1. The physical rubab

the musical rubab

The Afghan rubab is a short-necked double-chambered plucked lute with three main strings (tuned in 4ths), four frets (giving 12 semitones to the octave), two or three long drone strings, and up to fifteen sympathetic strings. It is the sympathetic strings that give the rubab its special sound. They are tuned to the notes of the rag (melodic mode) being performed, and reinforce the sound of each note as it is played. They produce a wash of sound, with complex interactions of the harmonics of each string. It is like having an echo chamber built into the instrument. The shortest sympathetic string is raised by a protuberance on the bridge so it can be easily struck in isolation and used as a high drone in complex rhythmic patterns that are the hallmark of the virtuoso player. The body of the rubab should be carved from a certain variety of mulberry wood called shah tut, 'king mulberry'. The lower chamber has a skin belly, or velum, while the upper has a wooden lid that serves as the fingerboard. This is often highly decorated with intricate mother-of-pearl inlays, laid out in the form of a tree of life, with leaves, flowers, and songbirds such as nightingales or canaries. Here are the names of the parts of the rubab in Dari (Afghan Persian).

  • The two sound chambers: Kasa.
  • Fret: Parda.
  • Main melody strings: Tar.
  • The lower string is bam, the middle string is miana and the top string is jelau.
  • Tuning peg: Gushak.
  • Sympathietic string: Sim-e tarab.
  • Shortest sympathetic string that serves as high drone: Sim-e barchak.
  • The wooden lid on the upper chamber with fret-board: Sina.
  • The velum (skin): Post.
  • The pegbox: Sar-e rubab.
  • Long drone: Shahtar.
  • String-holder at bottom of the kasa: Targir.
  • Bridge: Kharak.

The origins of the Afghan rubab are unclear. It is a member of an ancient family of double-chambered lutes that includes the Indian rubab, the Iranian tar, the Tibetan danyen, the Pamir rubab, the Dulan rewap, the Kashgar rewap, the Nepali tungna, and the Bengali dotara. The most distinctive features of the Afghan rubab are its unique shape and in having sympathetic strings. With minor differences the Afghan type of rubab is also found in adjacent areas of Pakistan and Iran, and in Kashmir. In the nineteenth century it was common amongst the Afghans settled in the Rokhilkand area of North India, especially around the city of Rampur, who traditionally served as mercenaries in the Mughal armies and were much involved in the supply of horses from Central Asia to India for military purposes. In the mid-nineteenth century the Afghan rubab became transformed into the Indian sarod, either in Lucknow or in Calcutta. Credit for this innovation is hotly contested between rival families of sarod players today, as discussed in Adrian McNiel's book Inventing the Sarod.

Henry George Farmer (1931: 104) distinguished between the rabab and the rubab, the first being a generic term for a variety of bowed lutes, while the latter covers a variety of plucked lutes. The frontispiece of Farmer's 1931 book shows a picture of the rubab taken from the 14th century manuscript Kanz al-Tuhaf.

the musical rubab

RUBAB from Kanz al-Tuhaf

Note the spurs above the main sound chamber, indicative of a second sound chamber. Some members of the family are shown below. Henceforth I use the term rubab referring to the Afghan rubab.

Persian rubab

Persian rubab

Persian rubab

Persian rubab

Pamirrubab

Pamir rubab

It is the sympathetic strings that give the Afghan rubab its special character. The origin of this innovation is not known but there are various European stringed instruments that have sympathetic strings such as the viola d'amore, a member of the viol family much in use in the 18th century, and the hardingfele folk fiddle of Norway. The Middle Eastern mugni (or mughni) was a hybrid instrument that combined features of the early rubab and the qanun zither (see Farmer 1931 above).

Iranian tar

Iranian tar

It is possible that the extra strings served as sympathetic strings. In India the sarangi with sympathetic strings has been known since the 16th century. Arguably the Afghan type of rubab is not very old. While the Iranian type of instrument is depicted in many miniature paintings we do not find the Afghan instrument with sympathetic strings so depicted. In the 19th century it was certainly common in the Punjab, associated with the Pathan communities in those regions. It was Afghan rubab players associated with the court in Lucknow in the mid-19th century who transformed it into the sarod, allowing it better to play the Indian classical music of the period.

Indian rubab

Indian rubab

Afghans today often associate their rubab with the city of Ghazni, once the capital of the Ghaznawid empire of the 10th – 12th centuries, but this may well be a myth of self-aggrandizement. Another Afghan lute with sympathetic strings is the long-necked tanbur, perhaps the only instrument of Afghanistan that is not found outside the country. In the mid-20th century sympathetic strings were added to other Afghan lutes, such as the ghaichak and the Herati dutar. The most famous rubab makers of recent times were Wasl and Qadir, while in the later 20th century Qadir's son Joma Khan Qaderi (also known as Bacha Qadir, 'Son of Qadir'), was the most important instrument maker in Kabul. His three sons Essa, Yusuf and Azim are active today, while in Peshawar Wilayat Khan is well known for his rubabs.

Afghan rubabs vary considerably in size. I have five good instruments in my possession. Each rubab has its own history.

1. My first rubab, bought from Bacha Qadir in 1973.
Overall length. 86 cm String length. 63.5 cm.
2 shahtar tuned to Pe and Sa
Main strings: 1.06, 0.71, 0.55 mm.

2. Rubab made for me by Bacha Qadir in 1974.
Overall length 91 cm. String length. 69 cm
3 shahtar tuned Pe Pe1 Sa
Main strings: 1.30, 0.91, 0.62 mm.

3. Rubab given me by Rahim Khushnawaz in 1995 in exchange for a rubab I had bought from his father in 1977.
Overall length 92.5 cm String length. 71 cm
3 shahtar Pe1, Pe, Sa
Main strings 0.92, 0.69, 0.54 mm

4. Rubab bought by me in Peshawar in 2000 from the instrument maker Wilayat Khan.
Overall length 88 cm . String length. 67.5 cm
3 shahtar Pe1, Pe, Sa
Main strings 1.22, 0.75, 0.55 mm

5. Rubab given to me by Amir Jan Herati in 2000 after his visit to Switzerland.
Overall length 86 cm. String length 65 cm.
3 shahtar Pe1, Pe, Sa
Main strings 1.12, 0.64, 0.56 mm

Formerly, the main strings were made from gut, but gut is nowadays replaced by nylon, usually taken from heavy duty fishing line. Sometimes one finds the bam string is made from multi-filament tennis racket string, with red or blue filaments wound into it. An important factor determining the quality of an instrument is how well the tuning pegs fit their holes. The pegs should be somewhat tapered so as to secure a good grip. This is especially important for the pegs in the peg box, i.e. the pegs for the main strings and the long drones. A well-crafted instrument keeps in tune, even if not played for a few days. There is also a lack of standardisation as to which peg in the peg box is for which string, so that tuning somebody else's rubab can be quite confusing as it is often difficult to work out visually which string is attached to which peg.

Many older rubabs in museum collections show double courses for 1st (jelau) and 2nd (miana) strings. Ustad Mohammad Omar is sometimes credited with changing this arrangement to three single strings. But it may be the double strings came in as a matter of transient fashion; the Peshawari and Kashmiri instruments do not have double courses.