So what is Attan? In one word it is a dance. But this is the dance of the Pashtuns; a people who according to some have formed the largest tribal society in the world. Since the dance in some cases also serves as a form of tribal identity (although there are exceptions), the large number of tribes and sub tribes is reflected in diversity in the various forms of Attans in practice. Although it is important to mention that Attan is not indigenous to all Pashtun areas. This “Attan-less” zone includes almost all of the northern districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) in Pakistan i.e. Peshawar, Mardan, Charsadda, Dir, Malakand etc and also the tribal agencies of Khyber, Mohmand, and Bajaur.
A peculiar aspect of Attan these days is the rate at which it is being documented. Modern technology is to be accredited for that; the proliferation of mobile cameras has made youtube a treasure trove of attan videos, just typing the word “Attan” in youtube returns approximately 19,700 videos.
This is an attempt to leverage that great resource and identify the types of Attan that are out there and to highlight variations within each type, but first a bit on the history of Attan.
History of Attan
There are various explanations regarding the history of Attan. One version puts its roots in Zoroastrianism; as this dance was supposed to take the early Zoroastrians into a trance like state.
Another version ascribes the Attan to Alexandar’s invasion of modern day Afghanistan. Thus tying Attan to the ancient “Pyrrhic Dance”, a war dance that was part of military training in both Athens as well as Sparta.
V. H. 1 Pyrrhic Dance
V.H.1 is quite an original version of the Pyrrhic dance filmed in 1960.
V.H.2 is from the Olympic Games ceremony of 2004 that was held in Athens.
There maybe more historical accounts out there that I am not aware of, but for both of the above explanations I could not find any substantive sources to make them authentic enough in my opinion.
But whatever the history, presently Attan is a highly evolved as well as diversified dance form. From a source of tribal identity to an expression of joy as well as protest, the Attan is an integral part of Pashtun society.
Disclaimer and Requests:
Before I present my version of the various types I have to spell out my constraints in carrying out this exercise. Being from Peshawar city I am not native to any Attan styles, so my subjective assessment is influenced by my Attan searches on youtube and more importantly by interactions with friends who have grown up with some of these Attans. For this reason, I have had a lot more input on the Attans from Pakistan particularly for Type B and C (in my listing), but for all the other ones my source has been youtube.
While considering videos, I have tried my best to avoid videos from concerts or ones where the music is being played on a stereo. Instead I have mostly chosen ones with dhols (drums) and rural settings. Having scoured through hundreds of videos on youtube, I have found a few uploaders very useful, they are AttanNations ,SrJanNasar and shoaibmasood211.
In determining the tribe of the dancers, I have taken the word of the person posting the video. If any changes are in order, then post your explanations in the comments section while quoting the number of the video.
And now a request; back in 1999, I received a book as a gift. In it was a description of the various types of Attans both in Pakistan as well as Afghanistan. The book was published in Afghanistan back in the 70s I guess, and was a very extensive thesis on the various types of Attans out there. The explanation was done entirely in text with almost no pictures. Having not seen the different Attans I could not make any sense of it. But now along with youtube that book could be a great resource in putting pictures to its words. However the problem is that I have lost that book, and cant seem to find another copy. If anyone knows which book I am referring to then kindly do let me know, even if its just the name.
Before we go into the details of the various types, lets quickly go through the musical instruments needed to make an Attan come to life.
The most essential instrument of course is the Dhol (Drum). But dhols vary by sizes, for some types the size is relatively small. The reason for that could be geographic but the distinction between dhols is apparent among the various types of attans.
The second most important instrument is the Surna (Zurna), although very common, the surna is not essential with every type.
Another instrument that is specific to some styles, is the Baja (Harmonium), given the size and shape of the harmonium it is usually played while sitting on the ground, but for Attans, the harmonium is bound in a shawl that is wrapped around the players back.
A very rare one is the Sarangi just like Baja this one too is supposed to be played while sitting down but for Attan, the musicians strap it in front to walk along the group of dancers.
