KABUL (Reuters) - On a dimly lit stage the godfather of Afghan rock prepares for the next song, as images of the French movie La Haine (Hate) flicker above and his audience is asked what song would they sing if they were lying in the gutter dying.
For “District Unknown”, Afghanistan’s first heavy metal band, the answer could be “Two Seconds After the Blast”, from their soon-to-be recorded first album, “A 24-hour life time”.
“We live under the constant fear of sudden death,” says Qasem Foushanji, guitarist with “District Unknown”, one of a handful of bands to emerge with mentoring from Afghanistan’s first school of rock, which opened in May.
The thumping, heavy metal rock and aggressive lyrics which reverberate within the sound-proof walls of Kabul’s “Sound Centre” music school allows young Afghans to vent their anger at the violence they have witnessed during years of war before and after the September 11, 2001, attacks in the United States.
The District Unknown song “The Beast” has lyrics like: “I scream loud and harsh; For you to run away”.
“The beast in the song is fear, and if one can defeat fear then they can make a better reality for themselves,” says Pedram Foushanji, Qasem’s brother, and band’s songwriter and drummer.
Kabul’s rock music school, housed inside the small “Venue” restaurant in the Afghan capital, also reflects the return, although sometimes tentative, of social and individual freedoms since the end of the Taliban rule in 1996.
The Taliban’s extreme interpretation of Islam banned cinema, TV and most music, except that rooted in religion, and forbid women and girls from working or studying. Under the Taliban, a rock school would have been destroyed and its musicians killed.
Even now, 16 years since Taliban rule ended, Afghanistan’s young rock musicians are sometimes forced to wear masks when performing to avoid being attacked by religious conservatives.
And the shadow of the Taliban looms large ahead of the 2014 transition when most foreign combat troops leave and hand security control back to Afghan forces.
The Taliban staged a 12-hour siege at a popular lakeside hotel outside Kabul this month, accusing hotel hostages of drinking and prostitution. At least 20 people were killed.
Women and girls continue to suffer rights abuses at the hands of pro-Taliban conservatives. In April, about 150 schoolgirls were poisoned after drinking contaminated water in an attack blamed on those opposed to female education.
“Our music is not about heartbreak or boy-girl relationships. We don’t live that,” says Qais Shaghasi, guitarist with District Unknown.
“It’s about watching a 15-year-old being married off to a 50-year-old man by her father for money. That’s what we see,” says Shaghasi, wearing a black T-shirt depicting U.S. trash metal band Slayer.
After years of Western influences filtering into traditionally conservative Afghanistan, via foreigners associated with NATO-led forces, radio, film, the Internet and a sprinkling of CD music shops, the seeds of rock were sown.
Afghanistan’s school of rock was the brainchild of an unlikely trio: Boston cellist Robin Ryzek, who came to teach classical music; former Pakistan refugee Humayun Zardan, forbidden from learning guitar as a youth but determined to see young Afghans rock in his restaurant; and Australian punk rock guitarist Travis Beard, regarded as the godfather of Kabul rock.
“Most Afghans have no clue about what they’re hearing, it’s just something new and they’re drawn to it,” explains the pony-tailed Beard.
The school’s walls are covered with murals and paintings by local artists, and guitars and speakers have been donated from every corner of the world. Three grungy sound-proof rooms mean restaurant diners and gun-toting neighbors remain unaware of the rock revolution within.
The school has attracted some 20 students, including a handful of girls, seeking refuge in rock.
Pedram and Qasem were living in Iran when they were given an album by the U.S. heavy metal band Metallica, along with a warning about its “harsh” sound, which is in stark contrast to Afghanistan’s traditional string and drum music.
The brothers immediately took a liking to the fast-paced, aggressive sound, saying a childhood spent amid war and violence helped them to connect with the music.
“I feel most comfortable playing metal music because you go out there in everyday life and you get a lot of negative energy,” Pedram said. “Playing metal makes me feel better. It does for me what meditation does for others.”
