Threats and Revival of Endan-gered Music – A Case of Torwali Music

Print Friendly

Zubair Torwali*

*The author is a senior research fellow with CRSS and the Executive Director of Idara Baraye Taleem-o-Taraqi (IBT) Bahrain Swat, KP, Pakistan.

Torwali is a Dardic language spoken by a community of about 80,000-100,000 in the idyllic valleys of upper Swat district in north Pakistan. It is one of the Pakistan’s 28 ‘definitely endangered languages’ as categorized by UNSCO in its Atlas of World’s Languages in Danger 1.

In 2007 a team of community researchers started the work of its ‘preservation and promotion’ by organizing their efforts in a local civil society organization, Idara Baraye Taleem-o-Taraqi (IBT) or Institute for Education and Development. Since then the organization has been undertaking a number of revitalization initiatives targeting youth and children.

In Pakistan various linguists and organizations have undertaken a number of similar initiatives. But most of these good initiatives are only focused on ‘documenting’ the languages in question. Some of them altogether ignore the importance of ‘revitalization of cultures especially the music’ because many of these language activists found themselves thwarted by their Islamic faith as an overwhelming majority in Pakistan now thinks everything through a religious prism. This often makes the endeavor for preservation and promotion of these languages ineffective.

But the organization Idara Baraye Taleem-o-Taraqi (IBT) has taken a holistic approach for the preservation and revitalization of the endangered language, Torwali.

Initially IBT developed orthography for the language; and based on that it established schools for children in their own language. The curriculum for the kids contains rhymes and poems.

In addition, IBT started a campaign in order to repackage the poetry and music so as to popularize it among all the community members relevant to all ages and genders.

In Torwali music there has been only one genre of music called żo. This has been sung in one way only since centuries. This genre is very much appreciated by the elderly men and women, but the youth and children, being influenced by modern Urdu and Pashto music, cannot relate to this genre much.

In the past, when the people of this community were less exposed to the dominant music and cultures, there were many poets, women and men alike, of żo as the people of the community had their own cultural events and gatherings.

In order to popularize the music, dances and traditional games among the youth, IBT held a three-days indigenous cultural festival in 2011 which was named Simam. In the festival the youth sang Torwali songs in modern ways with modern themes. Though the way they sang resembles Pashto singing, nonetheless, it popularized Torwali music with the youth.

In 2015 IBT undertook a Cultural Revitalization project wherein new songs are being produced and sung in a modern way. It is a fusion of ‘modern’ and ‘traditional’.

My paper is focused on the work done by IBT for Torwali music, its significance to foster identity based development; and, of course, the challenges it poses for the linguists, researchers and musicians.

Introduction and background

According to Ethnologue 2 there are around 7,106 languages currently spoken in the world. Linguists estimate that by the end of this century, more than half of these 7000 plus spoken languages will be extinct, resulting in loss of valuable scientific and cultural information.

UNESCO’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger 3, categorizes 2,473 languages into five levels of endangerment:

  • Vulnerable – not spoken by children outside the home;
  • Definitely Endangered – children no longer learn the language as their mother tongue in the home;
  • Severely Endangered – the language is spoken by grandparents and older generations, while the parent generation may understand it, they do not speak it to children or among themselves;
  • Critically Endangered – the youngest speakers are grandparents and older, and they speak the language partially and infrequently; and
  • Extinct.

One of the 28 highly endangered languages of Pakistan listed in the same Atlas, is the language called Torwali, which because of not having a written tradition and the fast “language shift” towards the predominant language Pashto in the areas, is rated definitely endangered.

Torwali is a Dardic language of Indo-Aryan family mainly spoken in the Bahrain and Chail areas of District Swat in Northern Pakistan. The level of its endangerment can also be assessed by its small community of speakers which is approximately 80,000-100,000.4 Close to half its speakers have migrated permanently to the bigger cities of Pakistan where their language is either being replaced by the national language Urdu, or by other languages of wider communication such as Pashto.

The language Torwali is said to have originated from the pre-Muslim Dardic communities of Pakistan. The people or community speaking this language are called Torwalik or Torwal. Like other Dardic communities the Torwalik have no idea of their origin, most of them relating themselves to Arabs and Pashtuns. This can be due to the fact that no credible research has been done on the Dardic communities: their origin, culture and languages in Pakistan. The language is still in oral form and its speaker cannot read or write it.

