Last July, Kyrgyz singer Zere Asylbek, widely known as Zere, released a new album called “Men Kaidamyn” (Where Am I) with 12 songs in the Kyrgyz language. It became her third album since her musical debut in 2018, when she made headlines for the music video of her song “Kyz” (Girl) and became famous overnight.
Here is the music video of the song “Kyz.”
“Kyz” was as famous as it was polarizing due to the feminist message it relayed by encouraging girls to be free of restrictive social norms and live their lives as they like and see fit. The new album picks up where her two previous ones from 2018 “Bashtalos” and 2021 “EKEK” albums left off. It continues discussing gender inequality while exploring other social and political problems in Kyrgyzstan against the background of her intimate and personal experiences and stories from childhood.
There are several personal stories told throughout the songs in the new album. Through them Zere shares her childhood memories of spending summer holidays in her maternal grandparents’ home in Jalalabad in southern Kyrgyzstan, listening to fairy tales, the words of wisdom shared by her late paternal grandfather, and the conversations she held with her mother about famous historical figures from the past. These intimate stories serve as parts to songs about gender inequality, discrimination, corruption, domestic violence and other issues in the country.
In the song called “Jangak” (Walnut), Zere shares her childhood dreams and says that she thought she could be anybody and do anything with her life. However, adulthood and restrictive social norms surrounding women taught her that she should have been more careful with her dreams. In another song called “Men Kaidamyn,” she starts off with the fairytale she heard often during childhood and goes on to question where she and other people were when the country witnessed major incidents of injustice and abuse.
Here is the audio version of the song “Men Kaidymyn.”
She then asks Kyrgyz people where they were during the “voting fair” when peoples’ votes were being bought and the future of the country was being decided — it is common in Kyrgyzstan for politicians to distribute money during elections and collect votes. She also asks where people were at when female activists were attacked during a feminist march by the members of the nationalist group called Chorolor while the police officers present just stood and watched. The incident took place on March 8, 2020.
In “Jakshy Kyz” (Good Girl), Zere tackles gender inequality and domestic violence. She asks her listeners if there is a word “human girl” between the two terms “good girl” and “bad girl,” referring to the two labels women and girls in Kyrgyzstan society receive most of the time, instead of being looked at as a human. She fails to find an answer to this question using the old Kyrgyz proverbs and asks what kind of wisdom will the men who beat their wives today leave for the next generation.
This is not the first song in which Zere talks about domestic violence. Her song “Jeneke” (Sister-in-law), which came out in her second album in 2021, tackled the similar issue. Although domestic violence is criminalized in Kyrgyzstan, the situation continues to deteriorate with the number of domestic violence cases growing.
Here is the music video of the song “Jeneke.”
One of Zere’s main messages is hidden in the song called “Vau” (Wow) in which she invites listeners to imagine a future in which she has achieved all her dreams. She pictures a society where all the problems have been solved and she has no haters and everybody likes her. The song ends abruptly with the reminder that even then there will still be people who will call her “bad girl.” It reminds women and girls in Kyrgyzstan that there will always be people who will try to shame them for their behavior and they should just ignore their criticism and live their life beyond restrictive norms.
Sudan’s musical traditions have largely been informed by Arabic and Muslim traditions. As a country that has always subscribed to stricter interpretations of Islamic law, music in Sudan has generally served religious purposes, meaning that women’s contribution or participation in the art form was and is still discouraged, if not restricted altogether .
Couple this with post-independence civil wars and authoritarian military regimes that generally frown upon artistic expression, and one can get a sense of the complicated relationship the country has had with its musicians, both men and women .
But despite well-documented religious and political censorship, female musicians’ voices in the country’s social, political and cultural spaces has never been completely silenced .
Women have actively contributed to Sudanese musical heritage even before the country’s modern history. Their contribution took various roles such as singing, dancing, playing instruments, composing, reciting verses, and more.
One of the earliest known female musicians was Mihera Bint Abboud, a 19th century poet said to have led the charge against the 1820-24 Turco-Egyptian invasion of Sudan with a rousing performance that fired up demoralised troops.
