Turn­ing the Tide

Mu­sic and the arts give a new mes­sage of hope to the people of Afghanistan and could be­come a har­bin­ger of change in the com­ing times.

Southasia - - CONTENTS - By Asna Ali The writer is a busi­ness grad­u­ate. She has in­ter­est in po­lit­i­cal and so­cial is­sues.

Through­out his­tory, dic­ta­to­rial regimes have sought much more than just to rule people. They de­sire con­trol over ev­ery as­pect of life, seek to dis­sem­i­nate only those opin­ions that align with their ide­ol­ogy and crush all dis­sent. To this end, free­dom of ex­pres­sion is amongst the first things to be curbed in any coun­try by to­tal­i­tar­ian regimes. Ac­cord­ingly, art, which in all its var­i­ous forms, is a ve­hi­cle for self-ex­pres­sion, is also con­trolled, al­tered, de­stroyed and even ban­ished.

Not sur­pris­ingly then, when the Tal­iban came to power in Afghanistan af­ter years of civil war, mu­sic was al­to­gether banned. There was no place for such out­landish no­tions in a coun­try torn apart by vi­o­lence and in the firm grip of re­li­gious ex­trem­ists. Artis­tic en­deav­ors took a back­seat in the face of a daily bat­tle for sur­vival.

It took an­other war to de­pose the Tal­iban’s ter­ri­fy­ingly dra­co­nian govern­ment and a few more years af­ter that to bring some sem­blance of nor­malcy to Afghanistan. Mu­sic be­gan to re-emerge in the coun­try in both tra­di­tional and mod­ern forms, thanks to young artistes who sought to es­tab­lish unique iden­ti­ties which had noth­ing to do with war or re­li­gion. They did this at great per­sonal risk amid crit­i­cism and, at times, un­der threats to their lives.

Things were not al­ways so in Afghanistan. Be­fore the Soviet in­va­sion and its sub­se­quent dis­as­trous re­sults, mu­sic was alive and well in the coun­try. Its clas­si­cal form had pro­duced many renowned artists who had de­vel­oped a cer­tain style that was an amal­gam of var­i­ous in­flu­ences from neigh­bor­ing cul­tures. Pop mu­sic played on the ra­dio and was also per­formed live.

But in the post-Tal­iban world, the cul­tural shift was so dras­tic that young artistes had to claw and fight to bring mu­sic out of the side­lines. These were tena­cious youth, both men and women, who strug­gled then for artis­tic free­dom against all odds and con­tinue to do so even to­day. Their modes of ex­pres­sion re­flect the chang­ing times. Now Afghanistan has people who have be­come some­what pi­o­neers of

hip hop and rock mu­sic.

One such band is Kabul Dreams. It is, ac­cord­ing to its mem­bers, the first rock band in Afghanistan. This is not the only unique qual­ity it possesses. Its three mem­bers, Su­lay­mon Qar­dash, Sid­dique Ah­mad and Mu­jtaba Habibi be­long to dif­fer­ent eth­nic groups. They lived out­side Afghanistan in three dif­fer­ent coun­tries – Pak­istan, Iran and Uzbek­istan – dur­ing the Tal­iban rule. This dis­tance from au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism pro­vided them with ex­po­sure and op­por­tu­ni­ties. The band rep­re­sents Afghanistan’s di­ver­sity and the deep but not over­pow­er­ing ef­fect its neigh­bors have on it.

The mu­sic of Kabul Dreams has been de­scribed as sim­i­lar to that of Bri­tish in­die rock bands; soft and soul­ful rather than harsh and loud. The band has been around since the late 2000s. Its mem­bers have worked hard to gain recog­ni­tion both lo­cally and in­ter­na­tion­ally and their ef­forts are now pay­ing off.

In­stead of just play­ing at closed venues for small au­di­ences, Kabul Dreams and other bands like it aim to con­nect with the Afghan youth and to im­pact the Afghan cul­ture on a larger scale. De­spite threats and gen­eral dis­cour­age­ment, they have per­se­vered and played in front of au­di­ences that have never heard live mu­sic be­fore.

Through its very ex­is­tence, Kabul Dreams gives a mes­sage of hope that is nec­es­sary to lift spir­its and keep ex­trem­ism at bay. They have de­vel­oped a fan base that is grow­ing by the day which shows that their coun­try­men are cer­tainly not look­ing to a re­turn to the old days of re­pres­sion.

