It’s a cliche in music writing to label records – especially instrumental works – as akin to a “journey.” Yet in 2019, I can’t think of another record that actually embodies that concept better than Hashshashin’s newest LP, ‘Badakhshan.’ Named after the historic desert and mountainous region that crosses over northeastern Afghanistan, eastern Tajikistan, and China’s Tashkurgan county, this album takes you on a kinetic trip through these very places by getting back to something simpler, something more natural, removed from Western commodification. The Badakhshan is a highly important area, both musically and spiritually, and its an area that Hashshashin’s stringed instrumentalist Lachlan R. Dale (also the label manager of Sydney’s Art As Catharsis records and Worlds Within Worlds) traveled across; profoundly inspiring the progressive songwriting and atmospheric vision of his group’s most recent release.
Spanning seven-tracks over more than 50 minutes, ‘Badakhshan’ is a rare instrumental album where you can actually feel the living soul of a tangible place felt in the music; you can fully hear and taste the cultural heritage that drives it all forward. Yet Hashshashin’s latest work isn’t at all a “culture vulture” moment; it carries deep respect and love for these regions, traditions, mysticism and music that originates from them. Ergo, their new record experiments with droning, psychedelic Middle-Eastern prog sounds even further to achieve this effect. Whether it’s creating new earthen tones and textures via the use of Persian setar’s and Afghan rubab’s; using an app to map out rhythms that align with actual geometry of certain real-world landscapes; implementing Moroccan krabebs, harmonium and didgeridoo; or tuning the humbling experience of venturing beyond one’s own comfort zone and worldly perceptions – this is a resonating and ritualistic listen, and one that I simply adore.
This record is a meeting of various influences and beliefs; a record built around detailed history and rich tapestry. With the album now out, Lachlan was kind enough to pull us across the dwarfing Pamir Mountains, the Panj River, the great Taklamakan Desert, old shaman shrines, and the vast Wakhan Corridor that he trekked past in his travels, and how they relate to the journey and sonics of ‘Badakhshan,’ with this in-depth album feature. (Even including a few photos snapped from his trip as well.)
“I have fallen in love with the rubab, an instrument that is central to Afghan classical music. Often beautifully decorated with pearl inlay, its unique sound comes from two echo chambers in the body, in combination with animal skin and a series of sympathetic strings, which add rich overtones and reverberation when played. This instrument inspired Indian classical musicians to the point where they adopted and adapted it, resulting in the sarod. In the 1860s, the roots of Afghan classical music were laid when Indian musicians were invited to play at the Afghan court in Kabul. The style mixes elements of Hindustani classical music with local elements and is best represented by the music of Ustad Mohammad Omar (though I must also mention the Herati musician Ustad Rahim Khushnawaz). In both Indian and Afghan classical music, ragas begin with an alaap – a slow unveiling of the main movement or melody. While the opening track Qom does not strictly meet this classification, it sets a mood and acts of our point of departure for the album.”
2. ‘Crossing The Panj’:
“‘Badakhshan’ is the result of several years of experimentation. As a band, we made the decision to avoid rehashing the ideas of our first album. This lead to the composition of the various pieces you hear across the album – the introduction of new instruments, the greater focus on repetition and dynamics, the heavier psychedelic bent. ‘Crossing The Panj’ was the final song we wrote for the album. It seemed to act as a bridge between the bouzouk-based, riff-heavy sound of ‘nihsahshsaH,’ and the more meditative feel of ‘Badakhshan.’ For me, this track represents the first steps of a long journey. It conjures up my time in the Pamir Mountains, crawling up dirt roads in the shadow of immense mountains, or slowly working our way across immense valleys. The sheer scale of the landscape does something to the human psyche. It inverts our assumed superiority over the forces of nature. We find ourselves insignificant and at the mercy of the whipping dry winds and relentless sun. It is an awe-inspiring – almost religious – experience.”
