Dreaming of rock music in Kabul

  • 31 May. 2011 -
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  • Last updated: 31 May. 2011 18:08

As the rock music blasts the dust off the speakers in one of Kabul’s growing number of music venues, you’d be forgiven for thinking that you were somewhere other than Afghanistan’s capital city. But as the city has begun to get back on its feet, returnees like anthropology student Siddique Ahmed, his two band mates and their like, have brought an infusion of new and old musical influences to the city of their birth and have begun forging a growing music scene.

“The biggest change in Afghanistan, has been the creation of an environment which enables us to come back,” says Ahmed, 30, who left Kabul for a Peshawar refugee camp when he was five years old. “Whatever I am doing now in Kabul, I couldn’t have done ten years ago. From very basic things such as the choice of wearing clothes, growing or not growing a beard, studying and making or playing music,” he explains.

While there has always been a strong musical culture in Afghanistan, finding appropriate venues in Kabul has proved a challenge for Ahmed’s band, Kabul Dreams, since its inception in 2008.

“Initially we didn’t get to play much, mostly because there are not many venues in Kabul to play in. It has changed gradually, and is still changing,” he says. They are attempting to ‘create’ more venues, sometimes by playing in derelict buildings.

For Ahmed, who studied at a British school in Islamabad, Pakistan, music offers a way of presenting Kabul and Afghanistan in a new way to the world, and to young Afghan’s themselves. He first took violin lessons in 1995 and then moved onto piano, before taking up the bass guitar. “I had always listened to rock music and like the bass a lot, but never had a chance to learn,” he explains. “With my previous experience in traditional music, I was able to play the bass and this actually provided the possibility for Kabul Dreams to be born.”

Changing minds with music

Although the band is not political, Ahmed sees it as an important outlet to change the preconceptions people have about Afghanistan. It was partly with this in mind that the group, made up of Suleman Qardash, a television news presenter on Afghanistan’s Uzbek channel and Mujtaba Habibi, who returned to Kabul from Iran, played to a collection of international students at the NATO Afghan Student Forum in Istanbul last October. They have also made headway in India at the South Asia Bands Festival in Delhi and Jaipur.

As a student at the American University of Afghanistan, Ahmed along with some 30 others, was invited to take part in the annual NATO international student forum. “The forum for me was more than another Kabul Dreams gig,” Ahmed says. “I had a history with it [having attended the previous year] and I was amazed and thrilled to see how it had developed…Everyone got to express their opinions clearly, without fear.” The forum, the fifth of its kind to be sponsored by NATO’s Public Diplomacy Division, brought together students from all over the world to debate about, and share experiences, of Afghanistan.

“In these forums we discussed the problems we face in Afghanistan and the role of NATO in the country,” he says. “For me it was a good learning experience where I exchanged ideas, information and experiences with fellow students from around the globe. It is also, probably, my only direct experience with NATO.”

Inspired by British indie rock bands and singing English lyrics, the band’s first official video for their song ‘Can you fly?’ has already reached 15,000 hits on YouTube, and just like any fledgling band they hope one day to tour the world and win awards.

“I used to think I would never go back to Afghanistan,” he says. “This changed after 9/11 and after the international forces entered Afghanistan,” he adds explaining that NATO’s presence in the country has had an indirect affect on all aspects of Afghan life. “NATO provided security, this security made it possible for Afghans to make a government, which is not perfect, but at least it’s there and getting better. New laws allowed local media to express opinions and produce new programs – today, in Kabul alone, there are more than 30 FM radio channels broadcasting everything from rock music to religious education. People have the choice to listen to what they want.”