Music Updates

On the Run From the Taliban, Musicians in Afghanistan Face Uncertain Future

The Taliban, which banned music when it ruled the country from 1996 to 2001, has not yet announced a formal policy on the arts, but a spokesman told The New York Times in late August: “Music is forbidden in Islam.” After hearing that, Faisal called his bandmates and instructed them to leave, too. They had been rehearsing in a rented space, and when the Taliban took control, they sealed it and abandoned their instruments.

“Every day, we message and call each other. All our members are in a safe place,” Faisal tells Billboard on a WhatsApp call, requesting anonymity and declining to divulge his location and band name. “But we can’t perform. We can’t work. We can’t practice. We don’t know what will happen with our instruments. We don’t know if they found that or not.”

The Taliban’s anti-democracy regime, which regained control over the country last month, after the U.S. ended its 20-year war in Afghanistan and began pulling troops from the region, has already had a devastating impact on local music. Over two decades of democracy, Afghan musicians had slowly developed bands and orchestras, from a classical and traditional school called the Afghanistan National Institute of Music (ANIM) to the reality-TV talent show Afghan Star to concert festivals and DIY scenes for hip-hop, hard rock, black metal and other genres.

But under the Taliban, all that is gone now. Even weddings have stopped hiring live bands and mostly moved indoors, choosing instead to air recorded songs softly over home speakers. “We lost our homes, jobs and everything,” says Metal Sam, who played in a band called Rig Veda before fleeing Kabul in the early days of the Taliban takeover. “My musical career is over.” Like Faisal, he’s living in an undisclosed location, waiting for flights to be approved so he can flee the country.

“We’re at high risk,” Metal Sam says. “People often made or listen to classical/folk music and sometimes western music like hip-hop. Music was quite a big part of the Afghani culture, something Afghans cannot give up easily. Of course, those people are in danger now.”

Another musician who spoke to Billboard by text is in a hip-hop group that felt free to express itself with “critical lyrics” during the past two decades of Afghanistan’s democratic system. “We are in danger,” he says. “We know the Taliban, they are against music, and they take those who are on this path seriously. Our style is rap and their excuse is that they say you are spreading Western culture in this religious country.

“That’s why we are in a hidden village,” he continues. “We have to lie to save our lives.”

Until the Taliban’s recent takeover, Afghan music was becoming more sophisticated, evolving into a DIY culture like “the ’80s punk scene” in the U.S., says Travis Beard, an Australian filmmaker, journalist, concert promoter and activist who has spent years in Afghanistan.

Promoters, recording studios, engineers and producers have expanded their technical expertise over the years, and multiple radio stations have aired all kinds of music.

“It’s all underground and independent,” says Beard, who spent years importing guitars, amps and production systems from other countries. “It was quite pure and had its training wheels and wasn’t sure how to arrive. Unfortunately, it got stopped a couple weeks ago.”

Over the years, rock acts such as Kabul Dreams and White Page have emerged in Afghanistan, before relocating elsewhere. Production companies had just started to provide professional-sounding recordings, although there are no significant record labels in the country and the government never established a system for copyrights or publishing to protect songs and other intellectual property, says Ahmad Sarmast, ANIM founder.

“The music business in Afghanistan is practically not established at all,” he says. “That infrastructure was slowly coming.”

Sarmast adds that he is hopeful the Taliban, whose leaders have recently spoken vaguely about allowing women to have jobs and education after years of violent repression, will not ban music or oppress artists as it has in the past. “Afghanistan moved a long way in the last 20 years, and today Afghanistan is a totally different place,” he says.

The Taliban now controls the ANIM, which Sarmast founded in 2010 to teach music to children, particularly girls and women. With help from donors such as the National Association of Music Merchants and the World Bank, the ANIM has used music to stand against regional oppression, offering classes in which boys and girls study and play together.

Taliban leaders assure him they have not damaged the hundreds of musical instruments in its elaborate library, Sarmast says. And he has been in contact with the institute’s community of 400 local musicians, faculty and students and they have told him they are all safe, albeit many are in hiding.

But Sarmast says he is dubious of the Taliban’s commitment to human rights and advises musicians to be “very cautious” during this period when the government has not provided clear rules for music and the arts. He says of artists: “They’re worried about the future of music and the future of their life.”

“Artists generally do fall into the category of at-risk Afghans,” says Chris Purdy, a project manager for advocacy group Human Rights First, “If we look back to the ’90s, it would make sense that the Taliban’s repression would apply to them.”

For artists looking to leave the country, Purdy says, the only routes out of Afghanistan involve border crossings into Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan or Iran. Bridges and other passageways are “very chaotic” and in some cases surrounded by hostile troops. Plus, the neighboring countries are not inclined to accept refugees in most cases, he says.

“They’re at high risk right now,” Purdy says. “Their best option is to go to ground and find a safe house … until we find assurances to get them safely out of the country.”

Despite the challenges, some aid groups are working to get musicians out. Billboard reached local musicians through Beard, who runs Save Afghan Musicians, an organization that has raised $17,500 and helped 20 musicians and their families leave the country in recent weeks. Beard’s 2011 festival Sound Central “was born out of the belly of the tiny underground music scene in Kabul,” according to its Facebook page, and has produced local battle-of-the-bands contests and other events. (He is now home in Melbourne, Australia.)

At the moment, local artists fall into the same category with interpreters, local politicians and other Afghans who the Taliban might view as enemies. U.S. citizens and some at-risk Afghans have been able to leave the country by air, but in recent days, the Taliban has reportedly not allowed planes to take off.

Faisal, Metal Sam and other musicians are hoping for charter flights but are still waiting for authorization. “The U.S. government isn’t paying attention,” Metal Sam says. “The media and people must put pressure on them so they should resolve this issue.”

Faisal has more immediate concerns in Afghanistan. After the Taliban took power, “some people” searched his home and attacked his brother, injuring his back. Faisal has no idea whether the violence was related to his background as a musician, but the incident prompted him and his family to flee immediately.

All 11 of his people are safe, although they are starting to run out of food after hiding out for a month. “Now we don’t know [how] to buy some food or change our place,” he says. They are paying close attention to the airport and border situation so they can get out as quickly as possible.

Faisal was five or six when he started playing music in Afghanistan in the early 2000s. He had a keyboard and studied guitar with a teacher, then formed a band in recent years. He wasn’t able to bring his guitar to his current home.

“The Taliban are telling that you can’t work in music. Just turn in your job and do something else,” Faisal says. “I can’t do this. If in Afghanistan it’s impossible, we will continue our band somewhere else. I want to work on my music.”

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