Real Rock & Roll: Holding a Rock Festival in Kabul

Can Central Asian and Brooklyn-based musicians come together to nurture Afghanistan's nascent post-Taliban popular music scene?

Kabul Dreams, Afghanistan's first post-Taliban rock group, plays their single 'Seda-ye Man' (My Sound) in a music video shot in snowy Kabul. Kabul Dreams, along with three other local bands, will be playing in Afghanistan's first rock festival since 2001.

A couple of Fridays ago, I visited a benefit concert put on in support of Sound Central, a rock festival taking place over the next few weeks in Afghanistan. The concert was held at the Hive, a converted loft space on the eastern edge of Williamsburg, a trendy neighborhood in Brooklyn. The tattoos, black-framed glasses, and bared shoulders made it feel a long way from the streets of Kabul, the Afghan capital where the festival is occurring. Yet the artists on stage that night -- from Afghanistan, Iran, and Iraq -- helped us ponder an important musical question: What could be more rock and roll than a rock festival in a war zone?

The show was organized by Daniel Gerstle, who manages the Hive and plays bass in the band Yula & the Extended Family, which also took the stage that night. Gerstle, who is quiet and carefully mannered in person but expands into extroversion onstage, has done some humanitarian work in conflict zones. He later became interested in finding ways to connect his creative community at home with those in places like Somalia, Sudan, and Chechnya. "It's the opposite of parachute journalism," he told me. "We find someone who has been working and living over there and bring them here."

After founding HELO Media in support of that mission, Gerstle met Travis Beard, an Australian musician and videographer who has been living in Kabul for several years and who, along with his rock band, White City, is the driving force behind the music festival.

Sound Central brings together artists from across Central and South Asia, including four groups from Afghanistan's nascent post-Taliban rock scene. It was going to be the first Afghan rock festival since 1975, when the 'Afghan Elvis,' Ahmad Zahir held a show during the heyday of the capital's brief, ill-fated cultural liberalization under King Zahir Shah. Times have changed: a couple of days before the Brooklyn show, a team of suicide bombers attacked the U.S. embassy, resulting in a 20-hour siege that paralyzed downtown Kabul.

This level of violence obviously poses logistical challenges for holding a music festival. As Gerstle explained, they would be operating a "stealth festival," with concerts and venues to be announced shortly beforehand by text messages or on Facebook and Twitter. Their low profile is also a way of avoiding any cultural controversies that might in triggered in as conservative an atmosphere as Afghanistan's.

The connection between war and rock seems to be an obvious one in the popular imagination. When you watch a war movie, the soundtrack to the action scenes is usually rock music. In actual warfare, troops sometimes like to imagine themselves as rock and rollers, and on embeds with the U.S.-led force in Afghanistan I've heard "let's rock and roll" more than once as troops armed their weapons before heading out on patrol. And, to complete the life-imitates-art loop, the montages of combat footage that soldiers lovingly compile are almost invariably set to heavy metal soundtracks.

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Matthieu Aikins has been reporting from Afghanistan since 2008 for such publications as The Atlantic, Harper's, The Walrus, and The Guardian. He splits his time between New York and Kabul.

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