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Kabul rocks... with music


By Adrienne Mong, NBC News Correspondent

KABUL — For once, it’s not a deadly explosion that’s rocking the Afghan capital.

Just a deafening one.

Electric guitars.  Drums.  Bass guitars.

And a whole lot of moshing. 

“I want to welcome you to Hoodie’s, the first underground nightclub!”

A handful of people were gathered in a freshly-painted, non-ventilated basement to listen to Tears of the Sun, a five-member band from Uzbekistan, jam as part of a month-long rock festival in Kabul, the first one to take place in Afghanistan in 35 years.

“We have a situation now that Afghanistan is very much on the tilt, and it can go either…way,” said Travis Beard, founder and director of The Sound Central Asian Modern Music Festival

Adrienne Mong

White Page jams at Hoodie's. It was only their third live performance together as a band.

Holding the Sound Central festival might seem incongruous in what many regard as a war zone in a very conservative society.  When it controlled the country from 1992 to 2001, the Taliban banned recorded music.  In some parts of the country, musicians are still harassed and rock music is regarded suspiciously.

And while Kabul is perhaps more liberal, it also now feels increasingly unstable after a month of high-profile incidents, including an attack on the U.S. embassy and the assassination of chief Afghan peace negotiator Burhanuddin Rabbani.

Security considerations forced Beard and other organizers to hold the festival’s opening night last month in New York, where the closing ceremony is also scheduled, on Oct. 21.  The rest of the festival is centred on events in the Afghan capital—workshops, jam sessions, and last weekend’s all-day concert.

"One hallmark I think of stable and secure country is one where you can have a music festival," said Brian Neely, a cultural affairs assistant in the U.S. embassy in Kabul, one of the key event sponsors.  "It shows stability, but it's also life.  I mean, sometimes life is rock 'n roll."

Especially for the youth in Afghanistan.  Fifty percent of the nation’s 30 million people are under the age of 18, according to UNICEF data from 2009.  And most of them have never seen music like this performed live, only on the Internet or satellite television.

“If we don’t give [the Afghan youth] something, a way to voice their opinions and their ideas then they’re going to feel like they’re being silenced. And music is a great way to do that,” said Beard, a photographer from Australia who first came to Kabul to work four years ago.   He dreamt up the idea back then and has spent the past two years planning intensively.

Adrienne Mong

Young Afghan headbangers--all men--go wild over local band District Unknown.

Jam sessions all week
Contrary to expectations, some of the biggest challenges weren't even about the violence. 

"They're thinking that we're over here dodging bullets and crawling through the mud...but really a lot of the barriers have been...the Internet going down, traffic, getting the ministries to process something," said Daniel Gerstle, a Brooklyn-based musician who is also the event producer.

Then there were cultural considerations, such as maintaining an alcohol-free zone and timing some events early enough in the day so that women could attend without family censure over being out too late after dark.

Late Tuesday night saw Hoodie’s kick off a week of jam sessions, starting with Tears of the Sun, one of a dozen bands from the U.S., Australia, Pakistan, Iran, Central Asia, and of course Afghanistan.

At first, the show brought in more photographers than audience members.  But before long, the room grew stuffier and smokier with more people trickling in.

“It’s the best night of my life,” one young man shouted.  He and his friends — Afghan men in t-shirts and skinny jeans and the odd hoodie -- slam-danced to set after set.  They jumped, swayed, pointed their fingers into the air, flicked on their lighters.

No Afghan women were to be seen.

Just over an hour later, someone — perhaps a disgruntled neighbor more used to the low thump-thump of Blackhawk helicopters and cannon fire than electric guitar and drums — shut down the power.

But it was no matter.  Someone had rustled up an acoustic guitar.

The following night’s jam session kicked-off two hours earlier than the previous night, “due to noise issues,” said festival organizers.

The evening also saw some of Kabul’s own take to the stage, like White Page.  The group was started just six months ago by four students from the prestigious Afghanistan National Institute of Music.  Though steeped in the teachings of classical music, all four band members wanted to play rock music -- in particular, heavy metal, just like their idols Metallica.

They also have loftier aspirations.  “We wanted to show [people] how improved Afghanistan [was] during these 10 years,” said Hojad Hamid, the band’s lanky 20-year old solo guitarist, referring to the decade-long war.

