How a Pakistani folk band changed Pashtun narrative through music

When Farhan Bogra was teaching himself how to play the rubab, an ancient instrument played by ethnic Pashtuns, 15 years ago in Peshawar, little did he know that his native Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province was on the brink of war that lasted more than a decade.

The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP, also known as the Pakistan Taliban) formed a year later, killing thousands of Pakistanis across the country with indiscriminate bombings and shootings. The Taliban – many of them ethnic Pashtuns – banned musical performances and imposed a conservative form of Islam in the areas they held influence over.

As depictions of Pashtuns in Western and Pakistani popular culture focused on extremism and violence, Pashtuns – who form roughly 20 percent of Pakistan’s 207 million people – came to be associated with the violence, rather than as victims of the Taliban’s rise.

“A good image was not portrayed of [Pashtun] music instruments,” said Bogra, speaking to Al Jazeera about the class taboo around performing music in Pashtun culture. “People didn’t let their children play the rubab. Even I faced a lot of resistance from my family.”

As the military drove the TTP from its strongholds in the northwest from 2014 onwards, violence has receded dramatically in the last three years. But rights groups such as the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM) say widespread discrimination against Pashtuns, particularly by Pakistani security forces, continues unabated.

Amid all this, Pakistani folk music band Khumariyaan, of which Bogra is a part, are changing the narrative around their ethnic group through music.Bogra and his fellow Pashtuns Sparlay Rawail, Shiraz Khan, and Aamer Shafiq, all from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, first beguiled Pakistanis in 2009 with their distinct combination of the sweet, fluttering sound of the rubab – a stringed instrument popular in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran – masterfully combined with guitar melodies and percussion.


Since then, Khumariyaan’s distinctive sound has reinvigorated a rich and varied music genre epitomised by the Queen of Pashtun tappay (folk songs), Zarsanga; the poetic ghazals of Afghan vocalist Nashenas; Pakistan’s Sardar Ali Takkar, who sang for Malala Yousufzai at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in 2014; and the pop music of artists such as Gul Panra and Rahim Shah.

The band was eager to reach a generation of young Pashtun graduates from their native Peshawar who were hungry for new, modern music that spoke to their cultural heritage.

“We felt that Pashto folk music, in general, had become a bit stagnant,” says guitarist Sparlay Rawail. “If it wasn’t Sardar Ali Takkar or Nashenas and you listened to Pashto music, it meant that you belonged to [the lower] class.”

Bogra, who also works to preserve the traditions of Pakistani artisans and musicians, rapidly saw the rubab, an irreplaceable cornerstone of Pashtun culture, vanishing before his eyes.

“I remember giving a rubab to a friend [in 2006]. But his father broke it, gave him a guitar instead and said that the rubab is the sound of the lower-class, of [rickshaw] drivers,” he recalls.Today, Khumariyaan are among a new creative generation of young Pashtun musicians resurrecting reverence for Pashto folk music in the Pakistani national consciousness.

In 2018, their cover of the classic Pashtun folk song Ya Qurban on live music series Coke Studio Pakistan (sponsored by the multinational beverage company) catapulted the band onto the global stage, as the video amassed more than 13 million views on YouTube.

Rawail said this movement to revive Pashtun music has sparked not just a newfound love for the rubab’s resonant sound, but also a desire to play the instrument.

“In 2000, the production of the rubab [in Pakistan] had gone completely down,” Rawail said. “People weren’t listening to it. Now, everyone wants to buy a rubab […].”

Even as neo-Pashto folk music like Khumariyaan’s marches towards modernity, Karan Khan, one of Pakistan’s most prominent Pashtun folk singers, says the richness of the Pashto language and the transcendent power of the rubab combined with contemporary instruments have drawn audiences young and old to its unique sound.

“When [musicians] sing our folk compositions with new instruments, they are modernized, but they remain folk in their taste and colour, that’s why those [songs] attract people,” says Khan. “Those old compositions and lyrics were powerful enough to introduce these modern instruments to audiences.”

Khan was forced to flee Pakistan’s northern Swat valley in 2008 with his family, with more than two million others who became internally displaced after the province became a battleground for the Pakistani army’s offensive against the Taliban. His music career materialised from struggle and displacement at a time when performing music was stigmatised.

But for a new generation of Pashtun musicians emerging from the northwestern provinces that were once eclipsed by violence, Khan says that is slowly changing.

“Look at the families to which these boys belong, then look at the villages where their families are located,” he said.

“Ten, fifteen years ago, people did not consider music as a respectable profession. Now, boys in universities are [increasingly] interested in music.”

“Rubab is an instrument is beautiful in fusion,” he said. “It feels good as a standalone instrument, in Sufism, parties, attan, it looks good in jazz, rock, pop, hip-hop, it feels good in all these forms of music.

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