Later on, women like Aisha Musa Ahmad, better known as Aisha al-Falatiya, would develop their own styles based on traditional musical forms. Al-Falatiya is regarded as one of the first modern Sudanese female singers, whose career began in the 1940s. Despite facing huge resistance in the early stages of her career, she went on to record more than 150 songs and achieved popularity as far as Egypt.
She, too, played the role of wartime musician in 1942 during the Second World War when she sang to uplift the morale in the camps of the Sudan Defence Forces , which were working together with the British against the German and Italian armies . Al-Falatiya died on 24 February 1974 aged 69.
Perhaps one of the most fondly remembered female Sudanese musical trailblazers is Hawa Jah al-Rasoul Mohammed, popularly known as Hawa al-Tagtaga. The singer, who died in 2012, cemented her reputation as not only an iconic female Sudanese singer but also as musical rebel who spoke truth to power. She was repeatedly arrested by British officials for agitating for Sudanese independence, which was achieved in 1956. Al-Tagtaga was a patriot who performed dressed in the colours of the old Sudanese flag . The singer, born in 1926 in Ar Rahad, North Kordofan, was honoured by the state on more than one occasion. She was also a popular figure at weddings and social gatherings across all social classes and was regarded as a true voice of the people .
Stars of the Golden (and ‘dark’) Era
The period between the early 1960s and the late 1980s saw the rise of Sudan’s biggest female musicians in popular music. Though few and far between, these women performers proved Sudan was not a musical desert landscape. They did not just entertain but acted as social mirrors by pointing out uncomfortable social truths. However, given the environment they were operating in, many faced backlash from the ruling elite and religious leadership.
As Sudan entered the 1960s, a few all-female groups emerged onto the scene, notably Sunai Kordofani, Sunai el Nagam and Sunai el Samar who borrowed traits from their Western counterparts . But it was not until the 1970s that a female group took Sudan by storm. Al Balabil (The Nightingales) was formed in 1971 by three Nubian sisters – Amal Talsam, Hadia Talsam and Hayat Talsam – who became the faces of Sudanese popular music for almost two decades. Known as the ‘Sudanese Supremes’, the trio immigrated to the US in 1988 as strict Sharia laws we being imposed in Sudan.
Another famous ‘80s female singer was Hanan Bulu Bulu, who was sometimes referred to as ‘Madonna’ or even ‘Marie Lloyd’ for her provocative stage performances that got her in the bad books of the Islamic fundamentalists. Despite the Madonna references, Hanan Bulu Bulu owes her notoriety to two of her forbearers, Gisma and Nasra, who pioneered a popular sensual wedding performance in the ‘70s known as kashif, which was accompanied by fast drumming and direct lyrics for which they were frequently arrested over.
Meanwhile, Hanan Elneel, a blind singer who was also prominent in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, is best known for her delicate, wistful songs sung to an electronic keyboard. She is considered more mild-mannered than most of her contemporaries.
Contemporary female Sudanese singers have continued in the same vein as their predecessors, finding ways to entertain and educate in a restricted environment. A number of current artists have found it easier to pursue their musical dreams away from home but still remain true to their roots.
A highly regarded artists of the new generation is Rasha Sheikh Eldin whose rendition of Sudanese music has earned her a global following. Rasha was born in 1971 and grew up in the capital Khartoum. She left the country for Cairo, Egypt, in 1991 to escape the Second Sudanese Civil War, and later immigrated to Spain where she released the critically acclaimed debut album Sudaniyat – rated by British musician Ian Anderson as one of the 10 best albums of 1997. The album boasts of a rich diversity, ranging from Arabic poetry, sufi music and even a touch of reggae .
Yalla! Khartoum, a project incubated by Goethe-Institut Sudan as a platform for developing the skills of female musicians, gave birth to the 11-member all-girl band Salute Yal Bannot in 2015. In Sudanese Arabic, salute yal bannot means “respect to the girls”. The band consists of seven vocalists and four instrumentalists who play guitar, bass guitar, piano and percussion. The group aims to inspire women to speak up about the issues that affect them .
