Saturday, Oct 01, 2022

A Symphony for Kabul

Despite wars and prohibitions in Afghanistan,old and young musicians keep alive a spirit of defiance in the country’s soundtrack.

Despite wars and prohibitions in Afghanistan,old and young musicians keep alive a spirit of defiance in the country’s soundtrack.

On a spring day in Kabul,we got the news of a blast somewhere in the center of town. At work,I started skimming the channels for news. But all I got was a young man crooning the latest ballad of love and betrayal that had taken the city by storm. “They’re showing music at a time like this,” I exclaimed to my colleague. “Haan ji,” she said,patiently,“Ek dhamake ke peeche voh gaana nahin chodte. (They won’t stop the music for just one blast).”

The music doesn’t stop in Kabul — it flutters out from behind curtained chaikhanas,swirls around the monster traffic jams and blares from speeding cars. Tunes dog your footsteps,sticking to your memory. Your head tilts to a beat barely recognised,your fingers snap and you exhale in a hum,a melody you didn’t know you were carrying till it came out. In offices,TV screens play an endless loop of brightly coloured Bollywood offerings,Tajik pop numbers and Afghan music videos. Even in the intimacy of homes,guests are welcomed by the switching on of a music channel,as if its absence would be a fall in the fabled standards of Kabuli hospitality. And in one of the most apposite instances of sound finding setting,long summer afternoons are punctuated by the theme music of Titanic,sailing forth in an endless loop from ice cream sellers’ carts.

So untiring is this pursuit of melody that at times it seems it must be motivated by something other than recreation. Perhaps it is the need to create a soundtrack to the rhythms of life in this difficult city. Or perhaps it is a way of composing a medley that reconciles and brings together the shades and memories that create the city — a symphony just for Kabul.

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Temples of Ruin

To get to the heart of music in Kabul,you have to travel,fittingly,to the heart of the old city. Kharabat,the traditional musician’s quarter,lies in the shadow of the Bala Hissar,or High Fortress,on the western edge of the city. Kucha e Kharabat falls away from its massive walls — its location said to be planned to let the king enjoy a night of revelry without detection. The area is both notorious and well loved — ‘to have a kharabat’ roughly translates to ‘enjoy lightheartedly’,without a care of consequences. Residents insist it refers to the Sufi connections of the earliest ustads,who called their gatherings ‘kharabat’ or ‘temples of ruin’. Most Kabulis of a certain age remember it as a place of laughter and long evenings of merriment,with music pouring out of each open door and window.

But on the day we visit,it is just another battered Kabul street. The Taliban is usually credited with emptying the musicians’ quarter,but the area was destroyed during the civil war,as rival mujahideen factions battled for control over the hill. A resident who hid in the cellar with his family recalls emerging after a fortnight of fierce fighting,to find that the entire neighbourhood had fled. He returned from Pakistan recently to find his street still empty,the companions of his youth either dead or scattered across the globe. We stand with him at the peak of the hill,with Kabul sprawled at our feet like a map. The only music we hear is the rhythmic tap-tapping of mason’s hammers as Kharabat rebuilds itself from the mud of its flattened houses,and the squeals of children at play.

Most of the Kharabati artistes who remain have moved,we are told,to nearby and cheaper Shor Bazaar. The erstwhile spice market is now packed with musicians’ ‘offices’,decorated with brightly coloured signs. Outside,young men dawdle next to the instruments on sale — tablas and harmoniums from Pakistan and India,and rubabs from Afghanistan. Set back slightly from the chaos are buildings which house small music schools. I walk into a dark stairwell,and the noise of the traffic falls away,replaced by the strains of a sitar,and the uneven dhap of a tabla being played,painstakingly and repeatedly,by a novice. Young boys labour up the stairs,lugging their instruments. “It is a sacred duty that we ustads have to pass on to our pupils,” says Ustad Khalid,sitting in his one-room ‘school’ lit only by a lantern. “No matter” he adds,“how difficult times are for musicians,or how few pupils we get.”


Like Ustad Khalid,most Kharabati musicians today have started mixing their legacy of classical learning with popular tunes. “If we played only classical,we would starve,” he says a little tartly. Later,I ran into a troupe of Kharabati performers at an upmarket restaurant,at a dinner hosted by an Afghan friend and his family. Over the clatter and conversations,they launched into tune after tune unnoticed,until they reached an old folk song that caught the attention of my friend’s three-year-old daughter. As she wandered over to them,the noise seemed to still,and faces of the foreign patrons and waiters in their faux-Afghan costumes blurred. For a brief moment,everything was as it should be,and our gazes were held by the sight of a little Afghan girl,dancing to an old Afghan song.

