A gentle crooning echoes through the concert hall in accompaniment to the static hum of the Marshal stack that sits at the back of the stage. A crowd of three-thousand wait in anticipation as the next act prepares to come on. Today is the final day of the Sound Central Music Festival (SCMF), Afghanistan’s only alternative arts event. There is barely room to move amongst the sea of sweaty, mostly teenage bodies that fill the French Cultural Centre. It’s no Coachella, but in a country where all non-traditional music was banned between 1996 and 2001, this festival is a cathartic release for the youth of Afghanistan.
A deafening roar erupts as White City, the codename given by the UN to a city that is under a high-security threat, wander on to the stage. Their lead guitarist, Travis Beard, is an Australian photojournalist, better known for being the brains behind the festival. Dressed all in black, he dons an oversized bomber jacket over a faded Led-Zeppelin T-shirt. His jeans are ripped and frayed at the knee caps. Whether that’s ‘the look’ or the result of a night that got out of hand, we’ll never know.
Travis wastes no time and as soon as the rest of the band are in position he swings his cherry-faded Gibson over his shoulder and begins thrashing down on the strings like a mad-man. Small waves begin to rise from the sea of roiling bodies as the crowd jump up and down in unison. People are ferried back and forth atop the expanse of raised arms. Towards the front of the stage a tower three bodies high, looms over the rest of the audience, dubiously swaying from side to side with a concerning level of instability. At one point, a rogue fan attempts to lunge onto the stage, only to be blockaded by a thick Afghan security guard. The crowd bark and cheer with an infectious level of energy, which is reciprocated by Beard and his bandmates as they bound around on stage. Right now, all that matters is the music and the melodic riffs that resonate from Beard’s guitar.
For Travis, the period between 2006 and 2012 were the “golden years”. During this time, the war was focused more towards the South, in cities like Kandahar and Arghandab, leaving the North largely untouched by the conflict. Subsequently, Kabul became a hub for the thousands of ambitious expats and aid-workers who flocked to the city looking for opportunity. The city fast became an expat bubble, or as private security officer, Elijah Berry, prefers to call it, the “Kabubble.”
“You’d have hordes of big burly US troops roaming the streets with AK47’s strapped over their shoulders, and then you’d have the dreamer peace-core ‘hippies’ that Afghanistan had become a mecca for,” explains Elijah.
However, despite all their differences, there was a common yearning for entertainment, especially on weekends. “People just started bringing their instruments into the country with them and playing small acoustic gigs at the local bars,” Elijah tells me. And so, the evolution of Kabul’s “underground” music scene was set in motion, a scene which was still very much in its infancy when Travis happened to stumble upon it shortly after his arrival in 2006.
Travis picked up his first guitar when he was 13 years old and played in several rock bands throughout high school. However, his interest in guitar began to wane after he discovered photography. Ironically, it was a career in photojournalism that first bought Travis to Afghanistan, where he rediscovered his passion for music. Within months, Travis had formed his first band, the Insurgents, which was mostly comprised of military personnel. The group would travel from one military base to the next, performing gigs on a Thursday night. The high turn-over rate within the military meant that there were constant changes being made to the band. “We’d go from having a helicopter pilot on drums one week to an infantry boy the next,” Travis says.
Indeed, performing gigs in a country like Afghanistan did not come without its many frustrations. Travis recalls that the power was so unreliable that it was more common than not for it to cut out midway through a set, or for an amp to blow out during sound-check. But these common hiccups did little to discourage Travis and those alike, who were determined to keep the music scene alive. By 2007, bored with playing military gigs, Travis decided to leave the Insurgents behind. Within weeks, White City was born, comprising of English bassist and lead vocalist, Ruth Owen, Swedish drummer, Andreas Stefansson, and Travis himself on lead guitar.
