Rabāb-making in Kabul: The Last Gatekeepers to Afghanistan’s Soul

In his workshop, Esa is making rabābs, a process that requires unique skills to transform mulberry wood and mother-of-pearl inlay into an instrument at the core of Afghan identity

“The Sufi names music Giza-i Ruh, the food of the soul, and uses it as a source of spiritual perfection; for music fans the fire of the heart, and the flame arising from it illuminates the soul.” - Khan (1962: 59)

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Ustad Esa, shaping the head of a rabāb in his shop in Shor-Bazaar, Kabul, 2017

As you enter Ustad Esa’s workshop, you first witness the striking contradiction between the tinnitus-inducing clattering of the neighbouring metalsmiths of the Shor-Bazaar, and the fragile look of those finely carved rabābs, musical instruments of the highest quality. The rich, coffee-coloured mulberry wood is offset by the dazzling silver of the mother-of-pearl inlay adorning the rabāb’s neck; while a multitude of sympathetic strings spreads across the rabāb’s front. Esa recounted to us how God created the rabāb in order to breathe a soul into Adam’s body. This mystical idea is strengthened by the folk etymology for the instrument, deriving from the Arabic words for soul (‘rūh’) and door (‘bāb’). 

History of the Qaderi Rabāb-making Family

Ustad Esa comes from a well-established rabāb-making (‘rabābsazī’) pedigree. His father, Joma Khan Qaderi, was, according to Professor John Baily, the most important maker of musical instruments based in Kabul in the mid-20th century. The art of making rabābs is a family tradition going back about 6 generations, when a man named Esma’il taught the first of their family members, Qaderi Khan. This is likely to have been at some point during the 19th century.

Esa, interested from an early age, first began to participate in the family business when he was about 10-12 years old. He would only make the tuning pegs (‘goshak’) as a substantial amount of strength is required to work on the heavy mulberry wood. Normally, one would only begin to learn the craft of ‘rabābsazī’ at the age of 20. At this time Esa was able to make about 1 Afghani a day by carving these pegs for a Herati tradesman, Gholam Haidar, who was interested in collecting rabābs.

Rahab

A rabāb made by the Qadiri family with their symbol carved on the rabāb head, Kabul 2017

Two of Esa’s brothers, Yousef and Azim, began learning at a later date. The three of them all have their individual workshops near Kharabat Street, the street where the musicians and instrument makers had been settled by King Sher Ali Khan at the end of the 19th century. The name of this street perhaps refers to the Sufi “place of self-destruction, where one may spiritually cleanse oneself of conceit, haughtiness, and vanity in order to obtain perfection and truth.”[1] Though, this etymology is contested.

During the Taliban years, however, ‘rabābsazī’, like all activities related to music, was banned in Afghanistan. Whilst Joma Khan Qaderi remained in Kabul, his three rabāb-making sons emigrated to Peshawar. In secret, Joma Khan continued to source mulberry wood and hollowing out the main body of the rabāb before concealing it in trucks of timber and conveying the instruments to Pakistan himself. The three sons then collected these unfinished rabābs and added the remaining parts. The demand in Peshawar for rabābs at that time was particularly high.

The market in Kabul is not like it once was. Ustad Esa remembers how his family once supplied Ustad Mohammad Omar, one of the most famous 20th century wielders of a rabāb plectrum (‘shāhbāz’), with four rabābs. Another Afghan household name who has a Qaderi rabāb in their possession is the singer Rukhshana. Ustad Esa recalled how for her rabāb they used Afghanistan’s famed lapis lazuli instead of the customary mother-of-pearl inlay.

Although Esa has passed on his knowledge to his sons, the demand for rabāb, and the overall number of luthiers capable of producing them, is decreasing.

History of the Rabāb’s Development

No one can pin a precise date on when the rabāb was first invented. Ahmad Naser Sarmast claims that there are sculptures from the Kushan Empire, two millennia ago, in which instruments that generally resemble the Afghan rabāb can be seen. However, it was in the 14th century that we have the first uncontested representation of a rabāb on the front cover of a musical treatise, the ‘Kanz al-tuhaf’. The description of the rabāb from that treatise is as follows:

  “The rabāb has two bellies [or it is a double-chested instrument]. The first belly is the hollow of the resonator and the second is the hollow of the neck of the resonator… The upper hollow of the resonator, to which the fingerboard is tapered, should be covered by a thin piece of wood and the lower hollow by a piece of skin. It should be mounted with six strings.”

[1] Sarmast (2004), p. 184.

Bactria

Rabab Shaped, Bactria, Kushan period, approximately 1st century AD, Hermitage Museums, Saint Petersburg

Since this time the shape of the rabāb has not radically changed. It is still double-chambered with one chamber being covered by a young goat or sheep’s skin, the other by a piece of wood. However, in addition to the three main and three drone strings (two long and one short), there are now also up to 15 sympathetic strings - an enhancement that appears to have arisen in the 19th century. These are similar to those found on the medieval lute, producing a permanent echo reinforcing the harmony of the melody played by the main strings. These main strings, formerly made from goat or sheep’s intestine, are now made of metal or plastic, an addition which Esa attributes to Ustad Mohammad Omar. The tuning pegs, to which the strings are attached, are made from wood or cow bone, whilst for the bridge they use cow horn as it is softer and therefore transmits a purer sound. Esa believes the use of mother-of-pearl inlay began about 80 years ago, with the material sourced from Karachi, Pakistan.

Motherofpearlinlay

Mother-of-pearl inlay on the neck of Rabab made by Ustad Esa, Kabul, 2017

Stages of Production 

Each morning Esa wakes up for morning prayers. He then works in his home until about 9am. During this time he usually cuts into size (20 or 22 inches) and shapes the wood of new instruments. This is because carving the heavy mulberry wood (‘shahtut’) requires a great deal of strength. Esa mainly uses the adze for this part of the process. Both the inside and the outside of the rabāb’s body are then progressively polished, until they are less than 2cm thick. The head part is then attached to the rest of the body onto which the family symbol is carved. After 9am he heads to his shop where he repairs rabābs for his returning customers.

In the afternoon Esa returns home where he works on the mother-of-pearl, the tuning pegs and the bridge. For these parts Esa uses a series of small chisels, a knife and a short crankshaft. Another very important tool is the measuring stick. For Esa, this is particularly special, since it is the traditional wooden one he acquired from his father, repaired many times but never replaced. Its length is a ‘nīm gaza’, which is comprised of eleven ‘tasu’, each of which is a little longer than an inch, making the ‘nīm gaza’ similar in length to a foot.

Tasu

Tasu, the wooden ruler Esa received from his father

Towards the end of the process, Esa will attach the piece of prepared goatskin to the larger chamber, only then moving on to the upper portion. After inlaying the final pieces of mother of pearl, following one of the six designs selected by the customer, the instrument will undergo a final thorough polishing phase before moving on to the last stage: the tuning, when the rabāb produces its first sounds.

Each rabāb is unique, and is distinguished by the family mark on the head of the instrument. Qadir Khan, one of Esa’s ancestors, designed this mark about 200 years ago and all of his descendants have been using the symbol since then. In total Esa roughly estimates his family has produced more than 100,000 rabābs.

He never plays the rabāb in pubic because his grandfather once told him it was his duty to make, not to play. However, he will occasionally play for small family parties.

Ustad Esa

Ustad Esa, pointing to his family Rabab production symbol. Kabul, 2017