There have been numerous surveys done by some national and international organizations on Pakistan’s 28 endangered languages such as Sociolinguistic Survey of Northern Pakistan (Rensch|Decker|Hallberg1992) and Linguistic Survey of India (Grierson, 1903-28). However, these publications have only a few chapters dedicated to Torwali and other languages of Swat Kohistan. In the given state of affairs what is required is for the language to be documented to the fullest extent possible and duly preserved before it is extinct, and takes away with it a wealth of knowledge about Torwali culture, history, and ancestral knowledge embedded in the language.

Torwali poetry

Torwali poetry has two main genres—żo and “phal”. The main difference between Żo and “phal” is way they are sung. Żo is sung by almost all singers whereas “phal” was sung, and to some extent, is still sung on special occasions. Singing of żo is more difficult than singing of “phal”. In żo the singer needs to hold his or her breath for a long duration, which is not the case while singing “phal”. Both żo and “phal” have two lines in couplet forms with the same rhyme scheme.

Both żo and “phal” were very popular two decades ago. A majority of the poets of żo were women. It is the classic form of poetry and has the ability to express every kind of theme—from the very vulgar to the sublime. It is still common among elderly men and women.

“Phal” was sung in the past on occasions like the threshing of maize grains from cobs with the help of wooden rods with the chorus dancing of girls and boys in two straight opposite lines called “Dhiz”; and on the occasions of crops or grass harvesting locally known as “Hashar”.

Torwali poetry is still transmitted from generation to generation through word of mouth. However, recently Idara Baraye Taleem-o-Taraqi (IBT) has started to collect and write it.

Żo is more popular than “phal” but in singing the latter is easier. Only established singers can sing the Żo. The instruments used in singing żo or “phal” are usually sitar, ‘bhedaen’ (pitcher made of mud when it is lid with tightly with animal hide or some string cloth); and “beshel” (flute). In the past a “Soorni” ( a type of traditional pipe) and “dhooman” (drum) were also used while singing “phal” or “Dhiz” (dancing in chorus).

The rise and fall of Torwali music

Before the onslaught of popular media—radio, satellite television and social media—the Torwali poetic genre żo was very popular. In the community almost each woman used to express her sorrows, pleasures, deprivation and love in this genre. Men also used to say żo of various themes especially of themes of love, sorrow and grief.

In 2012 Idara Baraye Taleem-o-Taraqi (IBT) collected about 300 old żos whose poets are mainly unknown. Among the 300 couplets one can sort out 70% couplets that are to be recited by women. This is also very different from the Persian influenced Urdu poetry because here the female poet addresses her beloved by a masculine pronoun whereas the male poet can do so by addressing his beloved with a feminine pronoun or name. This is not so in most Urdu poetry as most of the time the poet uses the masculine pronoun for his beloved in Urdu.

Both the popular genres—żo and “phal” used to be sung on special occasions like wedding ceremonies, communal working times, and in the times of harvest and sowing. In addition to that singers used to record their singing in audiotape recording cassettes for the general public. These tapes were then played on cassette players. Most houses had one, at least. In those times there were no CD or DVD players, nor were there the TV channels that exist today. The people even used to send these taped cassettes to their near-ones living in the cities or abroad.

Ironically the tape recorders in the community helped raise the production of Torwali poetry, unlike the current DVD and CD players and satellite television channels. In the eighties and nineties Torwali music was at its prime. Many new singers of the żo rose and produced volumes of music. A famous singer cum poet, Muhammad Zeb, had produced 121 volumes (tape cassettes) and the music shop in main bazaar Bahrain played Torwali żo publicly. In my teens I witnessed it myself; and was aware of how all the women and men knew Muhammad Zeb as he was virtually a celebrity then.

It is not that it was only Torwali music sung and listened to by the people of the Torwali community. The charm of old Bollywood (Indian cinema industry) music and of Pakistani Urdu singers was very popular. The elderly loved Lata Mangeshkar, Muhammad Rafi, Talat Mehmood, Asha Bosley, Kishore Kumar et el (Indian) along with Mehdi Hassan, Noor Jahan, Mala, Ahmad Rushdi and Rona Laila (Pakistani) very much. It was a time when pop music had yet to make its mark among the audience.

With the beginning of the second millennium just as there were many changes on the global level, likewise, changes among the indigenous communities were equally swift; the Torwali community is one such indigenous community.