It was probably no surprise that young Afghan men like the Foushanji brothers picked heavy metal to express themselves, said Mohammad Zaman Rajabi, a Kabul psychologist.
Just like young U.S. soldiers turned to 60s rock when confronted with the horrors of the Vietnam War.
The fast-paced thrash of heavy metal rock is a magnet for youths desensitized to violence, said Rajabi, citing the rock fights and wrestling among Afghan youths on Kabul’s streets.
“It gives them an opportunity to express their deepest emotions in a very aggressive, masochistic way,” he said.
“It’s a smarter way to cope with the reality. In classical music you need a stable state of mind to express yourself through traditional instruments like the sitar, but in rock or heavy metal the kids feel more free.”
Rising above oppression seems a theme within the school.
“La Haine”, screened during a performance by the school’s founders, depicts the tough lives of three young 20-something migrants in an impoverished French housing project.
During the performance, students also listened to an audio clip from the Johnny Cash biopic “Walk the Line”, when famed U.S. record producer Sam Phillips asks Cash if he was lying in the gutter dying what would be the one song he’d sing — “One song that would let God know how you felt about your time here on Earth. One song that would sum you up”.
“It’s given them attitude. Three years ago they were shy little boys,” explains co-founder Beard of the school’s impact.
“One of the biggest problems in this country is that there’s no way for people to voice their opinions, you can’t go out in the street and start saying stuff, people will beat you up. The only place you can really do things freely is on a stage or on a canvas,” said Beard.
Pedram juggles a double life of engineering student and rock musician, but Qasem has dropped out of college to pursue art and music full-time. “Pedram got harassed at school with people saying he was a lover of Satan,” Shaghasi said.
On a recent Sunday night both the Foushanji and Shaghasi families watched their sons perform for the first time.
“I was always very worried about what he was doing, but now after seeing him perform I feel a lot better about it,” Shaghasi’s mother said after the show.
Beard said it is a common misconception for rock music to be labeled as Satanic or anti-Islam by conservatives.
“If you come to a show though you’ll see it’s all just innocent fun, with really loud and sometimes hard-to-listen-to noise,” he said.
Nevertheless, Beard said the musicians take safety precautions and sometimes cancel concerts. Kabul might be accepting of the school but it would be unrealistic to play rock music in other parts of the country under Taliban influence.
“Kabul’s a bubble, we wouldn’t be able to go to Kandahar and do this,” he said of the southern province that is the birthplace of the Taliban.
The acceptance of Western music in Kabul has seen the “Rock in Kabul” festival grow to six concerts a year. Organized by Beard, the festival draws in an audience of around 450 people. At first only 10 percent were Afghans, but now the split between foreigners and Afghans is 50/50.
Kabul’s school of rock is also allowing young Afghan girls to strut their stuff on stage. Unlike most schools in Afghanistan there is no segregation of sexes here.
“I always wanted to learn to play rock music and tried to learn in other courses, but there were taught by men and had all male students, so they used to harass us,” said Sahar Fetrat, wearing a black scarf while strumming her guitar.
Fetrat, a 16-year-old high school student learning to play guitar, said she attends the school with her sister Sadaf, 20, who is learning to play drums.
“The teachers at this school are used to being around women. The students too. They don’t make it uncomfortable. I want to learn to play rock because I’m a very active and hyper person, and rock is wild and I can be wild playing it,” she said.
Students have to produce mixed-sex performances every week.
“Segregation of sexes causes a lot of unnecessary problems in this country,” said Beard, who plans to form a girlband.
“The male population in the music scene here do not even want to give the girls a chance. They laugh at them before they’ve even started to play music,” he said.
“What’s really annoying is that these are not the mullahs or the conservatives. We’re talking about the Afghan youth who are already playing music here, who are going to parties and living a semi-Western lifestyle. They’re still close-minded about women, which is ridiculous.”
Editing by Michael Perry