It is shaped like the morr or peacock with its slender neck, pegs and belly. But the rabab sounds nothing like the bird. Depending on the player, it can sound like the pain of centuries or the ecstasy of coming home.
This ancient short-necked lute was invented in Afghanistan but it is played in the region as far as Azerbaijan and is a symbol of Pakhtun culture. But when militancy soured people to music, the rabab suffered as well. “People here love music but hate musicians and those who sell musical instruments,” says Saqib Kamal Khan. He should know. He is the owner of Harmony Music Centre in Peshawar which weathered that storm.
Saqib, who is 32 and has an MA in International Relations from Peshawar university, is reluctant to talk about how the business fared in those days. “We always kept a low profile,” he says. They don’t advertise much and the centre is inconspicuously located on the first floor of a building in Saddar.
The rabab was a natural choice for Saqib whose father and grandfather were selling gramophones in the early 1970s. His father M. Kamal went into VCRs, dish antennas and eventually a Philips agency. But as with the rest of society in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, even this family experienced a split of sorts when it came to opinions on culture, music and the implements that bring them into your living room.
Of course, much has changed since 9/11 and KP has emerged from over a decade of bloodshed. Many instrument makers and musicians had either turned to other work or fled to Kabul or Islamabad. It took Saqib a lot of effort but he managed to persuade 18 rabab makers to join his workshop.
It takes the master craftsmen about 10 days to make a simple rabab but the business has grown so much that they are exporting to Europe and to Gulf countries. Saqib orders the mulberry or shehtoot wood from Afghanistan because that is where the best (and most expensive) is grown. “You have to buy a single piece of wood which is usually three feet long and one foot wide,” he says. It is expensive because the tree takes 150 years to grow and only flourishes in cold places. You can use local mulberry as well, which is why the instrument is priced from 10,000 rupees to up to Rs100,000. The pricier ones for export are insured and dispatched in specially built wooden cases to protect them on the journey.
These rababs are embellished with the sadafi Afghani work of inlaid pearly designs. “People like the Afghani rabab because of its quality and beauty,” says Ustad Israr Ahmad who has been playing and manufacturing the instrument for 22 years.
The rabab has 18 strings of which three are the main ones and about 13 minor ones help prolong its sound. “Some rababists add two more sympathetic strings, but I like to use a rabab with 14,” he says. He explains that Amir Khusrau is said to have added the three extra strings or Shahtar to the rabab.
Aside from making the rabab, Ustad Israr also trains students because Harmony Music Centre has young people who come to take classes in it and in the guitar. “You have to devote yourself if you want to learn rabab playing,” says Ustad Israr. But he wagers that you can become a rabab player within six months if you practice two hours daily under the supervision of a professional teacher.
One of the students is Saif Ali Khan, who is studying for his bachelor’s degree at Edwardes College where he is a member of the music society as well. He and his friends come to take guitar classes daily. He says Harmony music is the only place where he can do what he loves, which has been a battle at home. His family is educated by they were not enthusiastic about him studying music. “I would not be standing here, had I succumbed to their pressure,” he says. It took him six months to learn the basics of guitar and he saved up Rs17,000 to buy an acoustic one. That is all that Saqib needs to be inspired to keep the music shop open: The hope of a young generation that has talent and the understanding of the place music has in Pakhtun society—something that a few years of conflict should not obliterate. It is no coincidence that he has named the centre Harmony.
This article has been updated to correct the name of Saqib’s father to M. Kamal from Haji Abdul Qayyum.