Can Central Asian and Brooklyn-based musicians come together to nurture Afghanistan's nascent post-Taliban popular music scene?
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.
Maybe that connection is partly because rock and roll is about channeling some of the same primal enthusiasms in young people -- showy risk, physical exertion, and sweaty camaraderie -- expressed in warfare. Ironically, the politics of rock --insofar as it represents, or once represented, a counter-cultural movement -- tend towards the anti-war.
One senses that ambiguity in Sound Central's self image. Their promo materials play up the war connection --"You're used to the sound of bombs. Now get used to the sound of metal," you hear the Afghan death metal group District Unknown growl at the start of their video. But, at the same time, it's clear that these artists see rock music as a way to escape from war, even of finding some kind of normalcy or apoliticism in an environment inevitably viewed, in the West, through the prism of the "conflict zone."
After an on-stage introduction to Sound Central by Gerstle (who would fly to Kabul shortly afterwards), artists like Acrassicauda, a heavy metal band from Iraq, and Shayan Amini, a rocker from Tehran, got on stage to talk about their experiences. Both have fled their countries under the threat of violence. As they told their stories to the assembled crowd -- who seemed to be mostly, like myself, relatively privileged, educated youths -- one could observe a real appreciation and amazement forming on many of our faces. It wasn't just that these kids were brave or had interesting stories; it's that they were channeling the true spirit of rock and roll.
"Fuck you, fuck everybody who tells you what to do, we'll fucking rock," announced Marwan Riyadh, Acrassicauda's drummer, from the stage. The band's equipment had been destroyed in a bomb blast in 2006., he explained "Honestly, though, we jeopardized everyone's life, my parents, my friends, everybody, our own lives."
Transgression was once central to rock and roll. Our iconic image of its genesis is Elvis Presley's pelvis threatening to upend the staid social order of the 1950s. But we've come a long way since then. On the day of the show in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, there was a certain characteristic irony in young people -- call us hipsters, if you like -- that is in a sense actually a half-heartedness for life, an affected enthusiasm for things that we aren't really committed to. Perhaps it's symptomatic of a certain post-modern exhaustion, where, in a throbbing cornucopia of sensual and cultural delights, there's nothing left to rebel against.
Musicians who play in societies where there is a serious danger from repressive governments or violent extremists are putting something real on the line. They tap into an uncomplicated notion of authenticity that's not easy to find in the West anymore. And that's fucking rock and roll.