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Welcome to the world of the Afghan rubab, that most excellent of musical instruments and the national instrument of Afghanistan. It is an artefact endowed with spiritual meaning, as shown in the following verse from Maulana Jalaluddin Rumi:

Do you know what the voice of the rubab is saying?
"Come follow in my steps and find the way;
Since through error you'll discover what's right,
Since through questions you'll end up with answers."

The rubab has a special connection with the Pashto speaking population of Afghanistan and embodies certain features of Pashtun regional music. Its unique acoustical properties are suitable for a fast percussive style of playing, with emphasis on permutations of right hand stroke patterns and dramatic rhythmic cadences. The layout of notes on the fingerboard of the rubab suggests a tonal organization that is given concrete expression in the three main melodic modes of Pashtun music: Bairami, Kesturi and Pari. The rubab is thus the 'ideal' Pashtun instrument.

Professor John Baily

Professor John Baily playing the rubab, © 2011 Liliane De Toledo

It is also widely used for playing the art music of Kabul, where the rubab is the principal instrument for the accompaniment of ghazal singing, as we can hear in the work of great singers like Ustad Rahim Bakhsh, Ustad Hamahang and Ustad Amir Mohammad. As a poetic form, the Kabuli ghazal (usually in Persian, but sometimes in Pashto) consists of a variable number of couplets, with the same rhyme scheme running through the whole poem. The term ghazal also indicates a musical form for the singing of this kind of poetry, characterised by a cyclical organisation, with double-tempo accelerating instrumental sections interpolated between units of text sung at a slow tempo. In performance, a ghazal has the character of a dialogue between the singer and the accompanying rubab player. The texts of ghazals are very often of a Sufi spiritual nature, by poets such as Hafez, Bedil and Amir Khosrow.

In addition to this role, the Afghan rubab is also used for playing two genres of instrumental art music. One is the naghma-ye kashal, 'the extended instrumental piece', often used as a group instrumental at the start of a concert of music, intended to warm up the instruments, the musicians, and the audience. This genre allows the rubab player to exploit the seemingly endless rhythmic possibilities of the high drone string in what might be described as 'Afghan minimalism'. For the purposes of this tutor I have chosen six modes that are particularly suitable for the rubab. The notations for these compositions follow in Chapter 5.

The other genre is the naghma-ye klasik, 'the classical instrumental piece', the Afghan equivalent of Indian alap and gat, which allows ample scope for melodic improvisation. Many of the rags of North Indian music are known in Afghanistan, sometimes under rather different names (for example, Bhairavi become Bairami, Bhairav become Beiru), and with different melodic characteristics.

I started learning to play the rubab in 1973 when I was in Kabul for some weeks awaiting a research permit to conduct ethnomusicological research in Herat, and attended Ustad Mohammad Omar's rubab class twice a week, held in his house in the Kucheh Kharabat in Kabul's old city. From him I learned two of the pieces presented here in detail, in Bairami and Yeman. Later on my rubab teachers in Herat were Amir Jan Khushnawaz, a singer and harmonium player who also played rubab, and most important of all, his son Ustad Rahim Khushnawaz, with whom I worked intermittently over the course of many years, from 1974 to 2007. Through Ustad Rahim I trace my musical lineage to Ustad Nabi Gol of the musicians' quarter in Kabul, the Kucheh Kharabat, who was the teacher of Rahim's father, Amir Jan Khushnawaz, the source of many of the old compositions I collected. I also learned much from the recordings of other rubab players such as Ghulam Jailani, Ghulam Mohammad Atay and Essa Qassemi. Most of what I learned in a formal sense was the classical instrumental music for the rubab, and the focus of this rubab tutor is on the naghma-ye kashal repertoire.