The naghma-ye klasik, 'the classical instrumental piece', is the Afghan equivalent of Indian alap and gat as played on sitar, sarod, or one of several other melodic instruments, and allows ample scope for melodic improvisation. Performance of a naghma-ye klasik consists of two main parts: the shakl, in free rhythm, and the naghma itself, a fixed composition with tabla accompaniment, with short melodic improvisations called palta. Most naghma-ye klasik are in Tintal, but there are several well-known naghmas that are in other tals.
The fixed composition here is a North Indian composition of the Rezakhani gat type. The piece starts with the shakl, towards the end of which the tabla enters for the optional section called astai-ye tabla. The rubab continues to play shakl phrases; the tabla does not play a fixed cycle of beats but the two instruments come together at the end of the shakl in a rhythmic cadence. The naghma proper then begins, starting with the part of the fixed composition that in India would be described as the mukhra, leading to the first beat of the cycle. Following this is a series of statements of the fixed composition with seven interpolated paltas, two of which end with a seh pattern.
Another way to approach the naghma-ye klasik is to apply the principle of rhythmic variation to the composition, like playing the astai of a naghma-ye kashal. My recording of Rag Mahhubanti with tabla player Ustad Asif Mahmoud (on the CD From Cabool to California) is an example.
This starts with the shakl, followed by an astai in Tintal played with shahbazkari and parandkari techniques. This astai is an archetypal composition that can be adapted to play in a number of different rags. This is followed by a naghma-ye drut, like a Rezakhani gat, with improvised paltas, and finally a naghma-ye drut drut, a doubly fast composition, also with improvised paltas, and terminating with a seh.
An outstanding rubab player in Kabul in the 1970s was Ghulam Jailani, one of the five musician sons of Ustad Nabi Gol. He had adopted a rather more Hindustani-like approach to the rubab, with greater use of the unfretted range, more dynamic variety, less repetition of the fixed composition, and more elaborate improvisations in comparison with other players, often using fast down-up stroke patterns. Unlike most other players he made little use of parandkari techniques, though he does frequently strum across all the sympathetic strings. He was sometimes criticised for playing the rubab too much like the Indian sarod, even though he did not use much in the way of sarod-like glissandi.
I met him in his family home in the Kharabat on 6 June 1976, when I had the opportunity to record him playing two long pieces, accompanied by tabla. At the time he told me he was influenced by the playing of sarod players such as Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, whom he had heard on the radio, record or cassette. The first piece he played for me was in Rag Gorahkalyan, accompanied by his brother Wali Nabizada on tabla. For this rag he used an alternative tuning, with the lower melody string tuned down from C# to B and the middle string tuned down from F# to E.
After an extended shakl the astai section starts 4'45'' in from the beginning of the piece and is in Ektal, a 12 matras cycle. At 6'59'' Jailani exclaims somewhat boastfully 'Up till now nobody has played an astai in Ektal.' In this astai there as long improvised rhythmic sections, but with no clearly defined naghma. The naghma-ye drut (fast naghma) begins at 10'44'' and is in Tintal. At 19'10'' he moves into the doubly fast naghma-ye drut drut. Only at this stage does he start using the sim-e barchak, in a way that hints at playing jhala on the sarod.
The second piece Jailani described as a thumri in Rag Pilu and is remarkable for its modulations from one rag to another. His brother Latif takes over on tabla. In the shakl he modulates to Rag Kafi and then back to Pilu. The astai starts at 3'40'' and is in Chanchar Tal, a rare metric cycle of 14 matras (Dha Dhin ¬– – Dha Dha Tin, Ta Tin – – Dha Dha Dhin). In this astai section Jailani modulates through a series of rags in ragmala style before returning to Pilu. After the recording Jailani identified these as Pardepki, Madhubanti, Bilawal, Bairami and Sultankauns, but Pardepki and Sultankauns are not to be found in the usual sangits (rag dictionaries). Further analysis is required. Here Jailani is showing off his knowledge of little-known rags and his skill in stringing them together. This kind of serial modulation is not common in Afghanistan. At 7'39'' he interpolates a short section in fast rhythm, then reverts back at 8'22'' to the slow Chanchar Tal. At 13'54'' the naghma-ye drut begins, and is in Tintal.
Jailani's innovative approach probably influenced the virtuoso styles of a younger generation of rubab players from the Kharabat, such as Homayun Sakhi and Khial Mohammed Saqizada.