Can You Stop the Birds from Singing: The Cultural Impact of Music Censorship in Afghanistan


  • Louise Pascale Lesley University


We often talk about the power of song. Recently, I have found myself grappling with the loss of song: the phenomenon of music censorship. What happens to a culture whose music has been severely censored for over two decades? What is the impact to an entire generation of children who have never sung or even heard a childhood songs? Over the past six years, I have been knee-deep in a project, The Afghan Children’s Songbook Project, created out of my Peace Corps service in Afghanistan in the late 60’s. Up until I began the project I had not taken time to truly consider the cultural impact of music censorship. While in the Peace Corps, working with poets and musicians, I created a small songbook of 16 traditional songs which I, in turn, taught to young children in the local schools in Kabul. When I left, this collection was published and distributed to elementary schools. A few years ago, I came across my old songbook. Aware of the war, oppression and the Taliban’s consequent extreme censorship of music across Afghanistan, I feared that these songs might be eradicated from the culture and lost forever. My assumptions were indeed correct. These children songs, as well as most traditional songs were rapidly disappearing from the collective consciousness. I determined at that moment to return them to the children of Afghanistan. I returned to Afghanistan in 2009 to assess the songbook project and evaluate its impact. Does music truly disappear forever or does a culture have a collective music memory? This presentation will highlight findings from this project as well as consider the connection to our current practices of singing as a way of valuing and honoring culture.

Author Biography

Louise Pascale, Lesley University

Associate Professor at Lesley University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, she has worked for 25 years in the field of arts and education. She has focused her research on investigating the ways in which singing and music making impact cultural reference, community building and education. Her dissertation topic was “Dispelling the Myth of the Non-Singer.” Motivated by a long-held passion for preserving traditional music, Louise spent the last eight years republishing a songbook, Qu Qu Qu Barg-e-Chinaar: Children’s Songs from Afghanistan, initially created while in the Peace Corps in Afghanistan from 1966-68. Due to over twenty years of war and oppression in Afghanistan, these songs were almost completely eradicated from Afghan culture. As a result of this project, 30,000 copies of the songbook have been distributed across Afghanistan. The English edition of the songbook was published by National Geographic Society in 2007. Louise returned to Afghanistan on a sabbatical in the fall of 2009 to assess the progress of the songbook project. The Songbook Project ( recently received a grant from the U.S. State Department, Office of Cultural Affairs to reprint more copies of the songbook and to create a Teacher’s Guide which provides Afghan teachers with creative ways to use each of the 16 songs to enhance basic reading and writing skills. In addition to the Teacher’s Guide, and in support of improving literacy skills, every songbook package now includes a soft-back notebook and 2 pencils.