Marketed as “the first collection of modern Afghan music ever to be released internationally” by director Havana Marking, this collection of music from the new critically acclaimed documentary Afghan Star is an impressive international dance album at worst and a groundbreaking collection of music at best. The documentary, released this past summer, follows a number of contestants on the “American Idol”-style “Afghan Star” in Afghanistan as they compete for a $1000 prize. Exploring the difference a simple pop contest can make in people’s lives (exposing many to democracy for the first time and giving young people, ethnic minorities and women a chance to express themselves), the film has been well-received at Sundance, winning both the Audience Award and the Directing Award in the category for World Cinema – Documentary.

With an eclictic collection of Aghan performers – ranging from Ahmad Zahir (sometimes called “The King of Afghan Music”) to Rafi Naabzada and Setara Hussainzada (young competitors on the show) – this is an album that attempts to tell an inspiring story of Afghanistan through its popular music. For some in Afghanistan, performing music is a life-threatening risk. Director Marking believes “that all the tracks reflect the spirit and beauty of the Afghan musical tradition” and it’s easy to hear why. The music collected here spans decades and generations but presents a more entertaining and enjoyable picture of Afghanistan than the one typically seen on our television screens. But performing the music comes at a price. From 1996 to 2001 music was considered sacrilegious by the Mujahiddeen and banned by the Taliban. As the director stresses in the liner notes, “on this soundtrack… we have also included tracks by Afghans living as refugees in other parts of the world.”

The tracks included on this unique album definitely reflect a musical style that those of us in the west don’t typically hear. Hearing the recordings of Ahmad Zahir included here are an unforgettable taste of Afghanistan, particularly the eight minute piece “Baaz Aamady Ai Jaane Man.” Though the music is from the ’70s, it’s easy to be drawn into the scratch recording, with its rhythmic drumming and plucked strings backing up Zahir’s crooning vocals. In contrast, Arash Howaida utilizes modern hip hop stylings in his music, incorporating Persian, German, and Arabic vocals into his western-influenced track “Laila.” The dramatic score work by Simon Russell (“Homecoming” and “Meeting”) are evocative and well-placed in the collection, though they are of a slightly different style than the rest of the album.

This is an hour of music that’s not to be missed. It may feel like an anthropological investigation at times, but it’s perfect background music for any fan of eclectic sounds.

Zach’s Rating: A-
Perfect For: A moving and unique cultural experience
Stay Away if: You’re expecting “American Idol”-style music

To purchase the soundtrack for Afghan Star, visit Amazon
For more information visit the film’s homepage

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