Ex. 80. Dambura belonging to Habib Payman, Copenhagen.




Dissemination and types.

Dambura is a long-neck lute with two strings. It is the most common musical instrument in Northern Afghanistan and the lute encountered in Hazarajaat where just two other instruments are documented: surnay (shawm) and tula (transverse flute).

There are two types of damburas: the larger named after the region, Turkestan called the turkestani dambura, or after place of construction, Aibak. The smaller type is typical of Badakhshan and thus called badakhshi dambura; or sheghni after the town Sheghni.1

Other lute instruments encountered in Afghanistan is the fretted dotâr common in the west and the north, the tanpur with metal strings, and the sophisticated robâb – a classical instrument of the high culture of Kabul and Herat.

Musical role

The dambura appears mainly as acompaniment for songs, though instrumental pieces appear sporadically in the documentation. The player is often the singer but also duos of a damburachi (the dambura performer) and a singer appear.

As accompaniment instrument, the role of the dambura is twofold: 1) building a musical entity as an ongoing rhythm and a formal framework as introduction and interludes between the verses of the song 2) as support for the song, dubbing the tones of the melody with the deep string’s constant sound as a basic reference.


The documentation is abundant: out of 78 recordings, 39 are dambura songs and dambura solo. Among the damburachis there are at least a handful skilled players. Some performers have a tight repertoire (Ali Ahmed (recorded in Farakh Olum), Sâkhi Dâd (Panjao), Moh. Nawi (Kabul)) indicating a professional status. Other musicians perform in more lose settings. The role of the instrument in the musical enterprise is documented to an extent as to deduct habitual patterns – interacting components that constitutes style.

In the investigation material of the music collected in Hazarajaat, only a few examples are recorded with the dambura solo. One of these, the Sâkhi Dâd tune (208-09) is likely to be a prolonged introduction to the following song with dambura accompaniment. Another one from Waras is merely an interrupted recording (456-21) with a duration of 21” and could have been an introduction to a song. The remaining two tunes (208-11, 456-04) are addressed in the chapter on instrumental tunes (6.6.). In comparison with the material from Turkestan in particular, which contains a wealth of instrumental tunes, little can be stated about instrumental music from Hazarajaat. This scarce representation of dambura solo points to a primary function as accompaniment for songs.2

The lute family

In Central Asia the two-stringed lute appears in numerous variants and different outlines all along the silk road from China to Turkey.

The names on lute instruments are determined by cultural and linguistic relations. Common is the so-called ‘pearformed’ belly, which is actually the form of a pear sliced in two3. In Turkey, this type is the saz, in Iran it is the setar (translates se three, târ string), in Kirghistan it is komuz, but in Kazakhstan the belly has an oblong shape and is called dombra.

In Afghanistan, the two types appear as the dotâr (do two, târ (silk) string) with frets and metal strings and the dambura with no frets and nylon strings. The term dambura is linguistically related to the Uzbek/Tajik tanbûr (pick-plucked bronze double-strings), the Hindu tambura (drone instrument - derived from two words, 'tana' referring to musical phrase and 'pura' meaning complete (indobase.com)), and the Persian tambur which is cymbalum with ca. 75 strings played with small metal sticks.

The music for two-stringed lutes in Central Asia share a number of characteristics. Part of these are due to the idiomatic of the instrument.

Ethnically rooted musical style

Migration and settlement of nomadic tribes has had a considerable effect on the spreading of music. In Northern Afghanistan in particular, settlements of ethnic groups are scattered all over in segments of Pashtun, Kirghiz, Kazakh and Turkmen origin. The majority of the inhabitants are Uzbek and Tajik. For these groups mixtures of language and song traditions is common and musical styles has converged.

The singing style and structure of song melodies of the different ethnic segments are factors which differentiate these musics the most. The dambura music, on the other hand, share more features. Thus, in the Hazara dambura music, the uzbek playing style is an important inspiration, while the song forms are adapted from the Hazara solo song.

Discussion of history – Sakata and Slobin

Sakata claims that instruments are “a recent innovation” according to the relative scarcity of instruments on the locations she visited during her field studies (1967 and 1972). Furthermore, Sakata states that the dambura, along with asymmetrical rhythms have been introduced by the Tajiks who among the northern ethnic groups are the only ones using the meter of seven. In addition, the dambura is claimed to be basically a Tajik instrument. In this line, “instances of asymmetrical meter in accompanied songs are probably influenced by direct contact with Tajik songs or by professional Hazara musicians, who accompany themselves on the dambura”.4

Slobin5 has another view on this: He regards Uzbek and Tajik music of Turkestan as converged into a uniform style. Two categories are defined: 1) mahali – the folk or popular style of Afghan Uzbeks, which substantiates the bulk of Uzbek music, 2) the immigrant Transkhonian classical Bukharan style with the dotâr as the main instrument. The two categories differ by their instruments, repertoire and audiences. The mahali is compounded to Afghanistan and does not appear in Uzbekistan proper.

The culture and music of the Pashtun nomads and tradesmen have had practically no impact on the Hazaras.6
But the recurring temporary migration of Hazara workers mainly to Kabul may have resulted in extended influx of Tajik-Uzbek inspired dambura music. On the whole, it is remarkable that a large number of Hazara pieces for dambura and song is based on asymmetrical metres, whereas the bulk of popular songs are in binary or tripart metres. Still, 6/8 and 6/4 are also frequent as meter for songs with dambura.

Teahouse music

In the north, teahouses located in markets and bazaars often had live music – a singing dambura player, or even a small ensemble. These were the main spots for the exposure of music and could provide a steady income for a musician.