With only three original songs in their repertoire (two written in English and one in Dari), White Page filled the hour with covers from Green Day, Linkin Park, and System of a Down—bands that have all inspired them, said the group’s lead singer Raby Adib, a 19-year old Kabul native.

Adrienne Mong

Morcha started up in 2005 and describes itself as a "blues rock" band.

Their performance also inspired the audience -- again largely composed of young Afghan men.

“All that music I’ve heard on the radio or watched on TV, now I hear it here, live, in person,” said 20-year old Asil Ahmad.

His friend, who would only give one name, Ahmad, is more widely traveled. Nevertheless, “it’s my first time in Afghanistan to see such an event,” he said.  “[We’re] so proud and [feel] honor!”

Developing an Afghan sound
Three other native bands have been featured in the festival: Kabul Dreams (indie rock), Morcha (blues/rock), and crowd favorite District Unknown.

Considered the first heavy metal band to launch in Afghanistan, District Unknown specializes in doom death metal and realism.  One of their songs is about a NATO air strike that goes awry and hits a wedding—“a message to be aware of the errors of war,” said Gerstle.

It's a message that also resonates with Afghans.  By the time District Unknown's jam session rolled around on Friday, Hoodie’s was crowded with people and anticipation.  At one point, a dozen men began chanting, “D.U.!  D.U.!  D.U.!”

Not everyone, however, were familiar with District Unknown.

A handful of Afghan women stood in the corner, giggling and moving restlessly.  One of them, Farida Akbar, said she didn’t even know the name of the band.  The 25-year-old charity worker — who favors rap and hip hop over rock — had come along at the suggestion of her colleague.

“It’s good for us to come out and to see this kind of stuff and to know about these things,” she explained.  “It’s just different, not bad.  Just a lot of young people getting together.  It’s fun.”

Nonetheless, she added, “One thing I would have liked to have seen is more women.  I see many men here.”

Moments later, well into the first set, Akbar and her girlfriends had inched their way towards the edge of the stage, jumping with delight at the band’s performance.

The main event
Many more Afghan women could be seen at the headline event, an all-day concert on Saturday.

Set in an enclosure inside the Babur Gardens -- a park built by the first Mughal emperor in the 16th century -- the event started 90 minutes late as organizers waited for an audience to turn up.

That morning, they had sent out 30,000 cell phone text messages, but by mid-afternoon barely 300 people had come through the security gate manned by Afghan police.

Musicians milled together.  A man in a shiny gray suit prowled around with his compact camera.

As with music festivals across the world, advertisers had set up booths along the edge: Roshan (a cell phone operator), Paywast (a mobile social networking service), and Jubaili Bros. (a power generator manufacturer).

Two schoolboys with their backpacks sat in the corner, staring more often at the audience than the musicians.

Adrienne Mong

Morcha is a band from Herat in western Afghanistan.

Once again, the Uzbek band Tears of the Sun proved popular.  Perhaps in part because the lead singer, Sabina Ablyaskina, was one of the few women on stage.  While she dressed conservatively with a veil and layers of long garments, she radiated a verve and energy seldom displayed by Afghan women in public.

“The audience is cool,” said Ablyaskina.

“The best of the best,” agreed her fellow band member and guitarist Nikita Makarenko.  “Maybe not a very big crowd of people, but it’s a good start.”

Stability and security
By late afternoon, the crowd had grown to 500, with noticeable clusters of young women dressed in veils and long tunics over their skinny jeans.

“We saw a lot of girls in concert,” said Lodina, a 23-year-old woman from Kabul who came with another young woman.  “We enjoy it.”

 “Joining these concerts…is part of bringing change to the country,” said Nargis, a young woman who volunteers for a women’s rights group.  “When we come, some other people see girls are coming to the concerts and nothing is happening and it’s fine.  Maybe they are also motivated to bring their own sisters and their mothers to the concert.”

Another change was another step forward for Afghanistan, showcasing its modern musicians.

"I think Afghanistan can be a part of rock [music] in the world,” said Hamid of White Page.  He envisions a bright future, in which his band will “have a good contact with all the bands around the world and have a good concert [and] have at tour.  I hope to see that day before I die.”