Afghanistan is anticipating its first rock festival for three decades

Afghanistan is anticipating its first rock festival for three decades next week when hundreds of fans are expected to converge for a one-day extravaganza of local and international acts.

Afghan rock band Kabul Dreams, who will be playing at the Sound Central festival, pose in a ruined castle in Kabul. Photograph: Majid Saeedi/Getty Images

Sound Central, a “stealth festival” that organisers hope will draw up to 2,000 young Afghans, will showcase Afghan bands playing music from doom metal to blues rock, as well as musicians who have flown in from Iran, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.

The music will almost certainly be a new experience for most fans in a country which has not hosted such an event since the entrance of Soviet troops in 1979 heralded the start of decades of violence and the eventual Taliban takeover.

People seeking a change from traditional Afghan music tend to listen to western pop or soundtracks from India’s Bollywood films.

“The real, bottom-line aim of this festival is to ignite youth to be interested in modern music,” said the organiser, Travis Beard, who dreamed up the festival four years ago and has been working on it in earnest for the last two years.

“What we are trying to do is to expose them to new kinds of music so they can get into those styles of music, and also just start playing music. Hopefully we’ll get some kids saying: ‘Hey this is really cool! Dad, can I get a drum set?’ or ‘Mum, can I get a guitar?’,” Beard said.

Beard is an Australian who first came to Afghanistan as a news photographer five years ago, joined a band in Kabul and rediscovered his love of music “after many years away”.

He got involved in supporting Afghan musicians – with instruments or a place to practise – and the festival was inspired by the community they formed. With that in mind, he organised the festival and a week of workshops for Afghan musicians and underground, pre-festival concerts for all the bands at the festival to play more experimental music to a committed crowd.

“I live in Herat, which is an old city and the people are too traditional,” said Masoud Hasan Zada, a full-time journalist and part-time lead singer of blues-rock band Morcha, or the Ants.

“There is too much tradition, including traditional music. It’s too hard to talk about modern music, especially blues … it’s horrible sometimes,” he told Reuters.

He spent a week in Kabul at the workshops, learning everything from online marketing to stage presence – something Beard says is particularly hard for musicians who are talented but grew up in a culture that frowns on exhibitionism.

“We are going to teach them how to actually rock out,” Beard said with a grin at the start of the workshop, where more experienced performers thrashed on air guitars and jumped around a tiny stage, under the quizzical gaze of the students.

The festival is a daring venture in a country where music was banned for years under the austere Taliban regime, music stores are attacked in some cities and some of the Afghan musicians playing have had to shut down their websites or cut their hair because of social pressure.

Security concerns mean publicity has been mostly word of mouth, and the date has been kept vague. Messages revealing the time and venue will go out to fans only on the morning of the event.

The crowds may still be relatively small but at the underground concerts leading up to the festival there were already a few die-hard fans.

“I really want to hear you scream,” shouted Sabina Ablyaskina, lead singer of the Uzbek funk band Tears of the Sun, in the tiny concrete bunker where the bands have been warming up for the festival in front of a core of devoted fans.

The crowd was a mix of hip young Afghans, one in a pair of Kanye West glasses, and a few expats. They roared back at her and then started dancing, hard, to the music.

“This is the first time I’m watching music live, the first time in Kabul we’ve had something like this,” says breathless 22-year-old Asil Ahmad. “It’s one of the most unforgettable nights.”

At 11.15pm, the next band were just starting to get into their stride when the power cut off. At first organisers thought it was one of Kabul’s regular electricity shortages but then discovered that the landlord and his family – trying to sleep upstairs – weren’t quite as taken by rock’n’roll.

But Afghanistan is muddling along towards a new music future. That night, an impromptu acoustic concert by torchlight kept the crowd dancing for half an hour.

And the landlord eventually agreed to leave the power on for the rest of the week – if the concerts ended early.

So Afghanistan’s first underground concerts now start at 8pm and are over by 10.30pm, and there’s no bar or alcohol allowed, in deference to the laws of the Islamic Republic. But the crowd don’t seem to need anything more than the music.

Organisers hope hundreds will shrug off security fears to attend ‘stealth festival’ of local and central Asian bands

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