Music

Rock ‘n’ Roll in Kabul: A story about the rise and fall of the music scene in Kabul.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Kabul Dreams: Image https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kabul_Dreams

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.

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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.

 

Music

Florence + The Machine – Adelaide Botanic Park Concert Review

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Photo Credit: udiscovermusic.

Garbed in a loose-fitting, semi-opaque gown, Florence Welch emerges from behind the simplistic wooden backdrop that occupies the stage. As she floats toward the microphone, her bare-feet barely make contact with the ground beneath her. She opens the night with the beautifully dark ‘June’, from her latest album, High as Hope. It’s a torrid summer’s night in Adelaide, but Welch does not seem deterred by the extreme heat. Nor does the crowd, who obediently follow her instructions to “move your bodies” when she commands it.

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Photo Credit: seattlerefined

There is rarely a moment of stillness as Welch bounds around the stage with endless energy, all the while belting out monumental anthems such as ‘Hunger’ and ‘Ship to Wreck’ without fault. For someone with so much stage presence, you’d be surprised at how softly spoken, timid even, Welch is as she takes a minute to address the audience before proceeding to move about the stage with a sort of disjointed elegance.

Pushing past her self-confessed shyness, Welch seizes every opportunity she can to interact with the audience. Before an intimate rendition of ‘South London Forever’, we are instructed to take the hand of the person beside us, so as to become one big, beautiful, ethereal mass. Next, we are made to feel “strange and vulnerable” as Welch requests that we put our phones away for ‘Dog Days Are Over’. But this disconnect is only temporary, and soon after we are permitted to draw them out again in order to create a sea of stars for ‘Cosmic Love’.

As the end of her set draws near, Florence takes the opportunity to show off her impressive athleticism, darting through the audience during ‘Delilah’, putting the security guards through their paces. It is only when she stops to dangle her delicate body in front of the audience for ‘What Kind of Man’ that they finally catch her. As the show comes to an end, the crowd lingers. It’s now our turn to make a command. We wait patiently, simultaneously chanting ‘encore’ in the hope that we’ll get just one more taste of Welch’s divinity. A roar erupts amongst the crowd as Florence + The Machine dutifully return to the stage for a final delivery of ‘Big God’ and ‘Shake it Out’. Then, just like that, Welch disappears once and for all behind the orange-lit wooden backdrop from which she had emerged at the start of the night.

Setlist:

June

Hunger

Between Two Lungs

Only If for a Night

South London Forever

Patricia

Dog Days Are Over

100 Years

Ship to Wreck

End of Love

Cosmic Love

Delilah

What Kind of Man

Big God

Shake It Off

 

Music

My First Falls Experience

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A few weeks ago I conquered my first music festival. Ok, that’s a bit of a lie. I mean I’ve done GTM and Laneway before, but that doesn’t even compare to the epic four-day bender that is Falls. Before even consulting any of my mates I spontaneously booked myself a ticket as soon as they went on sale. I knew the line-up was somewhat questionable, especially considering the stellar Splendour lineup which set an exceedingly high standard with acts like Lorde, Kendrick Lamar, and Gang of Youths all making an appearance (I still cry a little at the fact that I missed out on a ticket). But, I didn’t care. I was adamant that this year would be the year that my new years eve didn’t turn to crap. There was absolutely no chance that I’d be seen looking miserable (and far too sober) in the Black Bull at 11:59pm this year. No chance at all.

 

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It probably doesn’t come as much of a surprise to you when I say that Falls isn’t a cheap endeavour. In fact, expenses can add up real quick. But, it’s completely worth it. So, while it may feel like your spending a tonne of money (which you are) on petrol, alcohol, trendy ‘festi’ outfits and of course, snacks, it’s best not to think too much about how far into the negatives you are – at least not until you’re back home and have a comfortable bed to crawl into and weep in for a while.

On that note, time for my first word of advice. Don’t be stingy on the snacks. Believe me, they’re essential, and if you don’t bring enough you’ll be in a world of regret when you return to your campsite at 2am and don’t have a fresh packet of Doritos to sheepishly munch on in your tent.

Continuing on with some words of wisdom, my second piece of advice is this: if you do stop over in a country town on your way to Lorne, such as Ballarat (also known as ‘The Rat’) and you decide to treat yourself to a nice pub meal, for the love of God, DON’T order the exotic pork bao and lentil salad, get a pub meal! Trust me, this is from experience. If you don’t opt for the chicken schnitty that is calling your name from the menu, then you’ll be left feeling unsatisfied and a little disappointed in yourself for being so stupid.