The King in Kabul

The biggest threat to Kharabati musicians before the war,several people told me,was just one man and his style of music. With his jazzy melodies,heartfelt Persian poetry and au-courant hairstyles Ahmad Zahir was the heartthrob of 1970’s Kabul — the Afghan Elvis. I heard his songs almost as soon as I reached Kabul,mostly because it is impossible not to do so. I soon realised he is as much as a part of the city as the bullet marks and the snow-capped mountains — something you encounter everywhere,something you take away with you.

My personal education in Ahmad Zahir took the route of my commute. Every day,as we wrestled our way through Kabul’s monstrous traffic,my driver Abdullah would insist on playing Radio Ahmad Zahir. Inching through the snarls,I slowly worked my way through his vast repertoire — ballads,pop-style numbers,slow love songs,even a delightfully accented version of the Haathi mere saathi title track.


Sometimes I heard other people sing his songs,and talk about growing up with his voice,or hearing him in exile,or dancing to his songs at their weddings. For many Kabulis,his voice conjures up images of a brief dalliance of their city with happiness; Kabul’s ‘summer of love’,its good old days. The moment was short lived. Like Elvis,Zahir died young,in a mysterious car accident in 1979,as Afghanistan stood on the cusp of decades of war. He was 33.

There is a post script. His popularity so riled the famously anti-music Taliban that when they seized Kabul,they destroyed Zahir’s tomb,seeking to erase him even further than death. When I visited his grave recently,the simple structure had been repaired and posters of Zahir pasted on some places. On one of the pillars,someone had scrawled — “They can never stop the music in our hearts.”

Rock n rolla

Perhaps,something of the same spirit of defiance motivated three young men to come together around three years ago to form the city’s ‘first rock group.’ Since they dreamed of making rock music in Kabul,they called it Kabul Dreams. Now,they are the city’s best known and most loved band. They are also darlings of the international press,which regularly features them as an antidote to the Afghan staple of ‘doom and gloom’ stories.

On the evening of their concert at the auditorium of Kabul’s French Cultural Center,the crowd begins at the gate. Crossing the security check into the building complex is like entering a subculture of cool. Trendy young men in elaborately frayed jeans are patted down to their metal studded boots,while brightly dressed girls stride past with a pert ‘Lets go,deegah?”(roughly,‘Lets go,yo?’) — a confluence of language so fresh and unexpected it leaves even the guards looking flustered.

This kind of confident ‘mixin’ it up’ characterises Kabul Dreams,who grew up as part of the vast diaspora of Afghans scattered across the globe. There is no way of telling,but this seems to be something they share with several of their fans. The buzz of conversations in the foyer is both edgy and assured — concerts heard in Berlin,plans for an upcoming rock festival in Kabul,a documentary shoot on the city’s underground ‘scene’. The focus is firmly on the future,technology,Leaving,Returning,the Outside — the preoccupations of a class of young Afghans negotiating their relationship with their own country,and the world.


Inside,the gig takes off with a burst of energy that is both charming and infectious. The vocalist Sulyman Qardash sings in English and Dari,both languages inflected with the accent that could be called American,but is more accurately ‘Rock and Roll-ese’. Their songs are about peace and love,and about those perennial themes of youth flying away,finding themselves,running away. (But not,as Sulyman explains,running away from the country). The crowd follows every move rapturously,swaying with the beat,yelling for encores,snapping every nuance with cameras and mobiles that follow the trio feverishly. It could be a rock concert anywhere,and that perhaps,is its greatest achievement.

Later,I find a video of a KD performance on the streets of the city,called Labe Sarak. As the band works through their routine outside a supermarket in Shahr e Nau (New City),street kids,beggars and bearded old men are part of the crowd that stops to listen. “It’s great,” says one man,talking to the camera. “People used to be scared of listening to music at such places (on the streets) earlier. Such events bring people together,and help them forget their pain and fear…”

A memory of silence


I once asked Abdullah,who had driven a taxi during the Taliban years,what the streets had sounded like then. “They were quiet,” he said,“except for the tapes.” The Taliban would search passing cars for music cassettes,and disembowel any they found,by pulling out the tape and throwing it on the street. Every time you drove past,he said,reams and reams of tape would be lying at the larger crossroads,clumping together in trees and signposts,rustling in the wind,the only music in that silence.

Taran N Khan is a journalist who travels
frequently to Kabul

First published on: 06-05-2012 at 02:58:46 am
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