Afghan Wig Out

They had bigger things to worry about than mud, dodgy sound systems or the state of the portaloos. On Saturday 1st October Afghanistan hosted its first rock festival since 1975 at an outdoor venue in downtown Kabul. The location had been kept secret until the last moment for security reasons, leading organisers to dub Sound Central the world’s first “stealth” music festival.

In the event, it went off without a hitch. District Unknown, who have built a fearsome reputation on their notoriety as the first ever all-Afghan metal band, were joined on the bill by a mix of home-grown talent and a handful of visitors. Kazakh emo band Eklektika played alongside Afghan indie bands like Kabul Dreams and the bluesier Morcha. Opportunities like this don’t come along very often: for young Afghan pop-rockers White Page, who covered Green Day, Linkin Park, and System of a Down during their set, it was just their third ever show.

Until recently, a festival like this one would have been simply unimaginable. Under the Taliban, music was banned, or rather musical instruments and recordings of them were. The closest you could get was a little unaccompanied chanting, and even then the Taliban tended to favour traditional poetry over ‘American Idiot’.

Daniel J Gerstle, one of the festival organisers, told Mojo that even after the fall of the Taliban music continued to be an illicit pleasure for many Afghan bands: “These guys and their peers have been listening to, then covering, and now writing songs inspired by everything from The Rolling Stones to Slayer for years. They kept their ‘secret’ between themselves and their closest friends through the war. It’s only now after pop singers like Farhad Darya and Europe-based rockers like Mirwais Sahab have rebuilt the traditional music industry, that these bands are coming out of the basement to offer rock and metal alternative music culture to the public.”

Many of the bands write about the horrors their country has experienced in recent times – District Unknown have a song about an airstrike mistakenly hitting a wedding – but, as Gerstle points out, part of the festival’s success has been restoring a little bit of local pride: “It’s great to give Afghan youth a glimpse of what a peaceful Kabul could one day be like, and show them that they don’t always have to look elsewhere for fun and great music.”

Originally published in the December 2011 issue of Mojo.