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 release
Starting the first rock band inÂ Kabul means doing much more thanÂ just playing some tunes. “Musically,Â we were in the middle of nowhere,”Â says Sulyman Qardash, lead vocalist and guitaristÂ for Kabul Dreams, “so we had to do everythingÂ ourselves.” The young group of rockersÂ went around their still-devastated city,Â explaining the idea of rock music to potentialÂ sponsors and scouting for secure venues. “WeÂ did the work usually done by producers andÂ managers,” recalls Qardash, “and tried to putÂ together the scene.”Â
The unlikely story of war-zone rock startedÂ in 2008 when three young friends whoÂ dreamt of making music in Kabul decidedÂ to form a band. With endearing simplicity,Â they called it Kabul Dreams. Of the originalÂ trio, now two remain-Qardash and bassistÂ Siddiq Ahmed. A new drummer, Raby Adib,Â joined them earlier this year. At the age of 21,Â he had already played with another band ”” aÂ graph that reflects both the appeal of music inÂ Kabul, as well as the growth of something likeÂ a city ”˜scene’. So far, Kabul Dreams has performedÂ gigs abroad ”” from the US and Estonia to Pakistan and Turkey ”” besides creatingÂ its own niche in the tumultuous space of a cityÂ racked by war.Â
Their first show abroad was in New Delhi atÂ the 2009 South Asian Bands Festival. “We hadÂ to play one cover and we picked “Knockin onÂ Heavens Door.” People started singing along,Â and we really got noticed after that,” recallsÂ Qardash. Since then, the band has releasedÂ its first full length album in April 2013, titledÂ Plastic Words, which was mixed by Grammy winningÂ producer Alan Sanderson. With lyricsÂ in English, the tracks stick to their indie rockÂ roots with various influences buzzingÂ around””influences that are linked, in part,Â to the troubled past of their country. Like aÂ large number of young Afghans, Ahmed andÂ Qardash grew up abroad, before returning toÂ live in Kabul with their families after 2001.Â While Ahmed spent time in Pakistan, QardashÂ lived in Uzbekistan, where he was immersedÂ in the local punk rock scene. Interestingly,Â Adib lived in Kabul through the TalibanÂ years, which were singularly devoid of such inputs.Â It was only when he joined the NationalÂ Institute of Music that he got into rock. “MostÂ of my classmates at university had come fromÂ abroad (after 2001) and introduced me toÂ these sounds,” he says. From listening to theÂ music, it was a short leap to trying to play it.Â “Our influences range from Radiohead to A PerfectÂ Circle and Chevelle. We are fans of ScottishÂ group Biffy Clyro,” says Qardash. “But ourÂ music as well as what we admire has changedÂ over the years,” he adds. “We were big onÂ Nirvana and in the mood for grunge, whichÂ is still huge, but we are going in differentÂ directions now.”Â
The three are young rockers in a youngÂ country. While Adib graduated from the NationalÂ Institute of Music in 2010, Qardash atÂ 24 is almost impossibly baby faced. “When I goÂ on stage, people say ”˜Dude, you look totally underage’,”Â he says with an air of resignation. AtÂ 31, Ahmed is the senior member of the group”” a fact he is playfully twitted about. He isÂ also the band’s resident intellectual, with a dayÂ job as a research analyst. Qardash, who studied management, has had a day job for the pastÂ several years. “I used to read the news on TV,”Â he says, “but the contrast between me wearingÂ a suit and talking in a serious voice andÂ then singing and dancing in our music videosÂ on the same channel got too much.” Now heÂ works as a freelance photographer and writerÂ for international media agencies. Adib, theÂ only full time musician of the group, works asÂ a sessions drummer with other artists ”” a tellingÂ reminder of how Afghan youth are oftenÂ forced to be pragmatic even while chasingÂ their dreams.
