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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.
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