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Kabul's Drum Song


YOUTH BAND: Drummer Mujtaba Habibi, vocalist/guitarist Sulyman Qardash and bassist Siddique Ahmed (from left to right) of Kabul Dreams

Khaled Hosseini's searingly tender novel, The Kite Runner, familiarised millions with the Afghanistan of the late '90s, a country in the clutch of religious extremists. Under the Taliban, the self-proclaimed guardians of Islamic morals, music was condemned as sinful, old classical instruments broken, cassettes nailed to posts as a warning to those who dared disobey. Bombed out and war-ravaged, a new USsponsored Afghanistan is slowly taking shape today. Not all is well: orphans swarm the streets;the government is corrupt to its core and poverty, stark. But there are also signs of redemption. The new Afghanistan is being born not only to the sound of drones but also to the sound of drums and guitars. Music may not yet be a stairway to heaven, but it is no longer the highway to hell.

What do you get when you cross one of the world's most violent zones with rock 'n' roll? Death metal, right? Wrong. Kabul Dreams defines itself as Afghanistan's first rock band, with a rapidly expanding international fan base. Unlike the Baghdad-based band Acrassicauda that used Metallica-like metal to express frustration and rage before the civil war forced it to disband and flee, Kabul's fab three have a stoic, Norman Vincent Peale-like approach: positive thinking. Significantly, their lyrics, while engorged with the conventional teenage dirt bag subjects - running away from home, love and girls - make no mention of the subjects that have become synonymous with Afghanistan-war and death. In their original, I wanna run away, the crooner alternately sings and screams the same four words over and over again, a simple statement that most Afghan youth seem to agree with.

The band was forged in 2007 on the strength of a friendship between three young men who decided to be the voice of a generation in the only way they knew how - through rock. Not surprisingly, none of them lived in Afghanistan during the Taliban regime;all three had to seek refuge with their slightly more liberal neighbours.

Sulyman Qardash, who at 20, is the baby of the band, lived in Uzbekistan during the terror years, and studied guitar there. When on stage, he has a distinctive Pete Doherty look about him, and writes most of the lyrics he sings. He idolises bands like Gorillaz and Oasis, whose influence is obvious in his music. Bass guitarist Siddique Ahmed, who is 28, lived and studied in Islamabad during the insurgency, and references a whole range of bands from the Beatles to Metallica. Drummer Mujtaba Habibi, 24, lived and learned music in Iran, and is a fan of progressive rock bands like Dream Theater.

Their eclectic range of experiences and sonic influences have turned the three Afghan youth into quiet rebels. They sing in English, not only because they come from different parts of Afghanistan and speak different languages (Dari, Pashto and Uzbek), but because they believe English is the language of protest. "Linguistic and ethnic differences have been misused for personal and political interests in the past, so we consider it a sign of protest not to sing in any of our languages, " Ahmed, who is the unofficial spokesman of the band, told TOI-Crest. "Also, we don't want to limit our audience to Afghanistan. "

Ambition is one thing the band does not lack. Ahmed says they want to represent Afghanistan at international festivals, get a record label contract, go on a world tour, "get Grammy awards and play at Glastonbury". The audacity of hope, one may call it, but the band is hell-bent on showing the world a different picture of Afghanistan. They hate the fact that the international media focuses only on the 'bad things'. "We want to show the world that there are people living here, especially youngsters, who love music and have the right to live like the youth elsewhere, " says Ahmed.

But the dream seems to be some distance away. For now, more mundane tasks beckon. Qardash is a local TV anchor, Habibi runs a home studio that records young Afghan singers, and Siddique is a student of social science at the American University of Afghanistan, where Kabul Dreams played last month to a princely audience of 200 (remember, this is rock music in Afghanistan). The three also work at Kabul Rock Radio, a station devoted to rock. And the response is what keeps them going. Their first official video, Can you fly, debuted early this month, and its YouTube clip had people from around the world praising their talent in particular and Afghanistan in general.

Interestingly, many older Afghans are familiar with rock 'n' roll. When Kabul Dreams played at an embassy in Kabul, Ahmed says "an old man in his 60s came up and asked us to play covers from the Beatles, Stones and Queen, music 'from our times'". Yet, the band is thankful that rock's novelty in Afghanistan means that most people don't know what it is, because "if they did, we would have faced bigger problems". Ahmed, Qardash and Habibi are lucky to come from educated families where their parents don't mind their choice of career - even if the odd relative does make a nasty comment or two. "Afghan society in general are music lovers, " says Ahmed. "They even listened to music when it was banned. So if they risked harsh punishments and going to jail over music, they won't mind giving rock 'n' roll a try. "

While the band is not exactly aggressively promoting itself, it's perhaps Malcolm Gladwell's theory that word-of-mouth is the most powerful form of advertising that's bringing people from around the world to the Kabul Dreams' MySpace and Facebook pages. From Spain, Brazil and India, people from civilised democracies are learning about hope and love from three young men who belong to a country that was until recently only associated with war and death. The dream has only just begun.

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