Also active on the international music scene is Alsarah, a singer, songwriter, bandleader and ethnomusicologist. Born in Khartoum, she relocated to Yemen with her family before moving to the US, finally settling in Brooklyn, New York, where she has been residing since 2004. Alsarah formed the group Alsarah & The Nubatones in 2010 with her sister Nahid and released two full-length albums titled Silt and Manara. In between albums, Alsarah has also worked with Sudanese artist collective Refugee Club Productions on a variety of projects, including the critically acclaimed 2014 Sudanese Civil War documentary Beats of the Antonov  .
Following the emergence of the popular female-led music genre zanig in Sudan’s urban areas in the 2010s, a new crop of female performers have become stars in their own right. Often criticised for being too raucous, zanig music employs zar chants, a ritual that summons the spirits, and involves drumming, dancing and giving offerings, with the performer sometimes entering a trance-like state.
Some of the genre’s biggest names are Aisha Aljabal and Marwa Alduwaliya. A collaboration between DJ Teddy Jam, a Sudanese rapper based in the UAE, and Aisha Al Jabal brought hip hop, Afrobeats and zanig together on the song ‘Malu’.
While zanig uses a range of instruments such as keyboards, saxophones, drums and those of a percussive variety, the more stripped-down version, featuring only vocals and percussion, is arguably the most popular. It is called aghani banat, aghani dalooka, which translates to ‘girls’ songs, drum songs’. Here, a catchy tumtum rhythm accompanies the singing. The dalooka is one of the main percussive instruments used in the genre but other instruments like the dinger (water calabash) and tar (single-headed frame drum) are sometimes also employed. The dalooka is a small goblet-shaped hand drum made from mud.
Aghani banat discusses topics such as marriage, beauty, love and flirtation. Most of the songs are from Sudan’s Golden Era and are often accompanied by a special bridal dance. New lyrics using old rhythms are constantly being recreated tackling current social issues. Regardless of the topic, they are a powerful expressive tool for many women across Sudan. Aghani banat is also played at weddings and during family gatherings and special ceremonies. For a long time, the genre was viewed as inconsequential due to its originators being women, but the songs have now gained popularity and male musicians have built entire careers out of them, such as singer Taha Suleiman. The most popular female singers in aghani banat include Insaf Madani, Nada Algalaa, Mahdiya, Sulafa Elyas and Hiba Elgizouli.
Since its independence in 1956, Sudan has experienced its fair share of civil wars and coups, with six leaders professing different political ideologies serving as heads of state . Amid political instability and the Islamic patriarchy, female artists have endured through instability to showcase Sudan’s rich modern and traditional music traditions.
In 1983, President Jaafar Nimeiry imposed hardline Sharia laws that greatly affected musicians, including female artists. Hanan Bulu Bulu, for example, was physically assaulted by the authorities and thrown out of the Khartoum International Fair in 1986, with her music banned for immoral behaviour. The Sharia law also frustrated Al Balabil, as their provocative undertones landed them in conflict with the authorities .
More recently, in 2018, Sudanese police arrested singer Mona Magdi Salim on charges of indecency after she wore tight trousers and a white, long-sleeved top during an event .
Not surprisingly, following the overthrow of President Omar al-Bashir in 2019, Rasha and several musicians returned from exile to celebrate his ousting, and held a New Year’s Eve and Independence Day concert .
The collapse of al-Bashir’s hardline government had offered a glimmer of hope for a more free and vibrant music industry. But this was quickly quashed in October 2021 when army chief Gen Abdel Fattah al-Burhan led a coup that removed the country’s transitional government .
On 15 April 2023, Sudan descended into another civil war in a conflict between rival factions of the military government, once more bringing the country’s cultural activities to a halt .
Disclaimer:Music In Africa’s Overviews provide broad information about the music scenes in African countries. Music In Africa acknowledges that the information in some of these texts could become outdated with time. If you would like to provide updated information or corrections to any of our Overview texts, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article was written by Juliette Verlaque on February 7th, 2022, and originally published on the Artists At Risk Connection webpage. It is re-published here with permission. Juliette is a program assistant at the Artists at Risk Connection (ARC) and a graduate of Barnard College. PEN America leads the Artists at Risk Connection (ARC), a program dedicated to assisting imperiled artists and fortifying the field of organizations that support them. If you or someone you know is an artist at risk, contact ARC.
