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

Louise Pascale


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 Childrens Songbook Project, created out of my Peace Corps service in Afghanistan in the late 60s. 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 Talibans 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.

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