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When it comes to arriving at the festival, you’ll want to get there as early as possible, or else you’ll be stuck in an endless queue of cars, and that my friend, is an immediate mood-kill. Following on from that point, another immediate mood-kill is having the majority of your alcohol confiscated at the security checkpoint (which was unfortunately what happened to us). Now, the majority of you will be fine and will get through without too much trouble. Sure, they might find that one bottle of vodka that you were too lazy to hide properly, but after looking at the number of cars that still have to be searched, security will wave you through so that they can get on with the monstrous task that lies ahead of them. However, you could be one of the unlucky ones (like we were) and have an absolute hard-nut of a woman search every single nook and cranny of your car. Honestly, props to her for doing her job so well. No poker face could throw this one off, she was no novice. She knew all our tricks and as soon as she saw our stash of tonic water it was game over. 

So, as it was, out went our cases of water (along with several litres of vodka). Out went our cases of soft drink (along with several cans of beer). And out went our boxes of water (along with several bags of goon). I’m not going to lie, it was a truly dismal start to the weekend and I spent the rest of the drive to our campsite questioning my spontaneous decision to purchase a ticket. However, in the scheme of things, there are far worse catastrophe’s currently going on in the world, and after scavenging some alcohol off our very generous friends (who managed to get in virtually unchecked), we were back on track for a good time.

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Photo Credit

Once you’ve made it through the queue the next important task is finding your campsite. While you may have little control over where this is, you can hope and pray that the officials direct you to a spot that is a comfortable distance from the toilets. Far enough that your campsite isn’t constantly penetrated by the smell of sewage, but not so far away that going to the loo in the middle of the night becomes a near impossible feat. You’d also be hoping that you’re not put at the bottom of a hill, because if you’re blessed with the rains, chances are that you’re campsite is going to be flooded, and that is not something you want, especially when you’re relying on a $12 tent from Kmart to get you through the weekend.

So, finally, we’re in. We’ve set up camp and the time has come to see some live music. While this year’s lineup may have been slightly underwhelming, I can safely say that the performances were consistently good and I found myself pleasantly surprised by the energy that acts like Vance Joy, and Catfish and the Bottleman bought to the stage. Indeed, there were a few standout acts which for me were Cub Sport, Churches, and Jack River. The other huge standout was the $5 slice of pizza served up at one of the food trucks (which I can’t remember the name of for the life of me), but I can recall that it was certainly worth the detour on the way back to camp.

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Photo Credit

So, there you have it, my Falls experience. Of course, there were plenty of other shenanigans that went on, but if I were to write about all of them you’d be sitting here reading an essay, and no one wants to be doing that. After a few weeks of getting back to normality, there is no doubt in my mind that, unless the lineup is absolutely atrocious, I’ll be back again this year for round two.

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Music

Album Review: Flow State by Tash Sultana

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Source: https://www.theindustryobserver.com.au/tash-sultana-takes-on-the-world-with-lollapalooza-slot-preps-debut-album/

Melbournian music maestro, Tash Sultana, has finally released her much-anticipated debut album, Flow State. Compiled of thirteen songs, all written, recorded and produced by Sultana herself, the finished product is a masterful blend of psychedelic calypso pop. Filled with bold hooks and lusciously layered melodies, the album proudly showcases the idiosyncrasies of Sultana’s unique style of music.

‘Big Smoke,’ ‘Mystik’ and ‘Murder to the Mind’ are reminiscent of Sultana’s breakthrough hit, ‘Jungle,’ and in some ways, are perhaps a little too familiar (there are only so many times one can listen to the same shredding guitar solo repeated in slightly different form). In saying that, tracks like ‘Blackbird’, a nine-minute guitar epic that sounds like it’s straight out of Van Helsing, and ‘Cigarettes’, which transitions abruptly from easy Sunday morning listening to a funkadelic frenzy, demonstrate Sultana’s diversity and unconventional approach to music. By far the most experimental song on the album is ‘Seven,’ an instrumental ballad which can only be described as an eccentric piéce de résistance.