3. ‘Death In Langar’:
“The scenery of the High Pamirs was incredible. We passed mud-brick towns surrounded by scorched earth, and glittering silver lakes mirroring the immense sky above. As we began to descend towards the Wakhan Corridor, we had to pass through a border crossing into Tajikistan. There the land was filled with desolate black rock and jagged peaks. And then, half an hour later, Langar appeared impossible lush in the distance, with poplar trees swaying in the breeze. The land surrounding the town is incredibly fertile thanks to glacial streams rich in minerals. It was an idyllic place, with wonderful, friendly locals. Across the river lay Afghanistan, tantalizingly close. It was here that I bought my first rubab from a man named Ustad Abdul Mohammad. He told us how rubabs are used in Pamiri culture to heal the sick. I’m not sure whether these practices come from Sufism or local shamanic practices, but it had a strong effect on me.”
4. ‘Shrines Of The Wakhan’:
“Over the centuries, the Silk Road route along the Wakhan Corridor has seen travellers who were Buddhist, Zoroastrian, Nestorianist, Manichaeist and more. This has lead to an interesting exchange of religious and cultural ideas. Across Badakhshan itself, you will find the shrines of the Nizari Ismalli Muslims. Adorned with the horns of ibex and urial, these structures represent a fascinating fusion of shamanic/Zoroastrian roots with the worship of Sufi saints. Our drummer spent time experimenting with the XronoMorph app to create rhythms that are perfectly balanced according to Euclidean geometry. They have quite a hypnotic field to them. We built this song around one of those rhythms. To me, it brings to mind a sort of circumambulation or ritual movement. It’s a repetition that gains potency over time and enables transformation and transfiguration. I see it repeated in the sacred landscape of the Wakhan, in the peaks of the Pamirs and the Hindu Kush, and in the saturating sun.”
“This is the first song I’ve recorded using the Afghan rubab – an instrument that is also found in Badakhshan, Pakistan, Iran and wider Central Asia. Sarhadd is in the North-East corner of Afghanistan, at the intersection between Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uyghur Xinjiang in China and Kashmir.”
6. ‘The Taklamakan’:
“Our journey has taken us from Qom, across the Panj River, through the Wakhan Corridor and finally through to Sarhadd. From here we continue on to Kashgar, and then out into the great Taklamakan Desert. The exact origin of the name Taklamakan is unknown, but several theories suggest it may translate as the place of ruins, the place of abandonment, or the place of no return. This desert has claimed the lives of countless Silk Road travelers. Here our grip on the world becomes lighter. We are swept up by the winds. Our vision is transformed. We start to hallucinate, to lose ourselves in the dunes, in a sand storm, in the illuminated night sky. Our psyche is split open. What does the end of this song represent? Of a caravan gradually disappearing into the mists, traveling onward? Of the wind blowing through the tunes to create a ghostly hum? Of our disintegration into the sand? Of a spirit melding with the landscape?”
7. ‘Then He Hid Himself In The Refining Fire’:
“On this track, I play the Persian setar and get to show off my love for my loop pedal. But I don’t think I can explain this song to you, because its meaning is not even clear to me, and the parts I do know I don’t want to share. That is for listeners to think about. What has happened here? Where are we? What does this song represent? The title is taken from a line in Dante’s Inferno, but it is worth thinking about the symbolism of fire in both Zoroastrianism and Sufism.
With this album, I have the sense that I’m trying to work my way back to some sense of spirituality in a culture that has lost both the tools to induce mystical experience and the language to speak about it. Music is a part of that search, and an effort to communicate experiences and ideas that I haven’t been able to conceptualize. In the West, our conception of music has become impoverished. It’s viewed largely as a commercial product, where elsewhere it may be used in religious ritual to enable transformation and bring about altered states of consciousness. Music has a revolutionary potential that capitalism attempts to disarm. I’m optimistic enough to hope that this is never truly possible.”