So without much further ado, to the various types;
Types of Attan
My division of the various types focuses on differences in their style of execution, the steps involved, the beat and also the musical instruments used. Considering these factors I have identified seven separate types of Attans. The distinctions are not set in stone and would love feedback on how to improve them. Furthermore, tribes are not limited to one style and a tribe can appear in two different styles. This is true for the first five types as we will see.
But here is how I have divided the different styles, and the tribes that I have identified for each:
Type A: Wardak, Mangal, Zadran, Niazi
Type B: Wazir, Mehsud, SalmanKhail, Marwat, Bhitani, Miani
Type C: Achakzai, Barech, Kakar, Jafar, Kasi
Type D: Salman Khail, Kharoati, Nasar, Tarakai, Luni
Type E: Zazai, Mangal, Turi
Type F: Khattak
Type G: Mashwani, Tanoli
Note: The tribe names against each style are what I could find on the net, would include links to more and update accordingly if I receive more videos.
Type A: Wardak, Mangal, Zadran, Niazi
Type A is probably the most common in Afghanistan. I say this because of old videos coming out of Kabul TV in the 70s, which predominantly had this type of Attan. The beginning pace is slow where the dancers step backward and then forward with a clap to complete the loop. At later stages the attan goes into a series of alternate clock and anti clockwise full turns. The dhol used is of a smaller size, and thats the only instrument used, usually there are two dhol players.
One of the most famous singers for this style is Daud Hanif, his song “tora da jilkai” was a hit back in the day and was THE Attan song everywhere. Being used to the Type B and C Attans, I found it very difficult to dance to the beat of Type A especially during the last stages, as the music stops abruptly and then restarts to launch the dancers into turns. This break is very distinctive of Type A Attans and separates it from Type B and C although in slower tempo all three are the same when it comes to music.
V. A. 1 Wardak
V. A. 2 Wardak
Another version, for the faster stages involves a more complicated sets of turns; it begins with three clockwise turn each taking 3 beats, and then a counter clock turn followed by a quick clockwise turn. a very peculiar thing about this version is the presence of a leader. The guy leading the pack coordinates with the drummer, the main decision is when the change is made from claps to turns, and the leader gives his command by quickly touching the ground, the drummer then changes his beat to accommodate for the upcoming turns while the followers also launch into turns.
One thing to conclude about Type A could be that it is perhaps the most popular Attan style. Furthermore, because of various reasons I have mentally put it as an Afghan Attan rather than a Pakistani one. But I have found quite a few videos accredited to tribes in Pakistan that are dancing the Type A. This could either be because of the proliferation of Attan (more on that later) and the dancers adopting to a new style, or it could be the case that the style is indigenous to the region; as someone commented on one of the videos that this type is known as “dray makhay” and that it is performed by “khattaks, waziirs’ masood’s paktiawal’s and also quetta side pashtoons!”. It would be interesting to get more proof on that, and therefore I am holding my judgement on it.
V. A. 7 Bhittani,
A small change in V.A.7 from the regular Type A are the two leaps, one towards the dhols and a subsequent one away from them. Leaps such as these are a very prominent stylistic feature of the dances in Type B, as we will see in the next section.
Type B – Wazir, Mehsud, SalmanKhail, Marwat, Bhitani, Khattak, Miani
For this section I had a lot of fruitful input from my good friends, Gulawar Mehsud and Hafeez Ullah Wazir, Gulawar happens to be my ustaad in Attan as well.
The basic steps are back steps consecutively to the left and then to the right, with a forward movement that completes the loop. It is in the later part that the dance takes on various variations. A distinctive feature of this style is the head banging, for which many dancers grow long hair. The dhol used is larger sized and just like Type A here too, no other instrument is usually used, similarly two dhols seem to be the norm for every performance. The most iconic singer for this type was the late Kamal Mehsud, whose iconic Urdu song “tum chalay aao paharoon key qasam“ introduced Attan to non-Pashtun audiences as well.