Amidst a deeply perilous time of insecurity in Afghanistan, when artistic expression itself is under threat, PEN America’s Artists at Risk Connection (ARC) is partnering with Art at a Time Like This, a nonprofit arts organization that provides a platform for free expression at times of crisis, to launch Before Silence: Afghan Artists In Exile, an online exhibition featuring nine multidisciplinary artists who have continued to create through the humanitarian crisis. The artists featured in the exhibition have made the difficult decision to leave Afghanistan and go into exile, many leaving their friends, families, dreams, and achievements behind. This article explores the history of persecution of artists in Afghanistan and the current state of artistic freedom of expression in the country following the takeover by the Taliban in August 2021.
On August 15, global news outlets reported that Kabul had fallen to the Taliban, only days after the US government began withdrawing troops from Afghanistan following a twenty-year occupation.
Within hours, our team at the Artists at Risk Connection (ARC) began receiving a flood of urgent requests from Afghan artists to help them flee the country or relocate to safety. These messages were full of desperation and fear – from artists of all disciplines who had gone into hiding, seen their houses ransacked by Taliban operatives, and feared for their lives and the lives of their families. Their only crime was to create art, and now they were seeking any possible path to escape the country.
A singer wrote: I really have no idea how to get out of this hell.
A painter wrote: They saw the paintings and said that according to Islamic law, you are not allowed to paint. You have to tear up the paintings and promise that you will not make images from now on, otherwise you will be punished … Now I do not paint and I do not know what the future will hold.
A visual artist wrote: Unfortunately, from the time I got into art, I was threatened so much that I was physically tortured several times and they even wanted to kill me. They said what I do is non-Muslim. They have broken my artwork and threatened me.
The Taliban has a long history of persecuting artists and censoring artistic expression entirely. When the militants ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, they enforced a strict version of Islamic law to ban all music (other than religious singing) and moving images. Portraits of living people were considered sacrilegious, as were books that depicted women with their faces uncovered or criticized the Taliban in any way. Taliban fighters looted the famed National Museum in Kabul several times and destroyed thousands of sculptures around the country.
The two decades after the Taliban’s fall saw a flourishing of art throughout the country. Production companies began to churn out movies and TV shows, comedians and singers entertained millions around the country, and graffiti became increasingly prominent in urban spaces. For many women, in particular, these years provided a previously unimaginable opportunity to work as artists without fear of retribution, from the first Afghan female street artist to the country’s first all-women’s orchestra.
Even so, some artists continued to face retaliation for their creative work, especially as the Taliban slowly but surely began to reemerge and take over districts around the country. This new generation of artists emerged during a time of continual insecurity, marked by tensions and conflict between international coalition forces, the Afghan government, the emerging Islamic State, and the remnants of the Taliban. Against this backdrop of insurgency and counterinsurgency, terror attacks and bombings were commonplace, including some that targeted cultural actors, such as the suicide bombing of the French Cultural Centre in 2014. By 2018, reports found that the Taliban was openly active in 263 districts in Afghanistan (70% of the country) and fully controlled 14 districts (4% of the country). At ARC, we began receiving desperate messages from threatened artists as early as 2019, even before the US first announced a date for its withdrawal, and we heard from a group of filmmakers that they were aware of a Taliban watchlist listing many artists and cultural workers.
But when Taliban insurgents took control of city after city across the country in a matter of weeks, and stunned the world with their systematic takeover of Kabul in mid-August, the threats reached a new and terrifying level. The future of countless artists in the country immediately became deeply uncertain – and fraught with danger.
“The Taliban believe art is a path to corruption and vice in society,” said Samiullah Nabipour, the former dean of the fine arts school at Kabul University, who was in hiding for two months before evacuating with his family in October. “The Taliban ideology is against art.”
For many Afghan artists, simply the act of being an artist is enough to cause them to fear for their lives. For those who were critical of the Taliban during the twenty years that they were not in power, the risks were even more immediate. Likewise, for many female artists, an immediate crackdown on women’s rights in Afghanistan – including the dismissal of female workers, moves to push women out of public life, and severe restrictions on education – placed them in a particularly dangerous situation.