‘Harvest Love’ and ‘Pink Moon’ are utterly goose-bump inducing, with raw vocals and soulful lyrics that peel back the curtain on Sultana’s vulnerable side. Meanwhile, ’Seed,’ ‘Free Mind’ and ‘Mellow Marmalade’ are far more languid and dreamy, transporting listeners to a euphoric bohemian dreamland where shoes aren’t a thing and tie-dye t-shirts are socially acceptable.

There is no denying Tash Sultana’s talent as a musician, and if someone were to ask me whether I enjoy listening to the album, the answer would be yes, very much so. While it is a shame that a handful of songs so closely echo Sultana’s earliest hit, ‘Jungle,’ (a song that the artist is desperately trying to disassociate from), overall Flow State is an elaborate debut album that exhibits Sultana’s innovation and musical creativity. 

Flow state Tour Details

  • Saturday 12 January – Pineapple Fields, Sunshine Coast
  • Thursday 28 February – Thebarton Theatre, Adelaide
  • Saturday 2 March – Botanical Gardens, Hobart
  • Friday 8 March – Hordern Pavilion, Sydney
  • Thursday 14 March – Sidney Myer Music Bowl, Melbourne
  • Thursday 21 March – Riverstage, Brisbane
  • Saturday 23 March – Mindil Beach, Darwin
  • Saturday 30 March – Fremantle Oval, Fremantle

For more information, head to http://www.tashsultana.com

Music

Album Review: Sugar Mountain by Jack River

9875394-1x1-largeJack River’s (Holy Rankin) debut album, Sugar Mountain, is an eclectic neon-pop masterpiece which pulls back the curtain on the sugar-coated utopia that Rankin fantasised about as a child but unfortunately, never got to experience. When she was just 14-years old, Rankin’s world became shrouded with tragedy when her younger sister passed away unexpectedly. Music became Rankin’s catharsis and from it, her alter ego (Jack River) was born.

Sugar Mountain offers so much more than just glittery sonics and catchy choruses. Rankin’s contemplative and often grief-stricken lyrics arouse a mix of emotions which make you want to dance and cry at the same time. The album contrasts stripped back acoustic gems like the melancholic ‘Her smile’ (which was dedicated to Rankin’s late sister) and the intimate ‘In Infinity’, with colourful pop ballads like ‘Ballroom’ and ‘Fool’s Gold’ (which was nominated for a J-Award in 2017).

In truth, it’s hard to criticise any of the songs on this album, but for me personally there are two stand-out tracks which first drew my attention towards Jack River: ’Fault Line’, which is an emotive anthem propelled by a powerful beat, gritty guitar hooks, and a truly cosmic chorus; and ‘Limo Song’, which is a dreamy sing-along with a distinct whistling hook that makes it hard to forget.

While most listeners probably haven’t experienced the kind of loss and suffering that Rankin has, the magic of Sugar Mountain is that it provides an escape for anyone who listens. No matter who you are or what you have lived through, Rankin opens the door and invites you to step into her fantasy-world, filled with both sunshine and storm clouds. This album is many things. It’s passionate, it’s intense, it’s dark, it’s dreamy and it’s certainly worth a listen.

Sugar Mountain Tour Dates

Thursday 13 September – Adelaide Uni Bar, Adelaide (all ages)

Friday 14 September – Corner Hotel, Melbourne (18+)

Friday 21 September – Rosemount Hotel, Perth (18+)

Wednesday 26 September – The Cambridge, Newcastle (18+)

Friday 28 September – The Metro, Sydney (all ages)

Saturday 29 September – The Triffid, Brisbane (18+)

Music

Album Review: Quiet Ferocity by The Jungle Giants

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The Jungle Giants have finally found their sound with an eclectic third album, Quiet Ferocity. After a triumphant debut, the band seemed to lose their way a bit with a tentative and confused second LP, Speakerzoid. However, after taking a different approach to the way in which they wrote and recorded their music, Quiet Ferocity has hit the nail on the head. This album is fun, danceable and pretty damn groovy, highlighting the transformation of a band that was once wet behind the ears to one that is now more cohesive and fine-tuned than ever before. Straying from the sound they adopted in Speakerzoid, the four-piece have diversified their instrumental bank, experimenting with peppy synth melodies and eccentric hooks. This, combined with the shimmering guitar riffs, undulating bass lines and laid back vocals which the Jungle Giants are so well known for, has led to the birth of an electro-indie-pop masterpiece.

Rating: 8.5/10