V. B.1 Wazir/Mehsud
V.B.1 is a perfect example of the Type B attan. The slow paced basic steps taken during the earlier stages turn into quick alternating half circle movements, one clockwise and the other counter clockwise. Between each set of turns there is a back step that serves as an interlude and prepares the dancer for the next loop.
Gadawool or Laibay
The quicker section in the later stages has many variations, these are collectively known as “Gadawool orLaibay”. Laibay are of various types, but in essence they are a series of clock and anti clockwise turns that are carried out in a variety of different ways. The key in all is to build up to these turns in a different manner. One variation is called the “Wardagai”, probably referring to the Attan of the Wardaks (?) i.e. Type A in our listing. But as the videos show this variation is very different from the original Wardak attan.
V.B.3 is the example of a popular wardagai style. It begins with a complete turn, followed by a clockwise half turn, which is then followed by anti clockwise half turn and three steps in the back ward direction, this completes the loop and the dancers go through the same again.
V. B. 4 Mehsud
V.B.4 is a slight variation to the V.B.3, as during the three backward steps, the dancers put in another turn. This is one of my favorite videos
V. B. 5 Wazir/Mehsud
V.B.5 is another interesting variation, in which the dancers bow in three different directions and then break into a full turn, followed by three half turns, with the first one clockwise while the last two in the counter clockwise direction. Yet another one of my favorite videos.
For this section I had input from my friend Abdul Rehman Bhitanai.
Type C is common among the southern Pashtun tribes. The basic steps are the same as that for Type B, i.e. back steps consecutively to the left and then to the right, and then a forward movement that completes the loop. A distinctive feature of this style is the waving of props such as scarves (dusmal) and shawls in the later stages of the attan. Another subtle feature that distinguishes this style from Type B, is that during the slow phase the dancer accentuate each step by small hops to complement the main steps.
Dhols used could be of both small and large sizes with an almost compulsory use of the Surna. It is very rare to find videos of this style without the surna accompanying the dhol. The most iconic singer for this style, and my personal favorite is Mohammad Shafi, this song of his has been in my car’s cassette recorder since last year. Listen to it as a treat every now and then because am afraid of ruining the tape. Its pure goosebumps every time I listen to it. Other major singers include Mohammadullah Katawazi, and Mashal.
As in V.C.2 one variation in the later stages is where the steps quicken and the dancers start bending their knees to move quicker through the steps and also clap their hands in tandem with the drums. A 360 turn is carried out, but rather than doing a circle, the turn consists of two alternating long steps in opposite directions, the right arm is waved accordingly with the steps to add to the beauty of the move.
V.C.3 is quite different and I had to make compromise on my rule of dhol-only videos for this post. The 360 turns, are done is a very unique manner; the dancers pivot on their right foot, alternating between clock and anti clockwise turns. The upper body moves first while the lower body follows. One of my favorite videos.
V.C.4 is a great example of the Type C in the later stages, the emphasis is on back and forth leaps and the leaps become longer and longer as the beat goes faster. This is one of my favorite videos.
A peculiar version of Type C attan is the Bareech Attan, for those who know about salsa, the regular Type C attan is to Bareech Attan, what Salsa is to Cha-cha-cha, i.e. the beat is slowed down to allow for additional steps inbetween. If the regular Type C attan is done to the beat of the Bareech Attan, then it would involve a lot of pauses, the Bareech dancers however, fill in those pauses with small steps.
Another fact about Barech attan is that it is very similar to the Balochi Chaap. The similarities can be seen from 4:09 onwards in V.C.7 . with the dancers bending over and then responding to the dhol. Also the beginning part of this chaap, is the same as the basic Type-C attan. The co existence of Barech and Baloch tribes in Noshki could probably explain the similarities in these two dance forms.
