Ru: from 2011 – 2013 White City’s guitarist, Travka, put on Afghanistan’s first alternative music and arts festival, Sound Central. It brought together musicians and artists from all over Central Asia, as well as further afield. Bands from Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Sri Lanka, Australia, Poland, UK and others played side by side, while Afghan kids had the opportunity to hear live music often for the very first time.
But why music? Surely a developing country has more desperate needs than rock n roll, skateboarding, painting or any number of projects that emphasise the creative arts?
The short answer is, of course, yes. Afghanistan needs roads, education and healthcare as a priority. It’s easy, then, to mock artistic programmes or condemn them as a waste of money. A New York Times article did exactly this, attacking Sound Central and another (self-funded) project by an Afghan artist, who gave away balloons.
However, what my involvement in the music scene in Kabul has shown me is how music can bring people together more quickly and more efficiently than hours of tribal meetings or COIN outreach programmes, where soldiers or well-meaning aid workers try to understand bad translators explaining incomprehensibly complicated local dynamics and walk away with the intention of building a clinic or school or well, without any long-term idea of how to sustain the development or, sometimes, even asking the Afghans if that’s exactly what they need.
Music bypasses the need for translators, for language even. It involves everyone. If you can clap your hands, you’re part of it. It transcends social rules or classes. It promotes cohesion, teamwork and erases the lines of conflict. It allows men and women, young and old to interact without insult or shyness. Why do totalitarian dictatorships or oppressive regimes often seek to control or ban music? Because it goes straight to our emotions. It allows communication without a middleman.
In a more practical sense, it’s an outlet for and a unifying of youth. Afghanistan’s insurgency problem is in one sense an unemployment problem combined with deep psychological hurt. Here you have a highly traumatised society, having suffered 30 years of war – not just one deployment. In a sense, the whole country has PTSD. Then you have young men with some education, but very little future and a constant battering of atrocities. That makes for a lot of disgruntled and desperate youth, who sometimes pick up arms in response.
When I was a teenager, I was angry, despite having a privileged life full of opportunity. Music was my saviour. I could go to a concert or play my guitar and express feelings – rage, fear, sadness – that I couldn’t find the words to express. Moshing was sanctioned, but controlled and safe violence. Your average Afghan youth suffers intense pressure to conform, threatened by social conformity and very real physical danger if they don’t go along with the expectations of their parents/community/religious leaders. What Sound Central and other musical projects provided, whether that was gigs we organised or, more often these days, events Afghans youths themselves put together, was a safe environment where young Afghan men and women could express themselves without fear of judgement. They could try out new things, socialise and just be young. That doesn’t mean we expected them to be converted to the cause of rock n’ roll, but at least they had an option to explore all the alternative forms of art, culture and music that’s available to other young people the world over.
In 2013, Travka put on a women’s only day, where girls could enjoy a day of concerts without the fear of being judged or harassed by men. It was a runaway success and exceeded the expectations of everyone involved. Young schoolgirls jumped up and down in their seats, telling their teachers that, “no, I won’t sit down”. They headbanged, sang along, screamed like teenagers at a Beatles concert. They had fun.
As I stood up there, singing my heart out to these girls, I wanted so much to convey that they could do this too. They could play music or recite poetry or create art. Despite what mainstream music might tell them, whether from the west or the factories of Bollywood, they could be here up onstage and perform without revealing their bodies or presenting themselves as sexual objects. Music is not only the province of men. It’s an essential energy, by which I have this thing I want to say and I hope you hear it. As I called them my sisters, in my stumbling Dari, I really hoped they felt that way.
The pretty ugly faces of White City before and after their performance at Sound Central 2013 – See below for GIF
Thousands of people passed through the third annual Sound Central festival – the only alternative arts and music festival, not only in Afghanistan, but the entire central asian region. We were lucky enough to play twice – once on women’s day and once on the third day of the festival with our brothers-in-arms, District Unknown, aka the only metal band in Afghanistan.
It was a challenge going on after the hometown favourites, DU with their brand of ultra-aggressive and infectious psychedelic-doom groove. The audience was tired out and left the auditorium for a well-earned break. But within two songs, we got them back.
You never know what the reaction might be from a group of (mostly) young men, who haven’t grown up going to gigs, let alone learned mosh pit etiquette or rocked out to a frontwoman, who isn’t provocative or girly, but in-your-face and energised. Perhaps surprisingly for some who don’t know Kabul, but not surprising to us, we received a hyped-up reception of jubilation and respect.
Sound Central is a safe environment where young people – musicians, artists, performers or just fans – can come and express themselves freely without judgement. In an often closed society, where perception is everything, this is something that’s lacking. There are no youth clubs here and young people are expected to become adults very quickly. Sound Central isn’t about changing Afghan culture, in fact it’s letting Afghans take the lead and tell the world what they want. It’s allowing us all to have options. It’s allowing us to see past the media bias and see this country as full of potential and fully paid-up members of the human race.
Enjoy the gallery.
It takes a few years of being in Afghanistan to realise what a rare and special picture this is. Photo by Ellie Kealey
We went onstage to an audience of 450 screaming girls at the first day of Sound Central Festival 2013, which was a special day for women only. We never could have predicted that hundreds of Afghan teenaged girls would be jumping up and down in their seats, telling their teachers “no, we won’t sit down” and general screaming blue murder. From our first song – “Drive By Nandos” to our last, “Last Plan”, the energy from the audience drove us into a frenzy. Incredible. The boys have a lot to live up to.
White City are back in the studio. We’re playing two sets at the groundbreaking Sound Central Festival, the only alternative music and arts festival in Afghanistan. Expect half an hour of pure, sweaty punk rock – what White City does best. Check out the line-up posters, freshly delivered to White City’s House of Rock.
White City guitarist, Travis Beard, is behind the third annual alternative music and arts festival in Kabul, Afghanistan. The line-up was announced today with White City playing twice and our good friends, District Unknown. Follow Sound Central’s Twitter feed @SCFTravisBeard and the Sound Central Festival facebook page.
White City are far from the only band in Kabul. There’s a burgeoning music scene full of talented Afghan and international musicians in Kabul and beyond throughout the Central Asian region.
The Sounds Central Festival [SCF] was the result of 5 years of local music scene empowerment, centred on an expats band White City, whose members rapidly discovered among some of their young fans an urge to start their own music projects. With little institutional backing up until the very event, the Kabul music scene kept away from any open political positioning.