Torwali music and poetry

Music is a cultural construct, and culture refers to a set of behaviours, beliefs, social structures, and technologies of a population that are passed down from generation to generation. It includes social conventions related to art, dress, manner, religion, morality, ritual, dance and music.

Alan Merriam (1964) describes three aspects to music:  sound, behaviour, and concept. As sound, music is auditory signals that are produced by performers and perceived by listeners. As behaviour, music is associated with tangible activities (e.g. performance, dance, ritual) that are often essential to music experience.

In Torwali there is no covering word for ‘music’ as it is usually lumped. There are terms for more specific acts like singing, playing instruments, and more significantly for performing such as dance and games.  It has indeed names for individual genres of music.  Like many oral languages Torwali has no ‘poems’ but ‘songs’; and it is very common that almost every poet is a singer, too. Hence what may be called in this piece poetry is in reality songs (music), the sound mixed in performance. Musicality, like elsewhere, is a prominent and distinctive characteristic of this Torwali, too.

Among the Torwalis there are no specialists for music and poetry. It is very folk—by common people and for common people—and all musical activities are often inclusive, with little distinction between performers and audience. All who are present participate in the activity in some capacity; and there are no specialists for music or songs here. Everybody can play and sing.

The Torwali poetry has two main genres—the special kind Zo [ʐo], and rest of poetry is usually referred to as Phal [pʰɘl]. The former is sung by almost all singers whereas “phal” was sung and is still sung on special occasions. Singing of Zo is more difficult than singing of “phal”. In Zo the singer needs to hold longer whereas singing of “phal” involves breaking of breath.  Both Zo and “phal” has two lines in couplet forms with the same rhyme scheme, mostly ending in long ā, yet Phal has other rhyming schemes as well. For instance:

دُھوت لھیگیِر ڈولی سیرأنے مھأ دھیایی دم پہ دم

چھی أݜی الماس سی چھلے حی زید کی تأوی زخم

تُنُو دا سی بوگو دیرے نہ چھو

تُو ماگو سی بھورو کیکیدے کھو

The ancient ‘phal’ could be without rhyme as well:

For example:

ایِمان سی ایک ہودے گھیِنیدے دیریل سی گام

ہائممو بھنگ سی شلا پائں بیِش ہودی حساب

Here is an example of Zo:

أ مھی تھیئے سُوال تُھو اُوتھل کھن سی بورا

ایک یأری می دلا نہ گݜ دُوئی ڙو نہ سوا

æ mhi theyē sūāl thū othɘl khɘn si borā

ek yæri mi dɘlāl nɘ gɘş dūi ʑo nɘ sɘā


I implore you my beautiful beetle of the high mountain

In matters of love, neither make Zo, nor employ the middle man.


An example of “phal” is given below:

یأ اوران ڙھدینے والُو نیِل گیا

ڙاد سی پأل وئی مھی مے بُوگیوا

Yæ orān ʑéndé wālū nil gɘyā

ʑād si pæl wɘyi mhi mé būgæwā


As the Oran flashes the green forest,

A stream of blood runs down my chest.

Modern Torwali peotic genres, influenced by Urdu or Pashto, came to the scene later. After the 90s young poets began to write poetry in forms vogue in Urdu Ghazal or Nazm. They also produced poetry along the lines of the popular Urdu/Hindi geet.

A modern young poet, late Salim Janbaz, started satire and humour in Torwali poetry. He also wrote poetry on social and ethical themes. He used the Urdu and Pashto genres for his serious and humorous poetry.

 حی آنگا گھیِنُوسأد مُدامی غم سی ساتُودے مھی

ڙاد لیرمُون سی أں ئے آپ، ایک ایک سا سی ڙھیِگُودے مھی

ɦi āɳā ghinūsæd, mūdāmi ɣɘm si sātūdé mhi

ʑād lérmūn si æ̃ ye āp, eg eg sā si ʑhĩgūdé mhi


The perpetual angst sets my heart on fire

My inner soaked in blood with the innate ire.

تأ ہُم آش کو ڈیڈّ اے نظر می، نے پأننیِن سرا

مُو سی ڙانگ جلُودُو، چھی جُدئی او کُومُویُودے مھی

tæ hʊm āj ko ɖiɖo ē nɘzɘr mi, nē pænin sērā

mū si ʑāɳg jɘlūdū, ɕhi jūdéi o kūmūyūdé mhi


Thou shan’t never sense the deep sign

On my burnt face by incessant pine

Torwali poetry is still transmitted through word of mouth. However, recently IBT has started to document and publish it.