The Jafars warrant a separate section because their Attan is very unique. This uniqueness is a result of their culture which is difference from that of other Pashtun tribes. To begin with the Jafar’s speak their own language which is called the Jafarki, according to one source 80% of the language is close to Sindhi. This means indigenous Attan songs that are not in Pashto.
For instance V.C.J.1 has a typical attan tune with the dancers dancing the basic Type C, but the lyrics of the song are not in Pashto. This is one of my favourite videos, just for the quality of the vocals.
Given the location of the Jafar tribe i.e. district Musakhel in Balochistan, Pakistan, their culture has strong Baloch influences as well. The traditional dress of the Jafars is the same as that of the Marri, Bugti and Buzdar tribes. This visual similarity makes the Jafari Attan (also known as Gheemir) look very similar to the Baloch Humu dance.
Consider V.C.J.2, the beginning part is the same as the basic attan, but the tune being played from the harmonium is distinctly non Pashtun (Baloch?). In the later stages when the beat picks up the dancer walk in the backward and forward directions while clapping. Furthermore there is a constant chant of “Huwa” or “Humu”.
The beginning part V.C.J.4 has a pace and steps that are very similar to Balochi chap, especially the bending down to come in for the clap. An interesting presence is that of a Sarangi, which is very rare for the other attans. At 4:10 the group breaks into attan, which is a simple Type C.
V.C.J.5: Jafar Sword Attan
another interesting aspect about Jafar attan is that its done with swords as well. Apparently there is a Baloch sword dance that is very similar to this but I could not find any videos on youtube for it. The dancers break into groups of two and perform moves that definitely qualify as sword practice.
Type D: Salman Khail, Kharoati, Nasar, Tarakai, Luni
This type is very similar to Type A in the slow stages, where the dancers sway back and forth while slowly moving to their right. It is in the later stages that the dance breaks into various variations, most of whom concentrate on extremely fast 360 turns. A distinctive feature of this type is that a dusmaal or a shawl is tied around the waist, this makes the rest of the kameez swell up during the turns. Another thing about this style is that contrary to other styles, in this one the upper body turns before the lower body and the feet then follow the momentum built by the upper body. Similar to Type B, headbanging is a crucial aspect of this type. Just like Type C, scarves (dusmaal) are often used as props, in the beginning stages, one scarf is tied around the waist while quite a few are tucked in the front, as seen in V.D.5 and V.D.11.
Another distinctive feature about this version is that just music is seldom enough, and usually a harmonium and a singer is present, as you can witness in the videos below yourself, the quality of the vocals is amazing in these rural perfomances. Large dhols are used and two drummers seem to be norm for this style as well. Major singers include the legend Khan Qarabaghi, Dawlat Qarabaghi, Qandai Kochi, Kher Mohammad Khandan and this amazing one by Mohammad Shafi could also be associated with this style rather than Type C.
But the most interesting feature that i found in only this style, is that the dancers make ululation sounds, these sounds are made in many regions as an expression of joy but are usually done by women. Listen for it in V.D.1 at 0:12 secs and it keeps repeating after that.
The main variation in this version is a series of 360 degree turns at the same spot, the concentration is on the delivery of a very fast whirling session. The dancer tries to get into position before that, which is done by taking small steps in forward and backward directions, waiting for the beat to change, after which the whriling begins.
V.D.2 picks up from the lowest beat where the dancers sing along with the drum. Notice how the drummer teases the dancer into building up the tempo during the turns and then suddenly drops it at the end of the whirling to simply a crawl. The change in pace is accounted for by swaying at the same spot.
But the most amazing performance for this type, that I could find on the net, is this little guy in V.D.6 who whirls at blinding speeds and makes sure to let out a war cry before he does his turns. There were videos of him along with a grown up man, both dressed alike, cant seem to find those anymore, if anyone knows what I am talking about then do share the link.
V.D.8 is a very authentic version, with periodic ululations.
