Kabul Rock City

Afghan youth take on corruption and war with heavy metal.

Kabul Rock City
The Afghan rock band, The White Page: Raby Adib (vocals), Hojat Hameed (guitars), Rateb (bass), Reshad Afzali (drums), take on corruption and war via their music [Travis Beard]

In November 2010, four 20-something Afghans took the stage at a private party in a Kabul French restaurant. As the young men walked on stage, their long black hair, leather jackets, hoodies, electric guitars, a bass, and a drum kit conspicuously took the place of the traditionally Afghan tabla, harmonium, and robab. This was Afghanistan’s “first heavy metal band,” D.U., who proceed to rip into a cover of shock-rocker Marilyn Manson’s cover of the Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)”.

The shock rocker’s disturbing and gritty take on a pop song built almost entirely on computers may seem to some as out of place in today’s Afghanistan, but it is in fact a perfect continuation of Afghanistan’s long legacy of music and poetry. From Rabia Balkhi’s fabled odes, to her beloved writing on the walls of a hamam (bath) with the very blood gushing out of her jugular veins in the final moments of her life, to an iconic Afghan singer-songwriter singing about crushing defeats in a life full of “death and despair” in the 1970s, the rich history of poetry and music in Afghanistan has often veered onto darker paths than the devotionals to the beloved that have made Afghan-born Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi the world’s best-selling poet.

Though icons of Afghan music like Ahmad Zahir, Farhad Darya, and the band Stars have been mixing Western and traditionally Afghan styles of music since the 1970s, D.U. is part of a new wave in the youth-led Afghan music scene. Along with the White Page and Afghan-American singer-songwriter Ariana Delawari, D.U.’s music has the distinct character of post-Taliban Kabul. This is music that is as much affected by the artists’ time outside the nation as they are brazenly vocal affronts to Taliban-era repression of Afghan culture and self-expression.

Sweet Dreams

For D.U., the lyrics of Sweet Dreams describe the only Kabul they, along with their peers, have ever known. “It deals with reality. You are used and abused by other people as the poor are taken advantage of by the powerful and rich,” said D.U.’s lead singer, who after on-going criticism by conservatives recently decided the band members must conceal their identities.

In Kabul, the refrain from what was once a synth-heavy piece of 1980s British pop becomes a statement on a society where the youth, who make up the majority of the nation’s population, have had to watch as every institution has been accused of fraud and corruption from the presidency to the over 1,600 international NGOs and the banking system.  

A society in which they can perform loud, raucous music full of aggression within shouting distance of a masjid, where their vocals soar over the Azan (call to prayer), but only behind Michael Meyers-style masks. It is a society in which two bands made of long-time friends have opposing views of the notoriety their performances have earned them. Being attacked and branded as “satanists”, whose music “is too dark, negative”, and therefore “un-Afghan”, led the members of D.U. to conceal their identities.

“We can’t sing about going to get coffee with your girlfriend because that isn’t happening in Kabul right now,” said the lead singer of D.U., who has been an avid listener of heavy metal for 12 years now. For the members of D.U. and The White Page, another rock band in Kabul, life in Afghanistan today is a paradox.

On the one hand, the children chase after them as they go gliding through Kabul and Herat on the skateboards the children have come to call Karachi gakha (little carts). But on the other, they live in a city “where while walking down the street something could explode” leaving dozens of those very children dead, said D.U. ‘s lead singer.

My World

In his initial embrace of Western music as a refugee in Pakistan, Mirwais Mohsen, who has since left the band White Page, fell in love with hip hop but soon left it after hearing the likes of System of a Down and Tool.

D.U., felt drawn to rock by “the very pure topics in the music.” “We have to talk about real issues in society and metal allows us to do that”, says the lead singer of D.U., who has always felt connected to various genres of rock. That connection eventually led the members of D.U. and The White Page from their first loves of Iranian pop, Farhad Darya, and Western classical music to a full-on embrace of heavy metal.