The traditional instruments used in in Torwali music are usually sitār, ‘bhédæn’ (pitcher made of mud with its lid tightened with animal hide or some string cloth); and “béʃél” (flute). In the past “Sūrni” (a type of traditional pipe) and “ɖhūmān” (drum) were also used while singing “phal” or dancing “ɖhiz” (dancing in chorus).

The rise and fall of Torwali music  and poetry

Both Zo and “phal” were very popular among the Torwali people in the 70s, 80s and 90s. Mostly women used to be poets of Zo, too. 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 liked by many women and men. In the past about 70 percent of the poets of Zo used to be women.

Both the popular genres were 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 public. These tapes were then run on the tape players almost each house used to have one at least.

Ironically the tape recorders in the community helped raise the production of Torwali poetry unlike the current DVD and CD players and the satellite television channels. In the 80s and 90s the Torwali music was at its prime. Many new singers of the Zo rose and produced volumes of music. A famous singer and poet, Muhammad Zeb, had produced 121 volumes (tape cassettes) and the music shop in main bazaar Bahrain played these volumes publicly. In my teens I witnessed it myself; and remember how all the women and men knew Muhammad Zeb as he was held a celebrity then.

This rise of the Torwali music was too short. After 2000, rapid changes happened elsewhere; changes sped up rapidly among the indigenous communities as well; and Torwali is one of such indigenous communities.

The people in the semi urban center, Bahrain, (in Swat) have already begun to install satellite television which would mainly showed Indian soap operas and movies. In addition to it few men started the business of videocassette recorders (VCRs). They would rent out the VCRs and a television to the people who would take them to homes to watch the Bollywood movies. A few men also started VCRs shows at their shops where the youth would go and watch the Indian movies. By then the Pashto music industry also flourished with female singers and dancers. This was liked by the ordinary Torwali man. This accelerated the rise of Urdu and Pashto songs among the Torwali audience. The VCRs were replaced with DVDs and CDs. This was new technology for the singers and poets who could not use this technology for recording.

The impacts of the onslaught were terrible on the Torwali music. Soon the taxi drivers shifted to play Pashto and Urdu music in the CDs and DVDs in their cars. Before that most of cars had audiotape players and the taxi drivers used to play the Torwali music cassettes on them.

The new technology in music was not the single cause of the fall of the Torwali music. In the wake of the Afghan Jihad in the 80s and 90s the rigid puritan religious thought spread in the area rapidly. The influence of this puritanical religious mindset terribly impacted the music landscape of northwestern Pakistan including the Torwali areas.  Consequently, many, musicians, singers and poets of Torwali language abandoned their art and work.

Although the spread of this revivalist religious mindset impacted every community in Pakistan but smaller communities like Torwali were the worst victims as their language had no writing tradition while the singers and poets cannot stand against the religious extremism. Lacking a written medium, the only available medium—audio oral— could not sustain this technological and ideological onslaught; and consequently, 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 sūrrni abandoned their work because of the social stigma further strengthened by the revivalist form of religiosity terming it immoral and profane.

As a result the singing of Zo and “phal” declined. Because of the stigma and profanity religiously associated with music and dance majority of the Torwali community left its own music and began to satisfy their musical urge with the help of dominant Urdu and Pashto music as that couldn’t be stopped because of its being music of larger and powerful societies.

The fear or stigma has now grown so strong for the indigenous singers and musicians that in 2011 when IBT was holding the first ever indigenous culture festival “Simam”, it brought the musicians to the venue of the event under-covered; and their instruments dismantled so that the sons and relatives of the musicians might not see them with the instruments.

The struggle to revitalize the Torwali poetry and music

The situation was realized by the few educated and aware youth of the Torwali community and consequently they started a long-term program on the revival of the Torwali music and poetry under the banner of IBT.

The organization has also undertaken the task of introducing literacy of Torwali, reclaiming of the lost Torwali identity and documentation of the folk poetry and related music. It has been constantly encouraging singers, poets and musicians to produce poetry and music of these languages. Some major interventions of IBT regarding the revitalization of the Torwali music in the Torwali community deserve mention here.

The indigenous culture festival, Simam:

“Simam” is a Torwali word meaning dignity, decor and improvisation. In July 2011, soon after the Taliban insurgency and floods in Swat, IBT conceived an Indigenous Culture Festival and named it after the Torwali archaic word “Simam”. The main objective of this three-days event was to celebrate the Torwali culture with all its elements—poetry, singing, performing and visual arts. The festival was perhaps first of its kind in Pakistan in relation to the smaller linguistic communities. It has a preparation of a year behind it wherein the singers; poets and musicians were encouraged to perform. A series of rehearsals around a period of three months 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. To the festival activists, poets and linguists from Kohistan, Gilgit and Chitral were also invited. The festival has Zo and “phal”; traditional games, dances, display of tangible culture and seminar on the co-relation of 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. The festival had tremendous impacts on the revitalization of the Torwali music after years. The singers and poets who had previously abandoned their work restarted it again. The younger generation has now videos and audios of Torwali music on their cell phones. The traditional games abandoned fifty years ago are being played now after the festival.