An interesting variation in this type is V.D.9 as in the later stages it has the exact same steps as the “wardagai” for Type B (V.B.3 & V.B.4) but the style of execution is very Type D. One of my favorite videos.
Type E is different from all the other that we have seen so far, and that’s not only in terms of its steps but also in terms of its music. The dance has some very peculiar aspects to it that are unique to it. If there is to be a “happiest attan” award, then this is the attan that should get it.
Here is one version in V.E.1, it starts with “ghaaray” i.e. the dancers singing out loud, interestingly the beat in the background is the attan beat for type A and B. But at around 3:48 the attan breaks into the Type E style. That involves three steps in the forward direction, and then the dancers turn towards the middle and after two steps do a united head butt and a clap followed again by a head butt and a clap, during this phase the music stops and single beats from the drum accompany the head butts and the claps. After doing two of each the loop is complete and you hear happy shouts and the loop begins again. The variations then continue as the music picks up but those are complicated to be put to words. A unique feature is a united shout that the dancers let out to mark the end of the loop.
Here is another one
Although there is only one dhol wala in V.E.2 the enclosed compound provides echo that makes the beat very pronounced. It is a great video to realize the difference in the beat of Type E music compared to that for Type A to D.
This type is very different from the attans of the other sort, the beat is also completely different. The Wikipedia entry on Khattak Dance is quite substantive. I will reproduce it here and try to enhance it with videos Would really appreciate corrections:
The Khattak dance has a lot of forms: Shahdola, Bangra, Balballah, Qamar Balbala, chatrali, braghda’ona, tamseeli dana, charri dana and individual performance.
Bangra is derived from word Bangrai or Bhangrai (Bangle). This dance have to performed in circle. Bird view of the performance looks like a bangle so this is why it is called Bangra or Bhangra. This is merely an exercise to warm up body muscles it is slow in rhythm and with pauses to hold sword like today soldiers hold rifle in Musketry. In the Bangra, every member swirls while carrying swords. In 1-3 circles, an unlimited number of elders, young, and children, each carrying a sword and a handkerchief, start dancing in a circle having band and surnai in the centre. At the beginning of Bhangra, few performers turn by turn sing love songs or quotations which is called “Takkay” (5-7 Takkay by each, Takkay is commonly popular in sheep herders, they sit on the hills and sing on the top of hill with high pitch, if someone there on other hill he will reply the Takkay in return and some play it with their floats), at a high pitch, which is meant to convey to the audience that they would like to be tipped for their performance. At the end of the song, the drumbeat increases and the dance goes on.
Individual performance of Khattak dance comprises 12 steps, which require great skill on the part of the dancers. The dancer alternates between performing solo and synchronizing with the rest of the troupe. Groups of two or four performers carrying a sword and a handkerchief, perform turn by turn, while the rest of the troupe members wait for their turn.
while Qamar balbala is exercise to get control on stepping and stable the body balance at the top of hill and it is performed with swords. sword is used to keep balance while moving quickly on uneven surface of the hill.
In the Laila, a group of four performers holding two swords each perform stunts while moving in a circle.
Braghoni is the fastest and the most adventurous of all the steps: A single dancer performs with three swords. He swings two swords in the air while holding the third in his mouth.
The Mashwanis and Tanolis are hindko speaking tribes in the Hazara Division of K.Pakhtunkhwa their attan is also known as “Khumbar”. The music is very different from the established Attan tunes, and is very close to the typical maidani tunes that is typical of the music of the plains, there are also influences of the Punjabi dances of Sami and Ludi, both in the music as well as the steps.
The dance starts of slowly, with the dancers stooping and moving forward one step at a time. At faster pace, there were quite a few variations that I noticed in just a few videos, for instance, in the one below, which is accredited to the Mashwani tribe, the music changes at around 2:22, and is very similar to the Khattak dance, the steps also change with the dancers doing three step half turns on both sides.
