Rocking Kabul: Afghanistan stages secretive rock event

Festival crowd in Kabul
The event finished in the Central Sound Festival at Bagh-e Babor Gardens

It was arranged in secret, dates and venues closely guarded until the day.

But this basement gig, held underneath a veterinary clinic, isn't in London or New York but in the Afghan capital, Kabul.

The event was part of the city's first rock festival since the fall of the Taliban and it went ahead despite threats to some of the bands.

"Four or five years ago all this could only have been a dream," says lead vocalist of District Unknown, Kassim.

"You wouldn't even be able to dream it up actually. Having a rock festival, people gathering, girls and boys together and listening to this music and headbanging. But this week it's happening."

District Unknown are an Afghan heavy metal band and like their idols Slipknot, they usually wear masks. But they wear them to protect their identity, having been threatened by the Taliban not to play music.

Kassim
Kassim from District Unknown says the festival was like a 'dream'

"Some so-called very religious people like to spread the fear of the Taliban. I've been threatened two times," says the band's 23-year-old drummer, Pedrum.

"They come to you and say stop it or we'll force you to stop. I told them that I had stopped, so we all started using masks. I hate hiding myself, I'm sick of it."

The secret gig is packed and sweaty and there's a very enthusiastic mosh pit. It could almost pass as a rock night at a student union bar in the UK.

The boys wear low-slung jeans with Pink Floyd and Red Hot Chili Peppers T-shirts, the few girls in attendance wear long-sleeved tops, but don't cover their hair like most Afghan women.

'Not for girls'

Eighteen-year-old Nargis and 25-year-old Farida are students in Kabul. They are two of just four girls at the gig.

"I like to come to such places because you don't find this sort of thing in Afghanistan," says Farida.

Like everyone at the gig, they are taking a big risk and like everyone there they ask for their surnames not to be used.

Much of Afghan society thinks girls don't come out at night, and certainly not without their parents.

"There are not many girls who are brave enough to come to these parties," admits Nagris. "There are many Afghan men at this party who think it's wrong for a girl to come.

"But now we come and they can see it's not something very bad. It's only music, we're just chilling."

Farida says she's determined to try her best to lead a normal life: "We know anything can happen. Everyday when you walk out of your house, you know you might not come home in the evening.

"But we can't lock ourselves away and not enjoy our lives. We need to take the risks to live our lives like human beings."

Secret texts

Music was banned under the Taliban and Afghan society remains a deeply conservative one.

Performer and crowd at Kabul rock festival
Bands came from all over Central Asia, including Iran and Tajikistan

Whilst traditional Afghan music and even Bollywood songs can be heard on the streets of the capital, rock music is generally seen as an unwanted western influence.

That disapproval meant fans had to register on a secret database to let them receive text messages of where and when the performances were taking place.

Almost 1,000 people attended the four-day event, with bands taking part from all over central Asia, including Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Iran.

It's 10 years this week since British and American forces began bombing Kabul to get rid of the Taliban after the 9/11 attacks.

International troops have been based in the country ever since, but both Britain and America want all combat troops out of Afghanistan by 2015.

Pedrum from District Unknown has mixed emotions about the deadline: "I think if the international forces leave this country just as it's moved forward everything will be smashed up again.

"We're lucky they are here but we need to find our own path. It's not right to try to make Afghanistan a western country. It's never going to happen.

"But no-one forced us to play rock music tonight, no-one forced us to growl and shout. No-one forced those guys to headbang to us, but they did."