Sponsoring a slot in the local cable TV network operation facility

In 2012 IBT sponsored the installation of a slot on the local cable TV operator facility in Bahrain for the revitalization and promotion of the Torwali language and its music. The TV channel has more than 450 home connections in the Bahrain town, which is more vulnerable to foreign influence because of its being easily accessible and exposed to modern technology; and of being semi-urban. Since its establishment the facility has been showing various programs of Torwali music including some ‘new Torwali music’, which is imitating the tones and style of the Pashto or Urdu music. We often take feedback from the audience and viewers of this channel and have found that women are still very fond of the Torwali ʑo and “phal”. However, the younger generation likes the so-called new Torwali music that is very much in line with the tune and tone of either Pashto or Urdu music. Nevertheless, there is now a growing young generation of Torwalis who sing and love ʑo.

Kalam Summer Festival 2013

Since restoring peace in Swat after the Taliban the Pakistan army had been arranging festivals in the scenic town, Kalam, with the help of the provincial government. These festivals lack local touch; and the music and songs are presented in it are all in Pashto and Urdu.

In June 2013 Idara Baraye Taleem-o-Taraqi (IBT) tried to convince the organizers, Pakistan Army, of these festivals to include the 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 singing of ʑo and “phal” with the help of the pipe and drum along with dancing. The performance pleased the over 10,000 audiences (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 documenting, revitalizing and promoting the Torwali language and culture we at IBT felt the need of enabling the Torwali music to be popular among the Torwali youth and elders.  We have noticed that the Torwali music and poetry are stagnant with only two genres, the ʑo and “phal”. Although some attempts by the youth are seen where they tried to give it the so-called new touch. But their production is merely an imitation of the tunes of the Pashto or Urdu music. They even translate the exact themes of the Pashto or the Urdu lyrics and sing them in Torwali with the same tune as of the source languages.

Given the intense realization of this milieu IBT has undertaken another project on the preservation and promotion of the Torwali language and culture in 2015-16. In the cultural component of the initiative IBT has undertaken the production of 1,000 copies of a DVD album of the Torwali music in the new but unique genres as well as the ʑo and “phal”.

Under this initiative 06 tracks of Torwali music were produced in a video album named Manjoora i.e. gift, using the state of the art technology and video shooting. Among the 06 tracks, ʑo is sung in two different ways—the traditional and in an improvised form. Another ancient form of singing of ʑo in the video album is ‘dhūbā’ meaning sung by two, that is like a duet where two singers sing the ʑo in turn. The video album, Manjoora, has the other three tracks in modern form usually referred to as “modern phal” that is very much like the Urdu/Pashto genres. They touch new themes such as identity, peace and love. For the album three selected vocalists and three instrumentalists were trained. Three poets including writer of this paper 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 make the Torwali music suit the taste of both the generations—young and old.

The DVDs were distributed among the public free of cost. The music was run at the local cable network TV channel for more than a month and since then it has been going on.

Smaller musical events and mushairas:


Promoting any form of music becomes a hard task in a growing radically religious Pakistan. The task becomes even more challenging for a linguistic minority like Torwali in northern Pakistan who are smaller in number, historically brutalized and colonized, who are politically weaker and socially marginalized for they cannot stand against waves of radicalization by the dominant societies. In such marginalized communities the folk culture is badly influenced by hegemonic forces as they lack modern tools and approaches to safeguard their culture and languages.

The case of revitalization of the Torwali music and other forms of culture is, however, a case of immense resilience adopted by the local activists associated with the organization mentioned and others.

Today we see a rising reimagining of their culture, identity and language among the Torwali community. People have again started holding events of their folk music in the wedding ceremonies in the area. Young people have started writing Torwali poetry and promoting it via social media channels.

Though encouraging, yet it is hard to tell of a very bright future of the Torwali music because calls for a stop to it are also in the rise among most of the people. In addition, using state of art technology for the folk music of the Torwali and other such communities is too costly for the singers and musicians. Adhering to traditional ways of music composition and recording is a people-based approach but given the use of modern technology in music and singing it becomes too difficult for an underdeveloped community to keep pace with the so called ‘popular culture’ ubiquitous via traditional and digital media. The next steps IBT is to take are to use the social media platforms including YouTube as tools for the promotion and revitalization of the Torwali music. Many activists belonging to IBT have already been engaged in such activities; and, inspired by these activists, many young people of the Torwali community have launched their YouTube channels and Facebook pages for Torwali poetry and music.


  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)

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