister, Mahsa, 20 — who are both confined to their home in western Afghanistan — the restrictions placed on women and girls have left them feeling like captives.

“Since we’re not allowed to go outside, I assume myself to be a prisoner,” Nilofar said.

The sisters secretly train three times a week, receiving lessons from their brother online in which they sharpen their singing and harmonium skills, in addition to watching YouTube tutorials. Nilofar is a fan of traditional Afghan and Hindi music, while Mahsa enjoys pop and Western genres. Her favorite artist is Michael Jackson. Before the Taliban banned TikTok in 2022, a quick search on the app would bring up dozens of concert videos and montages created by K-pop fans who dreamed of the day groups like BTS would bring their concerts to Afghanistan.

Mahsa and her sister say they have had to adapt to an environment that, compared with the previous regime, feels extremely limited and rigid.

“We have to make sure that all of the windows and doors are closed so that the sound doesn’t escape,” said Nilofar, who primarily sings ghazal style — a lyrical and poetic genre popular in Afghanistan, India and Pakistan that typically involves themes of love. “We can’t play [our instruments] at night because it’s quiet outside. There’s no traffic, cars or sound pollution. … Sometimes we have guests over, and they don’t know about the secret — so, we go without playing music for many days.”

“We play music with a lot of stress, fear and trembling,” added her sister, noting that they keep the volume low at all times.

Though she loves playing the guitar, Mahsa is no longer able to since it broke. As she lacks the tools needed to repair it — or the means to go to a repair shop out of the country — she decided to start learning how to play the harmonium.

“It is very difficult and dangerous to take [my broken guitar] to Iran,” she said. “The day I bought the guitar, I could hardly move it to my house. No one would help me because of peoples’ fear of the Taliban.”

As the Taliban continue to hold power, finding ways to tiptoe around their regulations has proved challenging for teachers who seek to share music with others. “Even in the city, you can’t turn up the music in your car. If you come across a checkpoint somewhere, you might be treated violently,” said Faraz, another music teacher who holds secret sessions. “Music has a place in the lives of all humans and Muslims — and unfortunately it is hidden.”

Naqshi — who has taught for 13 years — also schedules lessons sporadically at his students’ homes once or twice a week, almost always teaching in a basement to minimize risk.

“If I trust [new students] more, our location could be compromised, and our daily life would be ruined,” he said. “That’s why I keep the number of my students very small.” His enrollment size decreased by 90 percent with the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban in August 2021.

Before the Taliban’s occupation of Afghanistan, people often engaged in small gatherings that included song and dance. The programs were held for weddings, circumcision or parties, but extremists strongly opposed the gatherings, as they considered the dancing and movements immoral and distasteful. The Taliban have banned such circles, but some members secretly engage in these events, as long as their identities are kept hidden. “I think the only music [some of] the Taliban at least agree on is ghazal music,” Faraz said.

The Taliban previously placed a ban on music when they ran the government from the mid-1990s until 2001. This was followed by a musical awakening, in which music was celebrated and welcomed, until the Taliban’s second takeover in 2021.

“The sad reality is the fact that the Taliban are a group of ignorant, uneducated, and backward-thinking people who have barely been introduced to the normality of the current world,” said Aryana Sayeed, a prominent Afghan pop star and a former judge for Afghanistan’s version of “The Voice.” “What is more interesting is the fact that the Taliban have their own songs which are melodic — and yet there is no music used for singing them.”

The singer-songwriter — with 2.4 million fans on Facebook — left Afghanistan in 2021 and remains a vocal supporter and advocate of human rights issues while now based in Istanbul, Turkey. Multiple singers and musicians have suffered health issues — physically and mentally, she added — and some have been executed by the Taliban for playing music during the ban.

“The fact that artists and musicians in Afghanistan feel threatened and scared for their lives just because they are singing or learning music, that in itself is one of the most ridiculous things in the history of mankind,” she said.

Naqshi and Faraz are two music instructors who have faced such threats. Naqshi, for whom this is his only job, makes around 7,000 afghanis ($80) a month, while Faraz offers his classes free. Naqshi explains that the process of acquiring instruments for his students has been rigorous, as one can easily be arrested for doing so. Last year, Naqshi and his friends were imprisoned after the Taliban found out they were buying and transporting musical instruments. They were beaten and tortured, and the Taliban broke their instruments in front of them, later claiming they showed kindness by releasing them on bail. The climate has since evolved into one of greater trepidation.

“It was exceedingly difficult before. But now, it has become completely impossible,” he said of the increasing pressure placed on musicians and singers. “And not only for women. Even now, I don’t know anyone who works in music and has the courage to do so. Everyone is afraid of these circumstances — to be killed because of music. They feel music is not worth dying for.”

Faraz — a self-taught musician of eight years — plays guitar in pop, alternative or protest-style genres, noting that he is inclined to keep making music because of the peace it brings. “Ever since I started playing [I realized] music can be a path that does not contain any oppression or violence — and this path leads to complete peace,” he said.

Despite having been held at gunpoint, Faraz holds tightly to his love for music and continues to conduct secret music sessions in the country.

“Nothing matters more than survival right now,” he said. “Currently, as you can see, women cannot study and they cannot do anything. At any moment, the internet may be cut off — but having music and keeping music in such conditions can be a positive point in history.”

Despite the brutal two years that have followed since the Taliban’s takeover, musicians like Faraz remain undeterred.

“History has proven that power is not permanent for anyone,” Faraz said. “Dictatorships will fall, and I will keep music alive until that day.”

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