Dress You Up

Meanwhile, nearly 8,000 miles away in Pasadena, California, Ariana Delawari would go from donning lace gloves and bandanas as she danced and sang along with Madonna songs in her bedroom, to parties in the living room of her childhood home where her father’s friends played live covers of Afghan singer-songwriter Ahmad Zahir.

From the statement-making songs of the Material Girl and the King of Afghan music (Ahmad Zahir), Delawari would go on to embrace the protest music of John Lennon, Bob Dylan, Bjork, K’naan, and Radiohead. As Dylan asked, “How many years can some people exist / Before they’re allowed to be free?” Delawari’s mother would tell her tales of revolutionary figures like Che Guevara and Ahmad Shah Massood.

This constant mix of the Western and the Eastern, the political and the cultural, would form the groundwork for Delawari’s debut album, Lion of Panjshir. Named for the controversial military commander, Ahmad Shah Massood, whom the Wall Street Journal dubbed “the Afghan who won the Cold War”, Delawari travelled to Kabul in 2007 to record the album with three ostads (masters) of traditional Afghan instruments.

Sitting on the floors of a house in war-torn Kabul, this Afghan-American girl – who used to idolize a woman made famous by pushing religious and sexual barriers, was in fact continuing in a centuries-old tradition of a student learning from the masters of classical Afghan instruments. Delawari’s lyrical delivery, which has been compared to the likes of Devendra Banhart, may have labeled Taliban tactics as bullying, but the music of the robab, tabla, and harmonium – played by heart, were the same notes that have been passed down from master to student for hundreds of years in Afghanistan.

War Within a Breath

Growing up in Afghanistan, Iran, California, India, and Pakistan may have led to very distinct life experiences, but the members of D.U., The White Page, and Ariana Delawari were all linked by a shared Afghan culture and a drive to create music that was reflective of that diversity of experiences.

“We want people to know through our music that you are still alive on this day. That you need to solve your problems”, said the lead singer of D.U. Music based on life in refugee camps and war zones may prove unsettling for some, but for D.U., the questions and unease felt by the audience is part of the fun. “In art you have to do something that discomforts people. When the audience asks what is that, and thinks it’s gross, it’s very powerful.”

Inspired by the protest artists of her childhood, Delawari sets out to move people with music she says is based on her life. For the David Lynch-produced Lion of Panjshir, Delawari used the connection she felt to the American artists “who used their liberty to speak for truth” to write an album that is deeply political, while also addressing themes of love, legacy, and transcendence. 

“As an Afghan I feel like how can I not address the years of destruction and injustice our people have been living with,” says Delawari of an album that includes a re-write of an Ahmad Zahir song originally about infatuation. The song about wanting to enter the house of the beloved becomes a rumination on the notion of home in a nation with one of the world’s largest number of refugees on Delawari’s album released some 40 years after the Ahmad Zahir classic. One track prior in that same album, Delawari tells the story of a young Talib who must watch his mother struggle as she tries to provide food for her family as a robab, violin, and rain stick play in the background. Delawari says the message of the resulting album is to ask “what happens when a land is forgotten, when we pound on the doors of our government and no one listens?” This is a question that as an Afghan-American, Delawari could ask the governments of the two nations that have informed both her identity and her music.

For The White Page, the medium itself is the message. “We want peace through our music, but it is not inherently political,” says Mohsen of the Persian-language music the band was writing just before he left the band.

On stage they may look more like The Ramones or the Foo Fighters, but D.U. and The White Page both want to incorporate elements of traditional Afghan music in their original compositions. Whether it references poems of the world’s best-selling poet Rumi (born in Balkh, Afghanistan), who has been a source of inspiration to musicians in the Persian-speaking world for decades now, or includes traditional Afghan musical instruments D.U. and Mohsen say both bands always want to have Afghan elements in their music. Of course, this is still metal, which means “classical poetry with growling vocals,” says D.U.

