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Heavy Metal Band Afghanistan’s ‘First Counter-culture Movement’

District Unknown, Afghanistan's only heavy metal band in a concert in India (Photo: IANS)
District Unknown, Afghanistan's only heavy metal band in a concert in India (Photo: IANS)

By Madhusree Chatterjee

District Unknown, Afghanistan's only heavy metal band in a concert in India (Photo: IANS)
District Unknown, Afghanistan’s only heavy metal band in a concert in India (Photo: IANS)
New Delhi: The sounds of heavy metal from boutique venues in Kabul, women jiving at gigs, youngsters strumming guitars – the Afghanistan of today is a different world from what it was a decade ago ravaged by the edicts against popular culture by the hawkish Taliban, say members of “District Unknown”, Afghanistan’s first and only heavy metal band, described by the Rolling Stones as the “leader in Afghanistan’s first counter-culture movement”.

Taboo till a decade ago, the country is tuning in to heavy metal music that draws its sustenance from bands like “Guns & Roses”, “Metallica”, “Anathema”, “Pink Floyd”, “Porcupine Tree”, “God Speed You Black Emperor”, “B’jork”, “Opeth” and “Barney Mario”. Young Afghans are beginning to enjoy the new sounds of freedom, members of the band said.

“People are changing. But the change is very slow. After 50 years, something is happening. If we let this go, we will be f….**ed again.Young people are doing electronic music, hip hop and dance music. Girls are coming to concerts again. We want to drive the energy of youth into arts and music – not into conflict or war,” the band’s lead guitarist, Quais Shaghasi, who has the “maximum command over English,” told IANS.

For years, girls and women haven’t had the chance to be in the society. Now, they are finding new ways to come in – they want something full of energy, the musician said.

“Afghan girls who come to our shows enquire about our subsequent concerts so that they can come back,” Quais said.

“District Unknown”, often decried as anti-Islam by conservatives in Afghanistan for what the Rolling Stones describe as “its psychedelic rock music,” was in India to play at the South Asian Bands Festival at the historic Purana Qila here Dec 7-9.

Qais and three other young musicians – Qasem, Pedram and Yousuf – a bunch of GenNext Afghan musicians who grew up listening to the metal of the 1980s – talk of war, conflict and social realities through their music.

“We want to stay connected with the atmosphere in our country through our music. We want our songs to reflect sentiments which connect to the society every day. We throw our songs into the face of the people to wake them up to the reality around,” vocalist Yousuf pointed out.

“District Unknown” was formed in the summer of 2009 when drummer Pedram and Quais were looking for a place to jam.

“Our band manager Travis had a funk rock in Kabul and he found a place for us. It brought the band together. We wrote our first song, ‘The Nightmare’ in 2010,” Quais said.

The band has seven original tracks like “The Dying Bride”, “The Day Dreams” and “Kill the Beast/Trial for a Better Reality” and performs covers of tracks from bands like “Eurhythmics”. Heavy metal is still a risky business in Afghanistan, says Quais, recalling that for the first two years, the band made underground music at youth centres, expat joints and the Afghan National Gallery.

“Now there are boutique cafes like The Venue where we play live in Kabul. In 2009-2010, the hardliners wanted us to stop singing. They called us Satanists. Strangely people are liking it now. We go round to play our music. Some people say it is against the religion. At the small gigs where we play our music, we tell people that this is music, just a little heavy and it is not anti-religion… this is our music, this is how it is played,” Quais said.

Not much is being composed in the Afghan mother tongues, he rued.

“We are working on an EP album where there will be more Afghan instruments and languages to revive the lost sounds of Afghanistan,” Quais said.

The band relies on three organisations in Kabul – “The Venue”, which runs the “Rock School of Kabul”; “Combat Communications”, a non-profit organisation that helps in the music scene and the “Afghan National Institute of Music” – to keep its genre alive.

“The drawdown by American forces in 2014 has sparked fears of social disruption. I think there will be some changes but these changes will not last long…,” Quais said, looking into the future of western music in Afghanistan.

Source: IANS