Rabab: The Oldest Instrument in the World


The rabab, a sort of Pashtun guitar, is one of the oldest instruments in the world.

Afghanistan is known for little else other than the Taliban and the war which has destroyed and traumatised generations of Afghans. When it was known as Khorasan, few people know Afghanistan not only gave birth to Rumi, perhaps the greatest poet to ever have lived. It also gave birth to an instrument that resurrects its stunning heritage of poetry and music every time its strings are plucked by skilled musicians. Rumi even penned (or inked) a poem about it:

“Do you know what the voice of the rabab is saying?
Come follow in my steps and find the way;
Since through error you’ll discover what’s right,
Since through questions you’ll end up with answers.”


Twenty-three year old Shauqat is a rabab player from Peshawar.
I was sat outside a cafe in Islamabad when he appeared out of nowhere and started strumming away on his rabab.
A security guard approached him after ten minutes or so of his playing, sighed in awe and said to him in Pashto “Yarra, tu za ma sarr khre dee sarra”, which roughly translates to “you’re eating my head with your music”. From waiters, security guards, to restaurant goers, everyone was silent, watching him intensely as he jumped from one song to another, making us forget for a moment we were sat in a cafe named (hilariously enough) after Tuscany, a region in Italy. I couldn’t resist asking him where he learned to play so beautifully.
“When I went to school, I was never really into books. But there was an elderly person who used to come in and play the rabab. I went in one day and asked him how to play.
There was alot of affection between me and my teacher, so I picked it up quite quickly. He told me I had talent, and that I should go further and learn how to play properly. So I did. I learned how to play and then sat down with masters to learn from them. Now when I go back to Peshawar and I see him, I call him “ustadh” (teacher), because he was the first one who taught me. He just laughs at the title. He’s a really good man, I owe him a lot.
Before I knew it, people started to get wind of my rabab playing in my area. they would knock on my door and say: “Ho Shauqat! So-and-so is getting married, come and play for us!” I used to climb out of my window, and that was it. I was off playing inside someone’s home, or at someone’s wedding.
My parents know I’m a professional rabab player, but to this day, my father hasn’t ever seen me play. He hears it from people sure enough, but he’s never watched me perform.
I moved to Islamabad eventually after I signed up with a company. I teach guitar sometimes to kids. But you know, people don’t listen as much to the guitar here. The thing is about the rabab, if you play with love, the people can hear it. That’s why they love it so much.”
After I took his photograph, he asked: “Did you get my ring in?”
I got all sentimental and asked if it belonged to his father or a relative who passed away.
“No, no, it just looks good.” 😂


From Peshawar to Islamabad, you can hear the soulful sound of the rabbab on the streets, as Pashtuns who migrated to Pakistan brought the love of their music with them.

I’m sat here trying to satiate my sweet tooth with a molten chocolate brownie. As much as I crave sugar, even sugar addicts like me can eventually tire of it. The threat of an acid attack on my teeth compels me to stop eating. But could I ever get sick of the sound of the rabab? Never. The Pashtun in me compels me to keep my mouth shut, and my ears open.


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