Mohsen says he does not care for many of the new Afghan singers. Instead, he falls asleep every night to the Hindi classical music he and millions of other Afghans listen to. This unique fusion of Black Sabbath-style growling with Rumi and Hafez’s poetry about love and faith will appeal to the youth of Afghanistan, whom Mohsen says are scouring the internet and the racks of pirated albums that line the Western sections of Afghanistan’s music stores for new sounds.

This fusion of the staples of Afghan music – tabla, harmonium, robab, and Persian poetry – with the aggression and growling that both bands see as central to Metal, is a continuation of an ongoing global trend of making something you have had a long-time connection to more your own, whenever newer styles of music infiltrate a nation’s popular culture. “The more hybrid the music is, the more people get into it because it really feels like its ‘their’ music,'” says Mark Levine, a professor of history at UC Irvine and author of Heavy Metal Islam.

For Delawari, this mix of the traditional with the Western is important as an expression of the depths of Afghan culture. “The history behind our instruments is incredible. The world needs to know where these sounds originated from,” says Delawari, whose new music video for her single “Be Gone Taliban” is meant to be a visual expression of that history.

Rebel Yell

Though all three acts have had to face criticism for their distinctive musical styles, for them it is a natural progression both personally and culturally. “You don’t need to be Westernized to be modern and contemporary … It’s not a bad thing to be mixed between cultures,” says D.U.’s lead singer, who along with his brother and bandmate lived in Iran for 18 of the ongoing 30 years of war in Afghanistan. D.U. calls criticisms of their music as being too Western or antithetical to a conservative view of Afghan culture a cliche. “We never want our music to be too Western. We are us,” says D.U. of a band comprised of proud muslims. “We are us. We are Afghan.”

Levine says authoritarian groups, whether it is 1997 Egypt or Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, often label new art forms as “satanic” because “these kids’ creation of alternative, autonomous subcultures was a threat to their patriarchal, authoritarian control.” Even for more secular regimes, like former Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak’s, Levine says labeling “music [that] sounded strange and violent” as a corruptive force can be a very political move. In doing so, Levine says these leaders had stumbled upon a way to “score points with conservative religious forces”, something that many of current Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s most unpopular policy decisions were seen as being motivated by.

Delawari, who always felt connected to Afghanistan, despite growing up in Pasadena, California, admits that to some her incorporation of Afghan classical instruments in her music may be seen as an act of youthful rebellion “more anarchical than if I were born in Kabul wanting to have a punk band or metal band.” Thus, Delawari, rather than embracing the dance-pop of her childhood idol, traveled to Kabul in 2007 to include traditionally Afghan elements in her music. She says she can “see how young people in Afghanistan are drawn toward something different from tradition.”

The music resulting from this mix of cultures and rebellious spirits goes beyond simply blurring genre lines to creating a contemporary context for the Afghan music scene. Whether  the artist discovered their favourite acts on the radio cruising down the Pacific Coast Highway, on internet file-sharing services in Pakistan, or in the racks of bootlegged CDs in Kabul music stores, each one used the music that inspired them – from Janis Joplin and Zaher Howaida to Metallica and Bjork – to make statements  about an Afghanistan that has gone from being known for hospitality, poetry, and music to having a reputation for Kalashnikovs, chadoris (burqas), and drugs.

In an ultimate act of rebellion against the Taliban-era forced conservativism, The White Page and D.U. will be joined by other bands from Afghanistan, Iran, Tajikistan and Pakistan at the Sound Central festival in Kabul this autumn. D.U. says that during these performances, the thing that the band values the most – “the volume of energy we want to pass on to the people” – will be put to a test.

“We are the tongue for the Afghan youth to speak their feelings. We want them to have their energy spent on something creative and new, not wasted on street fights,” D.U. says of their role in Afghan society.

The bands that until recently played for largely ex-pat audiences want to look out into a sea of people and witness “crowds of Afghans head-banging and moshing” on the streets of an ancient city.

Source: Al Jazeera