Meanwhile, other expat bands such as The Internationals and The Ceilings of Nork had also begun to surface and were quickly building names for themselves amongst the local community. “It was incredible. Someone could go from being a highly regarded deputy ambassador by day to a beatnik drummer by night,” Travis says. Eventually, live music became so sought after that bars began organising legitimate events and investing their money into proper equipment and PA systems. Then, in early 2008, the first Afghan band popped up, Kabul Dreams. “That’s when things really started to get interesting,” Travis exclaims. “All of a sudden we saw that there was a local capacity to the scene, and it all just grew infinitely from there.”
Kabul Dreams is, perhaps, the countries greatest success story. Formed by the now 29-year-old front-man, Suleman Qardash, the indie rock group were quick to gain a loyal following. The success of their debut album, ‘Plastic Words’, which was recorded in Afghanistan using makeshift recording studios and borrowed equipment, led the band to California in pursuit of their musical dreams. The trio has since signed with an American record label and have played at major festivals such as South by Southwest. “In a country where contemporary arts had been suppressed for so long, the rise of Kabul Dreams was really an indication of the fact that the youth of Afghanistan wanted change, and wanted to be able to express themselves through music,” Travis says.
As local talent continued to emerge out of the woodwork, Travis began toying with an ambitious idea: Afghanistan’s first-ever alternative arts and music festival. “It simply came down to the fact that we needed a bigger artistic platform,” he tells me. Despite having no experience in event management or festival planning, somehow it all came together, and in May 2011, the first SCMF was held at an open-air park just south of the city. Unsurprisingly, the biggest challenge was security. “There was no promotion except for an SMS which was sent out on the morning of the festival with the time and location,” he explains. “It was the only way we could ensure that the Taliban would have the least amount of time to plan an attack.”
Despite a few minor technical glitches, the day was a success. A smorgasbord of creativity, the festival showcased work from some of the country’s most talented musicians, artists, photographers and filmmakers. By its third year, the festival had grown from one day to four and from one stage to three. But with this mounting success and popularity also came the greater risk of a security threat. In 2014, a difficult decision was made by Travis and his team not to run the festival for a fourth year. “It was just too dangerous and the last thing I wanted was for anyone to be harmed for the sake of music,” he explains.
Indeed, Travis had every right to be concerned. In 2013 the bubble that had once shielded Kabul burst, and the war that had devastated the rest of the country for years began to descend upon the city. One of the most ruthless attacks came in early 2013. The La Taverna du Liban was a popular UN security-approved restaurant frequented by expats. On the 17 January as a room full of unsuspecting diners sat down to their meals a man walked up to the entrance and blew himself up. Two more attackers followed, sporadically firing their assault rifles at anyone and anything. Twenty-one people were massacred at their tables that night.
This was the first in a series of escalating attacks against civilians. Not more than three months later, British-Swedish journalist, Nils Horner, was shot down in broad daylight by two gunmen in Kabul’s heavily policed diplomatic district. That same month, a group of Taliban militants stormed the Serena Hotel, killing nine civilians. Three weeks later, photojournalist Anja Neidringhaus, was shot point blank in the head by an Afghan police commander. Finally, on 11 December 2014, the French Cultural Centre was blown up by a suicide bomber during a theatre production. One person was killed and several injured. By the end of 2014, more foreign civilians had been killed than foreign soldiers. Suddenly Kabul was one of the most volatile and dangerous places on Earth. Concerned NGO’s began to pull their people out of the country and serious security restrictions were imposed on those that remained. Music was no longer the priority, survival was.
Now, Afghanistan “is in the worst state it has ever been in,” says Elijah. With fewer expats, less money in the economy, less of an ‘aid gravy-train’ and less of an audience, the music scene has been left to wither and wilt. “Of the four main local bands that once prospered here, all of them have now fled, taking their talent with them,” Elijah explains.
Travis remains optimistic that, one day, there will be another SMFC. But for now, the once vibrant music scene of Kabul has been laid to waste beneath the rubble in a country that has been plagued by violence and conflict for far too long.
Disclaimer: While this is a fact-based story, there are elements (mainly the description of the concert) that have been fictionalised.