In Hazarajaat, the villages had no teahouses. As mentioned in the introduction, music was typically performed at private parties and celebrations, such as toi (weddings), jeshen (Independence day), and the two Id celebrations and nau roz (new year’s day). 7

The teahouse repertoire may have had an impact on the Hazaras particularly in the playing techniques on the dambura. But also with regard to the composition of the repertoire: the recurring presentation of a line of songs of different origin may be a reflection of the practice of playing medleys which Slobin points out as a common feature of teahouse music8. Splitting the songs up in individual units in the investigation material may have been a practical undertaking due to the time limitation of the tape.


The dambura is one of many variants of lutes among the peoples of Central Asia. The idiomatics of the instrument and the common tuning are factors that makes up relations.

The bulk of the Hazara material of the present investigation are from Sheikh Ali and Deï Zangi (Waras/Panjao,) where most of the songs are intimately related to the solo songs.


Theatrical and musical means

The damburachi may have percussive and theatrical elements integrated in the musical performance. It seems that performers often have been on their own, and have added these elements for the sake of entertainment as spectacular effects or musical means adding to the general sound. The percussive and clearly audible downstrokes on the strings are among such features but also sophisticated attachments of bells on the stroke hand or around ankles may contribute to the total sound. These effects are encountered in the Aimaq documentation but is absent in Hazarajaat. A truly theatrical effect is employed a damburachi, who had small puppets whose dance-like movements could be controlled by strings attached to the strumming hand as described by Sakata9.

Dancing boys

The Uzbek-Tajik dance boys – batchas10 – is an old tradition connected with instrumental music. The Pashtuns also have this tradition. It was widespread in the North back in the 1930s but was declining in the 1960s when Slobin did his investigations. In the olden days boys were kidnapped and kept in a cellar and trained to this profession. They were dressed in women’s clothes and performed at parties of men. It was generally regarded as leisure time entertainment (as a sort of a hobby activity within the realm of the so-called sowqi activities)11.

The music for this kind of dance is to a great extent based on tempo changes which are set by the damburachi. Characteristic strokes are signals to certain dancing gestures; this means that the choreography of the dance is determined by the damburachi, never the other way round. Even when a damburachi plays a dancing tune without the dancer present he still makes the tempo changes and signals as though the dance would be performed.12 This is referred to in the account on the instrumental dambura tune 208-11 below.13

Living conditions for musicians

As Ferdinand and Edelberg supplies us with very little information about the musicians, we have to look to other sources which give information about the living conditions of musicians. The informations, if any, are limited to brief statements like “this kind is called an alqadâr “an earring man”, which characterises a professional performer”14. This information applies to a performer from the town, Maimana. For the Hazara performers, we are in a single instance informed that the musician is a driver.

First of all, for other ethnic groups, the barber is often a musician as well; this profession is absent in the Hazarajaat. The Hazara musicians are semi-professionals who are often invited to other villages than their own and paid in commodities rather than money. At private celebrations, often amateurs also perform.15

For the Hazara musicians, at least two performers seem to be travelling men; Ali Ahmed recorded in Farakh Olum (208-01,02, 03, 07, see 4.2.) was a driver. The Hazara damburachi Moh. Nawi was recorded in Kabul the Hazara (443-16...21)16 and is thus also regarded as a itinerant performer.

1 Slobin 1976: 212ff; Sakata 1978: 70ff

2 Sakata states on this issue: “Accompanied songs are more common among professional musicians, but instrumental solos and instrumental ensembles are absent”. (Sakata 1968: 24).

3 Sakata utilizes the more appropriate ‘bowl lute’. Sakata 1968: 41

4 Sakata 1968: 81

5 Slobin, New Grove 1980: 142ff

6 Although the singing style my personal contact Daud Sarkhosh is deeply influenced by Pashto singing style. Sarkhosh’s main domain is contemporary Afghan pop music where the singing style in general is characterised by the Pashto style. Thus, the main body of music played on the internetradio Hazaragiradio.com represents this singing style. Songs are composed to Western influenced chord structures and orchestral arrangements made on midi keyboards and sound modules.

7 See 2.2.3. Musical events. Referred from Sakata 1968: 26.

8 For medleys, Slobin proposes the term ‘quodlibet’ (Slobin 1976: 169, adapted from Apel’s History of Western Music 1961: 621-2; Slobin’s usage of the term points to a variant - the successive quodlibet, when melodies are quoted in succession, like a poutpourri) from Middle Age European music, to imply a practice of paraphrasing the tunes from memory as opposed to a rendering of tunes true to the original.

9 Sakata 1978:71. “The puppet usually in the form of a wild, male goat known as teke, and the practice is known as teke bazak.” Further description by Slobin in “Buz-baz: A musical Marionette of Northern Afghanistan”, Asian Music, VI (1975) 217-224.

10 Slobin 1976: 116ff. The instution as such is called bachabazi.

11 Slobin 1976: 119. See also 2.2.2., footnote 9.

12 Slobin 1976: 181

13 see 6.6. Instrumental tunes

14 A remark that figures in the Aimaq material on the recording note “Meimana 2, optagelse 6, 19.11.1954” Ghulam Hussein (458-06..08)

15 Sakata 1968: 24ff. This is also adressed in 2.2.2. p.16.

16 The professional status of damburachis is further discussed in the introduction to the music of Châhar Aimaq and Turkestan.


© Christer Irgens-Møller and Moesgaard Museum, Denmark 2013