The nightingale of Pushto music

Qamar Gula will be remembered for her contributions to Pushto music

The nightingale of Pushto music


he last four decades in Afghanistan have been disastrous not only in terms of security and economy but also art and culture. As such, the artists who continued to brave the turmoil and continued to contribute whatever little they could deserve recognition.

Traditionally, the Pashtun society has never been friendly towards musicians. One can hardly survive in an artistic profession. Many Afghan artists have to live in exile or withdraw because of threats to their lives.

Poet Ghani Khan once said, “Pashtuns greatly enjoy music but have no respect for a singer.“ Since 2007, at least seventeen Pashto women singers have fallen prey to militancy in the name of religion. Shabana, Ayman Udas, Gulnaz alias Muskan, Ghazala Javed, Musarrat, Anum Anoshay, Lubna alias Gulalai, Sana alias Neelam, Mena Khan and Sana Khan were mercilessly killed in the name of ‘honour’; as were Brekhna, Sunbal, Reshma and Sonia Khan.

Qamar Gula, who breathed her last in a Toronto, Canada, hospital on December 9, too, belonged to a society where singers have faced many challenges.

Gula was born on January 21, 1952, in the Shaga area of Kuz Kunar [Lower Kunar] of the eastern Afghan province of Nangarhar. By age 7, she had been introduced as a singer and was performing at family gatherings. The singer came to prominence at a time when her country had become the epicentre of a proxy war between the US and the USSR.

By the late 1970s, she had become an iconic female singer of Afghanistan. In those days, she met noted composer and singer Ustad Hafizullah Khyal, who helped her record songs for Afghanistan’s national radio and television. Her first song to be released publicly was the highly appreciated:

Pa ma mayena, stargi di sray di,

Aw nan di deer zharhali deena

[O‘ my devotee! Your eyes have turned red; it seems you have wept a lot today]

Ustad Mohammad Din Zakhel, whom she married, played a vital role in her career by training her and composing many of her songs.

The Soviet invasion in 1979 brought incredible suffering and hunger to the people in Afghanistan. Hundreds of thousands of Afghans were killed, many went missing and nearly five million people had to take shelter in neighbouring countries, most of them in Pakistan.

The war deprived Qamar Gula of her two sons Dawood, 22, and Mirwaise, 19, who were killed and went missing, respectively.

In 1991, her husband, Ustad Mohammad Din Zakhel died. After the end of Dr Najibullah-led government in 1992, when civil war broke out across the country, she migrated to Peshawar with her family, where she spent about five years.

After Afghanistan fell into the hands of the Taliban in 1996, who left no room for playing music, Qamar Gula settled in Canada in 1997-98. That was where she stayed till her last breath.

Four aspects distinguish Qamar Gula from other Pashto singers of her time:

She developed a style in Pashto music that was her own.

She was one of the few Pashto singers whose style was followed by a large number of other singers, both male and female.

She never sought undue publicity and restricted her singing to formal forums.

Qumar Gula acquired musical training for years.

“With the passing of Qamar Gula, Afghanistan has been deprived of one of the most brilliant music stars. She was a singing legend and has left many memorable songs in the hearts of her countless fans.

For her immense contributions to Pashto music, Qamar Gula not only received nearly two hundred awards and medals during her decades-long career, the Afghan rulers gave her many brilliant titles.

King Mohammed Zaher Shah, the last monarch of the country, acknowledged her talent and awarded her with a gold medal in the late 1970s. It is believed that Shah gave that medal to her after the release of her celebrated song that was widely praised.

Ro Ro Kezhde Qadamina Ashna

Sharang da pazeb di aalamona khabrawena ashna

[O my darling! Take your steps slowly,

Your anklet bells may intimate all the people of the world]

In 1983, President Babrak Karmal gave her the title: Golden Voice of Pashto Music. Prime Minister Sardar Mohammed Dawood Khan and President Dr Mohammed Najibullah also praised her contributions and presented awards to her. In 2007, the then Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, gave her the title of Bulbul-i-Afghanistan for her services for Pashto music.

After her burial in a local cemetery in Canada on a chilly evening on December 10, noted Afghan musician Ustad Shah Wali burst into tears while commenting on her contribution to Pashto music: “Like her own child, I spent more than seventeen years at her home, acquiring musical training from her husband, Ustad Din Mohammad Zakhel. She was a dervish, a merciful woman. I request to all of you to offer two rak’ah nafal for her soul”. Shah Wali said. “She made unforgettable contributions to both Pashto music and Afghanistan.”

Ustad Khyal Mohammed, the celebrated Pashto Ghazal maestro, too, expressed deep sorrow over her departure.

In an interview with BBC, Shaperai Naghma, a star of the Pashto music industry, praised her services. She said that she has been one of Qamar Gula’s followers in music.

Paying tribute to her, famous Pashto singer Haroon Bacha credited Gula for having inspired many Pashto singers during their musical journey.

Former Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, expressed grief over the passing of the legendary singer. In a social media post, Karzai said, “With the passing of Qamar Gula, Afghanistan has been deprived of one of its most brilliant music stars. She was a singing legend and has left many memorable songs in the hearts of her countless fans.“

Karan Khan, a Peshawar-based musician expressed grief on the legend’s death: “Qamar was a pillar of Pashto music whose collapse is an irrecoverable loss to the world of Pashto art.“

Pashto singer Gulzar Aalam credits her for having secured a special place in Pashto music and among the people of Afghanistan and beyond. He said, “Her unique style will not die.“ Gulzar says it is unfortunate that many Pashto musicians, including Qamar Gula, who died thousands of miles far from her homeland, have had to suffer for their work.

There is no denying that Qamar Gula enriched Pashto music by making great contributions amid unfavourable conditions. As a national icon, unfortunately, she was not shown appropriate respect in her life. In an interview, she said, “there has been a rude trend in Pashtun society regarding their notables. Pashtuns don’t value their notables in life. Accolades come after their death”. May her beautiful soul rest in peace.

The writer is a Zhob based columnist and lecturer at Government Degree College Zhob. He can be contacted at

The nightingale of Pushto music