What is the future of Afghan music? Daud Khan Sadozai plays at the Fundacão Oriente, Lisbon


We have been here before. In 1220 the Mongols sacked Afghanistan, scattering its artists and musicians in all directions. The Sufi poet Rumi wound up in Konya, in today’s Turkey, but the majority of these refugees fled into neighboring India, where they were warmly welcomed by culture hungry audiences. They contributed to the development of Hindustani music, whose modern avatar is Bollywood music. I wonder today if the musicians chased out of Afghanistan today will leave such echoes of their musical exile. If they do, it will be because of the tireless touring of masters like Daud Khan Sadozai, who recently performed at Lisbon’s Fundacão Oriente.

Daud Khan’s career resembles that of those 13th-century refugees. His exile began during the first Taliban regime in Afghanistan in the 1990s when the shuttering of Radio Kabul drove him to India. There he trained with a legend of Hindustani music, Amjad Ali Khan, whose own family of musical masters, from father to son, originated from Afghanistan many generations earlier. The Sadozai clan itself has spent as much time in exile in India as in Afghanistan, where their leaders once reigned as kings. So, Daud Khan’s performances reflect a profound cross fertilization between Afghan and Hindustani music.

The influences flow in both directions. Daud Khan plays the rabab, a complex, fretted instrument that produces a rich range of notes. The rabab is said to be the ancestor of the Indian sarod. For accompaniment, Daud Khan calls on the dilruba, a tall, bowed instrument originally from  Punjab. Rich, often rapid rhythmic patterns seem to be the legacy of Indian music on Afghan music, and distinguish it from the traditions of Iran, Central Asia and Turkey. Many of Daud Khan’s musical progressions have their roots in Indian ragas, rather than Central Asian maqam or Iranians gusheh. A few slower, stately airs, recall more sober Iranian compositions.

Accompanied by his Swiss student Matthieu Clavel, the master played short selections of Afghan genres, including folk music, devotional music, ghazals and also classical instrumental pieces. Afghan music can sound confusing to the uninitiated; as Clavel joked, they spend much of the concert tuning their instruments. Hearing the different genres, however, helps develop a sense of what is going on musically. The folk songs have recognizable melodies. The rhythmic, devotional music is trance-inducing. The ghazals set poetry to music, with strong, repeated rhythms corresponding to the refrains in the poem. Classical Afghan music, as in Bach’s music, takes a series of melodic progressions and presents infinite chordal variations around them, accompanied by changes in speed and in loudness. There is a pronounced tonal note to which the melody continually returns.


The format of a Western concert hall is not ideal for appreciating Afghan music. In a traditional Afghan setting for ghazal singing, the audience apostrophizes the singer after each verse with praises and applause. In a devotional setting, heads would be nodding and hands waving to the beat. Although the fabled dancing girls of yore have long disappeared from puritanical Afghanistan, it was not uncommon for young boys to dance in public to the beat of the tablah. Only the selections of Afghan classical music, which is based on a sophisticated system of intervals going back to Pythagoras and related in Islamic traditions to the music of the spheres, involves concentrated listening similar to that of the concert hall. Yet this music, too, had a functional role, as it was played in the kings’ palaces to ensure that harmony would prevail in the skies and in the hearts of men.

Daud Khan conjures all these sounds from his rabab. His face looks like an angel midwiving the birth of sounds. Matthieu Clavel, who has never been to Afghanistan, lacks the effortlessness of his master but makes up for it with his infectious enthusiasm for the different instruments he plays and their distinctive voices: the dilruba, the tambur, and the tablah. Together the two musicians’ sounds mingle and resonate as in the best jazz ensembles.

Daud Khan teaches his art of rubab online, and is obviously pleased to have a European acolyte in Clavel. The Fundaçao Oriente’s capacious auditorium was packed. Portugal also recently extended residence in exile to the Afghan women’s orchestra, who have played here to sold out seats. All this suggests a future for Afghan music in exile. This rich musical tradition deserves the attention it is getting now.


The recital took place at the Fundacão Oriente, Lisbon, 4 February 2022.

David Chaffetz is the author of Three Asian Divas: Women, Art and Culture in Shiraz, Delhi and Yangzhou (Abbreviated Press, November 2019). His forthcoming book Horse Power will be published by WW Norton in 2023.