But these formidable problemsÂ recede in the easy flow of their camaraderie,Â on and off stage. It isÂ difficult to say which comes firstÂ ”” their proximity as friends orÂ as a band. All three are clear thatÂ playing music is only a small partÂ of being a band in Kabul. “Recently,Â we had to let go of an opportunityÂ to play a gig because of a personalÂ problem in one member’sÂ family. We just cancelled withoutÂ any discussion,” says Ahmed.Â “You need to have good communication,Â and understand each others’ problems.” Friendship apart,Â the dynamics of living in KabulÂ means no one is immune fromÂ unexpected crises. “So no one canÂ complain because the next time,Â it may be him facing a problem,”Â jokes Qardash.
Â After their first album, theÂ band is now preparing to releaseÂ their new Dari/Persian single titledÂ “Curiosity.” “If you walk onÂ the streets of Kabul, sometimesÂ you feel that everyone is staring atÂ you. I think it’s because you cameÂ out of that box and broke thoseÂ walls in front of you and are doingÂ something unusual,” says Qardash.Â The band is also planing anÂ EP that will include “Curiosity,”Â as well as a remake of an old trackÂ “Sadae Man,” also in Dari, and anÂ English track titled “Bomb Blast.”
“Curiosity,” will be releasedÂ for free download on the internet.Â Like many young people inÂ Kabul, the band turn to the webÂ often to overcome the lack of infrastructureÂ in their country. “SocialÂ media has been our school,Â it’s where we learnt about art andÂ music and movements from allÂ over the world. Our heroes comeÂ from there,” says Qardash, whoÂ recently participated in Afghanistan’sÂ first Social Media Summit,Â held in Kabul. The group is activeÂ on Twitter and Facebook, whereÂ they have over 16000 ”˜Likes’. In aÂ country where internet access is both limited and expensive, this isÂ bigger than it seems. It also helpsÂ them target audiences outside AfghanistanÂ in a bid to become financiallyÂ viable. “We want to beÂ able to work as musicians, notÂ work to support our music,” saysÂ Ahmed, echoing the sentimentsÂ of garage bands all over the globe.
In the years that Kabul DreamsÂ has been making music, their cityÂ has undergone rapid and complexÂ changes. “The first time we wereÂ trying to record a song, there wereÂ power cuts every few minutes andÂ we had to keep starting the computersÂ again and again,” recallsÂ Ahmed. In many ways, he says,Â things are better now, with “newÂ buildings on every street and betterÂ equipment for recordings andÂ videos.” But over the same time,Â security has steadily worsened,Â making secure venues a luxuryÂ and open concerts near impossible.Â They are yet to play a gigÂ in Afghanistan outside the capital.Â But in 2011, they pulled off aÂ rare street concert, called “LabeÂ Sadak” (By the Roadside), outsideÂ a supermarket in central Kabul.Â It took a lot of planning, says theÂ band, and they haven’t repeatedÂ the feat since.
When they do perform inÂ Kabul, their shows are tame byÂ western standards ”” no booze,Â no drugs, and a decorous, if edgy,Â dress code. But their concerts areÂ also meeting places for the hipÂ new generation of Afghans, whoÂ are plugged in and eager to be aÂ part of larger movements. “Yes, weÂ have had a long war here, but weÂ also need some happiness. WhatÂ music can do, nothing else can do.Â It can help young people to be inspiredÂ and dream, and at least beÂ entertained,” says Ahmed.
For now, the trio is busy planningÂ a tour of the US in the comingÂ months, where they will beÂ “meeting people and maybe playingÂ a few gigs,” as well as planningÂ their next album. “We have movedÂ to the US to continue our musicÂ career,” says Qardash. For Adib,Â the long term plan is to makeÂ Kabul Dreams a part of the livesÂ of Afghans. And while their musicÂ is rooted in Kabul, they are determinedÂ to rise above the mere noveltyÂ of their location. “We have aÂ good story ”” we come from a warÂ torn country,” says Qardash, “butÂ at the end of the day, our musicÂ has to be good.”
This article appeared in the January 2014 issue of ROLLING STONE India.Â