“The future of countless artists in the country immediately became deeply uncertain – and fraught with danger.”
“I have deleted all my music and songs from my phone and am trying to stop talking about music,” said Habibullah Shabab, a popular singer from southern Afghanistan who was a contestant on an Afghan singing show. He now runs a vegetable stand to feed his family. “When I am alone listening to my songs, my previous videos and memories, I cry a lot in my heart that where I was before, and where I am now.”
At first, some international observers hoped that the Taliban, which has embraced innovations that it previously shunned such as television interviews and social media, would be less restrictive, particularly as it seeks to gain diplomatic recognition from other countries. However, the Taliban was quick to ban music in public, among other measures, and in the face of immediate reports of violence against artists – such as the abduction and ultimate murder of comedian Nazar Mhammed on July 18 and the execution of Afghan folk singer Fawad Andarabi on August 30 – many artists felt that they could take no chances.
Following the takeover, many Afghan artists began to engage in self-censorship or self-destruction of their works, burning books, smashing statues, and destroying paintings that they did not think the Taliban would approve of – as well as scrubbing their social media of any mentions of art and staying home rather than performing in public.
Omaid Sharifi, an Afghan street artist and founder of Art Lords, a grassroots street art initiative, who fled Kabul following the takeover, emphasized the particular feeling of devastation that such acts of self-destruction incur for artists. “The feeling of destroying a piece of art is not very far from losing a child, because it is your own creation. It is something you have memories with, something you’ve dreamed about,” he explained. “Suddenly you are putting fire to it – to all your dreams, your aspirations, your hopes.”
The Afghan artists who have contacted ARC – totaling more than 250 since August – are, more than anything else, desperately seeking ways to leave the country. Some have fled to neighboring countries, such as Pakistan and Iran, but many more remain in limbo in Afghanistan, unable to work as artists, and often unable to leave their homes for fear of being found and killed. An untold number of people lack the international connections often needed to obtain relocation, not to mention fundamental barriers such as lack of internet access or lack of a passport – and the lack of a functioning government that can provide such services. The country faces a looming humanitarian crisis, including famine, the collapse of the health-care system, and plummeting wages.
“The feeling of destroying a piece of art is not very far from losing a child, because it is your own creation. It is something you have memories with, something you’ve dreamed about. Suddenly you are putting fire to it – to all your dreams, your aspirations, your hopes.”
— Omaid Sharifi
Six months into the crisis, the path forward remains uncertain. Many of our partner organizations have been similarly inundated with far more requests than they can handle. ARC has worked to coordinate efforts between arts and human rights organizations and share direct resources with Afghan artists who contact us. For those trying to enter the US, there is a years-long backlog of applicants: the Special Immigrant Visa program, which is reserved for certain Afghans who worked for or were connected with the US government, already had a backlog of 18,000 applicants even before the crisis; more than 30,000 people have applied for humanitarian parole; and the traditional refugee entry process is also notoriously slow. There is a similar backlog in countries around the world, and anti-immigrant and anti-refugee sentiments remain rampant globally.
Although the failures and implications of the US pullout have long faded from the headlines, we must not forget that the entire future of arts and culture in Afghanistan is under peril. We must keep in mind the countless artists who remain in hiding in Afghanistan, as well as those who have been able to flee the country and remain in limbo, waiting for visas, residencies, and funding, their future as humans and as artists uncertain.
PEN America and Art at a Time Like This believe that the right to artistic freedom of expression is a human right. Afghan artists should be allowed to live, work and create freely, without fear for their lives or the lives of their families. We must stand with Afghan artists, today and every day.
BEFORE SILENCE: AFGHAN ARTISTS IN EXILE, an online exhibition featuring the work of nine multi-disciplinary Afghan artists who have continued to create in exile, launches February 8. We welcome you to engage with the exhibit and think about what it means to be both Afghan and an artist at a time like this. Read the full press statement from PEN America and Art at a Time Like This here.
By Juliette Verlaque, February 7, 2022. Juliette is a program assistant at the Artists at Risk Connection (ARC) and a graduate of Barnard College.