Ustad Farida Mahwash is the “Voice of Afghanistan,” and one of the most beloved singers in the entire Central Asian region. Her robust, luminous voice with its subtle command of ornamentation has dazzled audiences worldwide, as she shares her country’s rich musical heritage through performances and recordings.
Farida was born into a conservative Afghan family. Her mother was a Quran teacher, who recited with a beautiful voice, and religion loomed large in the girl’s upbringing. For many years, Farida’s interest in music was suppressed as female singers and musicians were viewed with contempt. Upon completing her studies, Farida found support and refuge in a position at the Kabul Radio Station. The station’s director, Ustad Hafiz Ullah Khayal, recognized her extraordinary talent, and bravely encouraged her to pursue singing as a career. It was Ustad Khayal who gave Farida her stage name, Mahwash, which means “like the moon.”
Mahwash then took music and singing lessons under the tutelage of Ustad Mohammad Hashim Chishti. An established maestro, Chishti quickly launched his protégé on a rigorous training regime. Most of his lessons, which are based on North Indian classical music, are still used today to train Afghan singers. Mahwash went on to study with the renowned Afghan singer Ustad Hussain Khan Sarahang, who guided her through her meteoric rise as a radio star. Another master composer, Ustad Shahwali, created many songs for her to sing on the radio. One of the best known was “O Bacha (Oh Boy),” which brings together half a dozen regional songs in one extended modern song cycle. When Mahwash learned this complex piece and recorded it in a single day, she was given the title of Ustad—or “master”—a controversial move as, until that point, this was an honor reserved only for men.
After the political turmoil of the late 1970s and ‘80s, Ustad Mahwash was forced to leave Afghanistan. In 1991, she and her family moved to Pakistan, where she took refuge from two warring factions, each of whom wanted her to sing for their cause, or face assassination. Worn and exhausted, she applied for asylum abroad, and, eventually, her plight was recognized by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Mahwash was granted political asylum in the United States in October, 1991.
In 2001, Mahwash reunited with other exiled musicians to form and lead The Kabul Ensemble. This group performed at some of the most prestigious concert halls in Europe and revealed to sophisticated audiences a hitherto unknown world of uniquely beautiful music. In 2003, Mahwash and the Kabul Ensemble recorded the critically acclaimed album Radio Kaboul (Accords Croisés). This rich collection pays homage to the disappeared or exiled composers and musicians of Afghan radio’s golden era. Later that year, Mahwash received a prestigious BBC Radio 3 World Music Award, both for her artistic excellence and for her work in speaking on behalf of thousands of orphaned Afghan children. In 2007, Wahwash followed up with a recording secular and sacred love poems, Ghazals Afghans (Accords Croises /Harmonia Mundi), in which, Martina Catella notes, “The legendary queen of ornamentation displays a rainbow of the most refined tones and colors to express feelings of love.”
Mahwash has built her phenomenal career in the face of two wars and under a forced state of isolation from her homeland. Although she had to leave Afghanistan, she has never lost her deep love for the country and its people. The collaboration—Voices of Afghanistan— is a magical exchange of powerful vocals and deft musicianship under artistic direction of music producer Dawn Elder and Afghan musical director Homayoun Sakhi these musicians and artists have quickly garnered a reputation as the most powerful cultural ambassadors of Afghanistan today.
Ustad Farida Mahwash was the first woman to have been conferred the honorary title of “Ustad” (meaning Master or Maestra in Dari) in 1977. She currently lives in Fremont, California, US; and tours the world.
Mahwash has built her career in the face of two wars and under a forced state of isolation from her homeland. Although she had to leave Afghanistan, she has never lost her deep love for the country and its people.
In 2012 Mahwash became a member of the group Voices of Afghanistan, an Afghani ensemble featuring Mahwash on vocals, rubab master Homayoun Sakhi, and The Sakhi Ensemble. Also were other notable Afghan master/ and Uzbekistan (Abbos Kosimov) musicians and singers. This collaboration debuted in June 2012 under the direction of music producer and composer Dawn Elder, who created this group with Mawash and Homayoun.
One of their landmark performances came before 27,000 American fans at the Carrier Dome for the One World Concert event. In 2012, Mahwash, Homayoun Sakhi and the group began recording a new album.