The people in the semi urban center, Bahrain, began installing satellite television, which primarily showed Indian soap operas and movies. In addition, the business of VCRs began, whereby, videocassette recorders (VCRs) and television sets would be rented out to people who would take them home to watch Bollywood movies. A few men also began the business of showing Indian movies in their shops, which attracted the youth. By then the Pashto music industry had also flourished with female singers and dancers which was very much liked by the ordinary Torwali man. This accelerated the rise of Urdu and Pashto songs among the Torwali audience.

The impact of this onslaught was disastrous for Torwali music. Soon the taxi drivers began playing Pashto and Urdu music CDs and DVDs in their cars. Before that most cars had audiotape players and the taxi drivers used to play Torwali music cassettes on them.

The new technology in music was not the only cause behind the fall of Torwali music. After the nineties the rigid puritan Islamic school of thought, generally referred to as Wahhabism – the puritan interpretation of Sunni Islam by the Arab scholar Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703–92) – began to flourish in the area mainly through the teaching of the Tableeghi Jamaat – a non-political preaching movement in Sunni Islam. The influence of the Tableeghi Jamaat and the teachings of Wahhabism spread to every hamlet and village in the area because of the refugees from Afghanistan in the wake of the Afghan Jihad against the former Soviet Union. Many singers and poets of Torwali language abandoned their creative work and joined the Tableeghi Jamaat.

Although Wahhabism and Tableeghi Jamaat impacted every community in Pakistan, but smaller communities like the Torwali were more severely impacted as their language had no written script and the poetry and other traditions passed through the word of mouth only. The only medium of communication was oral. As a result the music and culture of the Torwali community was badly affected. The puritanical religious attitude also reinforced the cultural stigma attached to singers and musicians. Many players of sitar and soorni (pipe) abandoned their work because of the social stigma which was strengthened by the affiliation of the singers’ and musicians’ sons with the Tableeghi Jamaat.

Gradually the singing of żo and “phal” declined. As music is natural to human nature, therefore, curbing it completely is impossible. Because of the stigma and profanity that was associated with music and dance by these religious movements, a majority of the Torwali community left its own music and began to quench their aesthetic urge with the help of alien music as that couldn’t be stopped because of its association with larger, more powerful and more established societies, Urdu and Pashto.

The fear or stigma has now grown so strong for the indigenous singers and musicians that in 2011, when Idara Baraye Taleem-o-Taraqi (IBT) was holding the indigenous culture festival “Simam,” it brought the musicians to the venue of the event undercover; and their instruments were dismantled so that the sons and relatives of the musicians might not see them with the instruments.

And now under the influence of powerful media, electronic and social, the youth of the Torwali community hardly ever listen to Torwali żo and “phal”.

The struggle to revive the culture; especially the music of Torwali community

The situation was realized by the few educated aware youth of the Torwali community and consequently they formed an indigenous organization, Idara Baraye Taleem-o-Taraqi (IBT) i.e. institute for education and development in early 2007 for an integrated uplift of the people of Swat-Kohistan and with preservation and promotion of the Torwali language and culture as their primary goals.

The organization has undertaken the revival and revitalization of Torwali poetry and music, in addition to designing a writing script, developing course books and establishing schools in the Torwali language. IBT has been continuously advocating for the revival of culture and language of the Torwali and other linguistic communities in north Pakistan. It has been constantly encouraging singers, poets and musicians to produce poetry and music in these languages. Some major interventions of IBT regarding the revitalization of the Torwali music in the Torwali community deserve mention here.


“Simam” is a Torwali word meaning dignity, decor and improvisation. In July 2011, soon after the Taliban insurgency in Swat, IBT conceived an Indigenous Culture Festival and named it after the Torwali word “Simam”. The main objective of this three days event was to celebrate the Torwali culture with all its elements—both visual and performing arts. The festival was perhaps the first of its kind in Pakistan in relation to the smaller linguistic communities. It required four months preparation wherein the singers, poets and musicians were encouraged to perform. A series of rehearsals for nearly forty days was held prior to the three days of the main events.

Almost all the Torwali singers, musicians and poets were involved in the festival along with the elders, local political leaders and youth. The festival had żo and “phal”; traditional games, dances, display of tangible culture and talks on culture and peace. For three consecutive days over 9,000 people celebrated and performed their culture. IBT somehow managed to bring the old pipers and drummers along with the sitar players to the festival. Playing of the local pipe (soorni) and the drum (dhoomam) had been abandoned thirty years ago. IBT brought the pipers and drummers to the public and engaged them with the public for three days. The festival had tremendous impact on the revitalization of the Torwali music after years. The singers and poets who had previously abandoned their work restarted it. The younger generation now has videos and audios of Torwali music on their cell phones. The traditional games abandoned fifty years ago are now being played after the festival.