Here is another version, in the beginning the free style but in sync dancing is something that is peculiar to Khattaks and are also similar to Sami and Ludi
The Taliban phenomenon has had a very detrimental effect on Pashtun culture and traditions in both Afghanistan as well as Pakistan. Attan is no exception and has suffered due to the Taliban’s opposition to music.
T.V.1 : Late Kamal Mehsud on Taliban
T.V.1 is a short report from Voice of America, in which the late Kamal Mehsud speaks about the Taliban phenomenon and its impact on music in general and Attan in particular. Although this report is limited to Waziristan, it is safe to assume that Attan would have suffered in any other part that has come under Taliban influence.
T.V.2: Taliban Attan
But if T.V.2 is an actual video of the Taliban, then it shows the power of Attan as a source of relaxation and entertainment. Despite being brainwashed into beheading people, these men still turn to Attan to have a bit of fun, albeit without any dhols, which somehow lessens the “sin” of the act I guess.
It is interesting to note that like other Pashtu tunes, the Taliban are also leveraging Attan tunes for their nasheeds. The one in T.V.4 is the same as the famous attan song “Sray Stargay Khumaray, Banra May Jalandar The Na… Teek May Daaray Waaray The Charay The Zargar The Na”, sung by the Late Kamal Mehsud in attan tune and also by Bakhtiar Khattak in a non attan one.
Proliferation of Attan:
Given the entertainment value of Attan, the advancement in modern means of communication especially Television and Internet is greatly facilitating its proliferation. As I said thousands of videos have been put up on youtube alone, but the more formal sources have also had a huge impact on Attan’s introduction to non-native demographics.
In terms of chronology, I think Kabul TV of the 70s might be the first one to make attan videos a regular part of its transmission.
V.P.1: Gul Zaman Attan (Kabul TV)
V.P.1 is one of those examples, as the legendary Gul Zaman sings “Shna Shna they Khaloona” surrounded by a group of girls dancing the Type A.
PTV most definitely arrived late in the game but one person who should be credited the most in this regard is Mr. Amanullah Nasar. Living upto the Nasar reputation for being in love with Attan, Amanullah saab has been phenomenal in his devotion to Attan, something that he has continued to do as he has made the switch to Khyber TV.
The video V.P.4 is from Khyber TV showing young girls dancing the Attan, the venue most probably is Peshawar.
V.P.5. Khyber TV Report on Attan in South Waziristan
Cable TV is also playing its own role, as is the norm in Pakistan these days, most cable channels have an illegal channel of their own in which they play CDs and get local advertisements. In Peshawar besides playing Pashto telefilms, these channels also play Attan CDs given the interest of the population. One of the most common face in those videos is that of “Ghamay” and his group.
V.P.6: Ghamay and Group
I tried searching more on him, but there is nothing on the net about his identity. But one thing is for sure that he has had a very positive impact on the recognition of attan in Peshawar atleast. He mostly dances the Type A attan, but includes a lot of his own improvisations. In my extended family I know of some boys who have learnt the attan from his videos. In V.P.6 he is performing with his group in a wedding in Peshawar.
The Pashtun diaspora around the world is also contributing a lot in terms of the visibility of Attan. Again the entertainment value of Attan makes it a necessary addition, whenever cultural diversity is being celebrated at university campuses or otherwise.
V.P.7 is a performance by an Afghan Student Union at some university abroad. Its an excellent performance that includes all major dances of Afghanistan, Attan is the final dance on the list starting at 8:00, they perform Type A on our listing.
V.P.9 is one of the best videos around for Type A Attan.
V.P.10: Quaid I Azam University
Finally a tribute to my sweet Quaid i Azam University Islamabad, where I was introduced to attan. Since enrollment in QAU is on quota basis, each batch has students from FATA as well as Balochistan. My batch also got attan maestros from both Waziristan as well as Quetta, the result was many like me who got introduced to the joys of attan. Here is a video of my group doing attan at a reunion we organized back in 2010. We danced Type B followed by Type C.
Looking forward to the feedback and I hope to improve this post further.