De­spite the Tal­iban’s con­tin­ued pres­ence, mu­sic fes­ti­vals and live gigs con­tinue to take place in Afghanistan through the com­bined ef­forts of many hard­work­ing and mo­ti­vated in­di­vid­u­als. Sound Cen­tral, a fes­ti­val held to show­case Afghan mu­sic, was a prod­uct of such hard work. Kabul Dreams and other bands like it took part in the event that al­lowed the lo­cals to en­joy the mu­sic of the land. The fes­ti­val also gave lo­cal mu­si­cians the op­por­tu­nity to at­tend work­shops and meet with bands from neigh­bor­ing coun­tries.

The prob­lems that Kabul Dreams and other Afghan mu­si­cians face are not just se­cu­rity-re­lated. When these mu­si­cians first ap­peared on the scene, there was just no in­fra­struc­ture to sup­port them. No stu­dios and equip­ment to record mu­sic, no fi­nan­cial back­ers to spon­sor their al­bums and no way to advertise and sell the mu­sic. There were also no mu­sic teach­ers and no art schools.

They started from scratch and used their own funds to pro­mote their pas­sion. Many re­ports sug­gest that their fam­i­lies were also crit­i­cal of their ac­tiv­i­ties and they had to keep their work un­der­ground in the ini­tial stage. Things have changed a lot since those days. Mu­sic and art is be­ing taught at least in some places. Bands have man­aged to pro­duce al­bums and to tour abroad. They have been writ­ten about and dis­cussed. They are seen as change agents and give hope to those who are wor­ried about the fu­ture of the coun­try once the U.S. forces leaves.

It is be­lieved that be­cause of the pres­ence of al­ter­na­tive opin­ions and ways of life, the Tal­iban will have less of an in­flu­ence on the minds of the Afghan people and will have to strug­gle much more in­tensely to rein­tro­duce their brand of be­liefs.

This is a ten­u­ous hope at best. The Tal­iban ear­lier left Afghan so­ci­ety in tat­ters and in­flu­enced it in more ways than one. Since be­ing top­pled from power, they have not slunk away to lick their wounds. In­stead, they have re­grouped and gained ground in both Afghanistan and Pak­istan. This time, they launch at­tacks and ter­ror­ize civil­ians even more fe­ro­ciously, as is seen in Pak­istan.

In any event, the ac­cep­tance of mu­sic and other art forms is a rea­son for hope be­cause ex­trem­ism needs pop­u­lar sup­port to stay alive. The Tal­iban are suc­cess­ful not just be­cause of their weapons and fight­ing abil­ity. It is the pop­u­lar­ity of their ide­ol­ogy and gen­eral sup­port, whether vo­cal or silent, that has led to their be­com­ing such a sig­nif­i­cant force. De­spite the thou­sands of lives that have been lost due to their ac­tiv­i­ties, they con­tinue to find sup­port and sym­pa­thiz­ers.

The Tal­iban are not a force that can be over­come sim­ply through mil­i­tary ac­tion. The need is to re­move the sup­port for the way of life they pro­mote. By in­tro­duc­ing more pos­i­tives to re­place the vi­o­lent, author­i­tar­ian and misog­y­nis­tic ide­ol­ogy prop­a­gated by the Tal­iban, Afghan mu­si­cians are pur­su­ing their cre­ative in­ter­ests and are thus do­ing a great ser­vice to their coun­try.

One can hope that Kabul Dreams and other mu­si­cians have in­spired enough people and changed enough minds to en­sure that a re­turn to a life de­void of all en­ter­tain­ment and joy will not be im­me­di­ately ac­cept­able to the masses.

Mu­sic and cre­ativ­ity do not im­pact people the same way as guns and death threats. But their re-emer­gence and growth in Afghanistan against all odds shows how deep-rooted the need for self-ex­pres­sion is. It is a free­dom striven for even in the harsh­est con­di­tions and a kind of de­sire that even­tu­ally re­sults in rev­o­lu­tions and over­throw of dic­ta­tors. If it continues to be nur­tured by the Afghan youth, it is very likely that they will be able to con­vince their fel­low coun­try­men to adopt a new cul­tural di­rec­tion so that the demons of the past are buried and their dreams for a bet­ter fu­ture come true.

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