Songwriter for the Nation
Safdar Tawakuli grew up keeping his singing hidden from his father. Now his song, Hama mo pak berarem (We all are brothers), is a symbol of national unity.
"I would stand under a loudspeaker that was playing my song so people could see as well as hear me," he says of the time before TV.
One of the most famous among Hazara singers, Tawakuli retired from Radio Kabul after working for 50 years.
Born in Yakawlang district in Bamyan, he says that he was the most mischievous child in the village. At a time when families would give wheat, potatoes and other agricultural produce to the village school headmaster to ensure he kept their child off the school list, Tawakuli loved school and never missed classes. He also fell in love with the two-stringed Danboora, which he learnt to make on his own, and played everywhere he went – in the fields, on the road or in the mountains with his friends.
He kept his passion hidden from the family. But one day his father got to know of his musical interests and ordered that he must neither play the Danboora nor sing. "I had made a very nice Danboora but my father broke it into pieces. I loved it and I could not forget it so I made another one, and after some time my father found the second one and broke it. It made me very sad but I became even more passionate about singing."
In 1967, during the reign of King Zahir Shah, Tawakuli received a letter from the Ministry of Culture and Information inviting him to appear for a test for singers. "This was a time when many people knew me as a singer even though my father had not pardoned me and given me permission," he recalls.
Tawakuli remembers the exact moment he heard about the letter. He was planting potatoes in the family's fields along with his father when a friend came and whispered in his ear that he has received a letter from the ministry. "I was so excited, and though I managed to do another hour's work I realised nothing would come out of planting potatoes and I must leave. When I told my father, he was so angry he threw clods of earth at me."
He left home secretly and presented himself at the ministry for the exam. Abdul Haq Wala, then head of the music department, hired him as a junior artist in Kabul Radio (TV was to arrive years later).
His lucky break came one time the then minister of culture and information, Akhtar Osman Sidiqi, decided to test the artists. "The presidency was located in Timor Shahi garden. We sat on carpets in the garden waiting to be called before the minister to perform." Tawakuli says his turn came after noon. "First I asked the minister if I could sit and perform. He exclaimed "Wah!" approvingly after everything I sang. He let me sing three songs."
The minister told Wala, the head of the music department, to raise Tawakuli's salary – from 1,050 to 1,750 Afs – and to find a room for him to stay in. "I cannot forget the happiness of that moment."
Since Hazara songs were very popular, the minister told Tawakuli his job was to create an archive of Hazara songs. "I was assigned to areas where the Hazara people live, to travel from village to village, and collect songs for the archive. There were no Hazara songs in the archive."
Tawakuli says he was the one who first presented Hazara songs to people in Kabul over the radio and on public address systems. "At that time there were big loudspeakers installed in the lanes, and people would wait to hear local songs being played through them. People would enjoy hearing my songs. That is when I sometimes stood under a loudspeaker and sang along with the song from the loudspeaker. People would crowd around to tell me I was very good."
Tawakuli says he has no formal schooling in music. He became the most famous musician in all of Hazarajat. "No artist had emerged before me, and I was soon famous. People would wait to see me when I returned to the village. My father was also reconciled and even proud of me."
His most famous song is 'Hama mo pak berarem'. "It made me famous not just among Hazaras but all over Afghanistan. It was my song for national unity."
Tawakuli reveals he is a poet too, and has a collection of poems that has 1,000 half verses.
He thinks the years under the Najibullah government were "good" times for artists. "The artist had good value during the term of president Dr Najibullah." Najibullah who was president of Afghanistan from 1987 to 1992 was to die a terrible death when the Taleban swept to power in Kabul. "The government and people respected the artist but now neither does," he adds. "Unfortunately now the artist is the poorest category of people in the country." The Ashraf Ghani government has stopped the 10,000 Afs (150 USD) honorarium that artists were receiving under Ahmed Karzai.
But his song, We all are brothers, continues to top the popularity charts.