Afghan Indie Band Rocks Kabul

Guitars strapped to their backs, three trim Afghan youths flash rock star smiles at armed guards who wave them through the steel doors of a private club.

High walls and barbed wire protect the neatly trimmed garden inside from Kabul’s troubled streets. It’s here that the young trio, Afghanistan’s first indie rock band, is launching its debut album.

Less than a decade ago, when the Taliban ruled Afghanistan, a concert like this would have landed them in jail. Playing musical instruments was banned. Singing was allowed, but only songs praising Allah or the Taliban.

Today, Kabul Dreams, as the band is named, is paving the way for a very modest but growing local rock scene.

About 100 Afghans and foreigners gather around a makeshift stage with improvised lighting and a sputtering sound system.

Baby-faced singer and guitarist Suleman Qardash repeatedly screams “I wanna run away” – the album’s title track – as drummer Mujtaba Habibi ramps up the beat.

While the lyrics resonate with an Afghan youth weary of suicide bombings and Taliban attacks, running away is the last thing on the band’s mind. The trio returned to Afghanistan after temporary exile in Iran, Uzbekistan and Pakistan during Taliban rule.

“Young people in Afghanistan like rock music a lot, and we’re providing them with something from their own country,” bass player Siddique Ahmed says.

The band rouses the crowd with another popular number, “Crack in the Radio,” based on a girl who works in a Kabul rock radio station. It’s a song subject that would have been unthinkable under the Taliban.

The crowd roars, and some dance wildly, waving their arms to intensifying drumbeats. A few even drink beer, though it is banned by Islam.

The band changes the mood with a wistful tune reminiscent of 1990s Britpop. Women in headscarves, sitting on the sidelines, sway demurely to the melodic guitar riffs.

“We really want a change here and want to see something new. Many young people here my age really enjoy the songs,” says Hadi Marafat, a 28-year-old employee of a nonprofit organization.

With Taliban insurgents still holding sway in parts of the country, Kabul Dreams has had to cancel several performances because of security threats.

The group sings in English, limiting its appeal at home, but the band says its choice of language will help spread its message to an international audience. In January, the group played at a regional music festival in New Delhi.

“We want to show the world that Afghanistan has rock music, it’s not only suicide bombings or attacks,” Qardash says.

Newer groups, such as alternative metal band District Unknown, look up to Kabul Dreams as mentors and pioneers.

District Unknown, which draws heavily from Western bands such as Metallica and Led Zeppelin, has a much harder edge. Its upcoming single, “My Nightmare,” deals with the frustrations of Afghan youth with few or no prospects in a war-torn country.

Photo: AP Photo
Performing during a rock party in Kabul, Afghanistan.

“We have our own feelings, we have got aggression, depression and we need to speak out for each and every Afghan youngster who needs to speak,” says Lemar Saifulla, the 23-year-old lead singer.

The band doesn’t perform widely, fearful of threats from religious conservatives.

“We don’t want to be called Satanists,” Saifulla says.

Rock music has made inroads since the fall of the Taliban. A smattering of music shops sell pirated CDs of Nirvana, Pearl Jam and other bands. Indian and Pakistani groups also are popular among the youth.

What is missing are albums by Afghan bands, a gap that Kabul Dreams hopes to fill. After its first album, which had just five songs, it is at work on a full-length successor that would have 12.

The new one won’t be about politics, guns or violence, but rather love, relationships and daily life, Qardash says during a short break from a practice session at their drummer Habibi’s home.

That prompts bass player Ahmed to chime in: “The fact that our songs don’t have any political message in itself is political.”