Sponsoring a local cable network TV channel

In 2012 IBT sponsored the installation of a cable TV channel on the local cable TV network in Bahrain for the revitalization and promotion of the Torwali language and its music. The TV Channel has more than 400 home connections in the Bahrain town, which is more vulnerable to foreign influence because of its easily accessible and semi-urban status. Since its establishment, the TV Channel has been showing various programs of Torwali music, including some ‘new Torwali music’, which imitates the tones and style of Pashto or Urdu music. We often get feedback from the audience and viewers of this channel and have found that women are still very fond of the Torwali żo and “phal”. However, the younger generation prefers the so-called new Torwali music that is very much in line with the tune and tone of either Pashto or Urdu music.

Kalam Summer Festival 2013

Since restoring peace in Swat the Pakistan army has been arranging festivals in the scenic town of Kalam near Bahrain with the help of the provincial government. These festivals lack a local touch; and the music and songs presented are all in Pashto and Urdu.

In June 2013 Idara Baraye Taleem-o-Taraqi (IBT) convinced the organizers – Pakistan Army – of these festivals to include local culture in the events as well. Being overwhelmingly Punjab based the organizers had no idea of the local culture but somehow IBT secured some time from them. That time was utilized by IBT in the singing of żo and “phal” with the help of the pipe and drum, along with dancing. The performance pleased the over 10,000 audience (mostly tourists) overwhelmingly and they shot hundreds of videos of it. The local people still use those videos of the Torwali music in their cell phones. The performance let the non-locals know about the unique cultural diversity of Swat.

Producing Torwali songs in DVDs using the state of art technology

Given the history of our engagement with our struggle of preserving and promoting the Torwali language and culture, we at IBT contemplated on how to compete with popular Pashto or Urdu music so that the new generation may also enjoy Torwali music. We have noticed that Torwali music and poetry is stagnant, with only two genres: the żo and “phal”. Some attempts were made by the youth to give it a so-called new touch. However, their production is merely an imitation of the tunes of Pashto or Urdu music. They even translate the exact themes of Pashto or Urdu lyrics and sing them in Torwali with the same tune as the source language. Besides, the poets don’t delve into other genres such as the Nazam, Ghazal or Geet forms.

Given the intense realization of this milieu, IBT has recently undertaken another project on the preservation and promotion of the Torwali language and culture. In the cultural component of the initiative, IBT has undertaken the production of 1,000 copies of DVDs of Torwali music in the new but unique genres as well as the żo and “phal”.

Under this initiative 5 tracks of Torwali music are produced using state of the art technology and video shooting. Among the five tracks, only two are of żo and “phal”. The remaining three are new genres with new themes such as identity, peace and love. For this purpose three selected vocalists and three instrumentalists were trained. Three poets, including myself, produced new poetry. A renowned media house and filmmaking company was hired.

The idea behind the initiative was to ‘fuse the modern and traditional’ so as to produce Torwali music according to the taste of both young and old.5

The DVDs are distributed free of cost. The local cable network TV channel has also projected the music for more than a month and will continue to do so.

Now most the taxi drivers play these DVDs in their taxies happily. Similarly, the people also watch these DVDs in their private cars and homes.


  1. Inaan (Torwali classic poetry with Urdu translation), book published by Idara Baraye Taleem-o-Taraqi (IBT) in 2012
  2. The Ignored Dardic Culture of Swat—paper by Zubair Torwali published in May 2015.
  3. Vestiges of Torwali Culture—published by Idara Baraye Taleem-o-Taraqi (IBT)


  1. “Moseley, Christopher (ed.). 2010. Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, 3rd end. Paris, UNESCO Publishing. Online version:”. 2010. Retrieved 17 May 2013
  2. Ethnologue: Languages of the World is a web-based publication that contains statistics for 7,106 languages and dialects in the 17th edition, released in 2013. Up until the 16th edition in 2009, the publication was a printed volume.
  3. “Moseley, Christopher (ed.). 2010. Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, 3rd end. Paris, UNESCO Publishing. Online version:”. 2010. Retrieved 17 May 2013
  4. The new and old tracks will be presented at the Conference Music of the Endangered Languages during my presentation there.This is an approximate estimation found in web-based language related publications such as 1) Ethnologue; 2) Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger (UNESCO); and 3)
  5. The new and old tracks will be presented at the Conference Music of the Endangered Languages during my presentation there.