Just a decade ago, under Taliban rule, playing music in Afghanistan meant risking a beating or even death. Now Kabul’s burgeoning rock scene is putting on the country’s first rock festival since the Taliban’s fall from power.
However, the Taliban and other extremists still abound, so to avoid their wrath, organisers have concocted a stealth campaign, sharing the location of shows at the very last minute through text messages and Facebook.
The Sound Central festival, a month-long series of events ending mid-October, has so far avoided any attacks. Most workshops and shows have been held in private venues, but the festival’s biggest test came Saturday, when organisers held a large concert outdoors in the middle of the day. Security was tight, but all went well, with young rock fans head-banging late into the evening.
Young Afghan rock fans go wild at the Sound Central festival. Footage courtesy of Travis Beard.
The festival showcases four local bands, whose styles range from indie rock to metal, as well as bands from Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Pakistan, and even Australia. During workshops, local musicians are learning techniques for performing, recording, mixing and promoting their music, from – among others – the drummer for US band The Dresden Dolls (via Skype).
Sound Central is the first Afghan rock festival since 1975, when rocker Ahmad Zahir headlined a festival in Kabul. It is organised by a group of volunteers, headed by an Australian artist living in Kabul.
Bands from outside Afghanistan traveled to Kabul to play alongside local musicians at Sound Central. This video features Uzbek band Tears of the Sun. Posted to YouTube by Omidhaq.

“Even girls came out to the show”

Siddique Ahmad, 29, is the bass player for Kabul Dreams, the first rock band that formed after the fall of the Taliban. He lived in Pakistan for 17 years, before returning to Afghanistan in 2004. He is a student at the American University of Afghanistan.
Everyone was worried about security, so for the main show the venue was kept a secret until one day beforehand. I think we could have had a much bigger crowd if we had disclosed the venue a bit earlier, but in Kabul you just never know what’s going to happen and when it’s going to happen.
The festival has gone quite well for a first one. Though most of the people who came to watch us were familiar with rock and roll and live music, there were some for whom it was a new experience. Even girls came out. Usually the few rock bands in Kabul play in private venues, mostly at night. Security in Kabul is such that even I get chastised by my family if I go out too late at night. So as you can imagine, it’s twice as hard for girls!
We’ve played in festivals abroad, in India, Turkey and Uzbekistan, but it’s not easy to get visas to most countries. They fear that single young Afghans, once abroad, will apply for asylum and never return.
It’s a different feeling playing at home or abroad. For people abroad, it’s an amazing thing that a band from Afghanistan is performing. Foreign crowds know a lot about music, because they have seen so many other bands, so there’s some pressure to be able to play well.
“Many think the emergence of rock music is creating an affront to traditional Afghan music”
Here, you play for an audience that is not very familiar with your style of music. Initially, people did not know how to react, because Afghans have a very serious approach to music. They usually sit quietly and listen carefully. But when we play, we ask the audience to do whatever they want. We have noticed that if a guy goes to a rock concert for the first time and doesn’t know how to react, the first thing he does is go home and watch some concerts online. Next thing you know, he’s head-banging during one of your songs!
Young urban youth are mostly into Afghan pop and Bollywood music. Traditional music is also very popular. In Afghanistan, in general, there’s a certain xenophobia associated with foreign musical genres. For example, many think the emergence of rock music is creating an affront to traditional Afghan music, which I don’t think is the case at all.
In our songs, we don’t deal with political or social themes. Our music is more about personal feelings; we usually talk about positive things, like relationships, peace, love and harmony.
“As security has deteriorated in Kabul, paid gigs have become less frequent”
Being the first rock band in Kabul was initially exciting, but it was extremely difficult. We had to go through a lot to create the rock scene here, for simple reasons. It was hard to find instruments, practice space, etc. Our album has been ready for quite a while, and we still haven’t been able to record it because of the lack of facilities here. So now we’re planning to record it abroad, in Turkey.
We make no money from our music; we actually spend a lot of our own money on it. When the band first started in 2008, things were good. We charged small amounts for private gigs, and played at events around town, in embassies and restaurants. But gradually, as security deteriorated in Kabul, these gigs became less frequent. We have played almost none this year. ”