Dreaming Rock & Roll In Kabul
The rock band from Afghanistan will play South by Southwest festival in Austin this year, also have an EP ready for releaseFeatures January 13, 2014
Starting the first rock band in Kabul means doing much more than just playing some tunes. “Musically, we were in the middle of nowhere,” says Sulyman Qardash, lead vocalist and guitarist for Kabul Dreams, “so we had to do everything ourselves.” The young group of rockers went around their still-devastated city, explaining the idea of rock music to potential sponsors and scouting for secure venues. “We did the work usually done by producers and managers,” recalls Qardash, “and tried to put together the scene.”
The unlikely story of war-zone rock started in 2008 when three young friends who dreamt of making music in Kabul decided to form a band. With endearing simplicity, they called it Kabul Dreams. Of the original trio, now two remain-Qardash and bassist Siddiq Ahmed. A new drummer, Raby Adib, joined them earlier this year. At the age of 21, he had already played with another band — a graph that reflects both the appeal of music in Kabul, as well as the growth of something like a city ‘scene’. So far, Kabul Dreams has performed gigs abroad — from the US and Estonia to Pakistan and Turkey — besides creating its own niche in the tumultuous space of a city racked by war.
Their first show abroad was in New Delhi at the 2009 South Asian Bands Festival. “We had to play one cover and we picked “Knockin on Heavens Door.” People started singing along, and we really got noticed after that,” recalls Qardash. Since then, the band has released its first full length album in April 2013, titled Plastic Words, which was mixed by Grammy winning producer Alan Sanderson. With lyrics in English, the tracks stick to their indie rock roots with various influences buzzing around—influences that are linked, in part, to the troubled past of their country. Like a large number of young Afghans, Ahmed and Qardash grew up abroad, before returning to live in Kabul with their families after 2001. While Ahmed spent time in Pakistan, Qardash lived in Uzbekistan, where he was immersed in the local punk rock scene. Interestingly, Adib lived in Kabul through the Taliban years, which were singularly devoid of such inputs. It was only when he joined the National Institute of Music that he got into rock. “Most of my classmates at university had come from abroad (after 2001) and introduced me to these sounds,” he says. From listening to the music, it was a short leap to trying to play it. “Our influences range from Radiohead to A Perfect Circle and Chevelle. We are fans of Scottish group Biffy Clyro,” says Qardash. “But our music as well as what we admire has changed over the years,” he adds. “We were big on Nirvana and in the mood for grunge, which is still huge, but we are going in different directions now.”
The three are young rockers in a young country. While Adib graduated from the National Institute of Music in 2010, Qardash at 24 is almost impossibly baby faced. “When I go on stage, people say ‘Dude, you look totally underage’,” he says with an air of resignation. At 31, Ahmed is the senior member of the group— a fact he is playfully twitted about. He is also the band’s resident intellectual, with a day job as a research analyst. Qardash, who studied management, has had a day job for the past several years. “I used to read the news on TV,” he says, “but the contrast between me wearing a suit and talking in a serious voice and then singing and dancing in our music videos on the same channel got too much.” Now he works as a freelance photographer and writer for international media agencies. Adib, the only full time musician of the group, works as a sessions drummer with other artists — a telling reminder of how Afghan youth are often forced to be pragmatic even while chasing their dreams.
But these formidable problems recede in the easy flow of their camaraderie, on and off stage. It is difficult to say which comes first — their proximity as friends or as a band. All three are clear that playing music is only a small part of being a band in Kabul. “Recently, we had to let go of an opportunity to play a gig because of a personal problem in one member’s family. We just cancelled without any discussion,” says Ahmed. “You need to have good communication, and understand each others’ problems.” Friendship apart, the dynamics of living in Kabul means no one is immune from unexpected crises. “So no one can complain because the next time, it may be him facing a problem,” jokes Qardash.
After their first album, the band is now preparing to release their new Dari/Persian single titled “Curiosity.” “If you walk on the streets of Kabul, sometimes you feel that everyone is staring at you. I think it’s because you came out of that box and broke those walls in front of you and are doing something unusual,” says Qardash. The band is also planing an EP that will include “Curiosity,” as well as a remake of an old track “Sadae Man,” also in Dari, and an English track titled “Bomb Blast.”
“Curiosity,” will be released for free download on the internet. Like many young people in Kabul, the band turn to the web often to overcome the lack of infrastructure in their country. “Social media has been our school, it’s where we learnt about art and music and movements from all over the world. Our heroes come from there,” says Qardash, who recently participated in Afghanistan’s first Social Media Summit, held in Kabul. The group is active on Twitter and Facebook, where they have over 16000 ‘Likes’. In a country where internet access is both limited and expensive, this is bigger than it seems. It also helps them target audiences outside Afghanistan in a bid to become financially viable. “We want to be able to work as musicians, not work to support our music,” says Ahmed, echoing the sentiments of garage bands all over the globe.
In the years that Kabul Dreams has been making music, their city has undergone rapid and complex changes. “The first time we were trying to record a song, there were power cuts every few minutes and we had to keep starting the computers again and again,” recalls Ahmed. In many ways, he says, things are better now, with “new buildings on every street and better equipment for recordings and videos.” But over the same time, security has steadily worsened, making secure venues a luxury and open concerts near impossible. They are yet to play a gig in Afghanistan outside the capital. But in 2011, they pulled off a rare street concert, called “Labe Sadak” (By the Roadside), outside a supermarket in central Kabul. It took a lot of planning, says the band, and they haven’t repeated the feat since.
When they do perform in Kabul, their shows are tame by western standards — no booze, no drugs, and a decorous, if edgy, dress code. But their concerts are also meeting places for the hip new generation of Afghans, who are plugged in and eager to be a part of larger movements. “Yes, we have had a long war here, but we also need some happiness. What music can do, nothing else can do. It can help young people to be inspired and dream, and at least be entertained,” says Ahmed.
For now, the trio is busy planning a tour of the US in the coming months, where they will be “meeting people and maybe playing a few gigs,” as well as planning their next album. “We have moved to the US to continue our music career,” says Qardash. For Adib, the long term plan is to make Kabul Dreams a part of the lives of Afghans. And while their music is rooted in Kabul, they are determined to rise above the mere novelty of their location. “We have a good story — we come from a war torn country,” says Qardash, “but at the end of the day, our music has to be good.”
This article appeared in the January 2014 issue of ROLLING STONE India.