On an autumn evening in late October 2010, I made my way with a team of young and talented musicians into a music concert in the border town of Jalalabad, in the Nangarhar province, along the Afghan-Pakistan border. A packed hall of over a thousnd people waited patiently as musicians arrived, fiddled with their instruments for more than a while, waited for the chief guests to sit down after brief speeches and then played on.
Quite visibly, for the audience consisting of some VIP guests and hundreds of ordinary Afghans, the two hours of “tabla” and “sitar” recitals was a rare public event, a soothing and healing touch from the prolonged experience of war, destruction and chaos. After the show, I asked some from enthused audience what they thought of the recital of this Indian form of music. It was clear that they wanted more of it. Music indeed knows no barriers, it never has.
I have been told that few more such concerts are on the anvil, all at the initiative of Governor of Nangarhar province, Gul Agha Sherzai.
Heftily built Mr. Sherzai, was first among the many warlords to declare his allegiance to the democratic government of Afghanistan in 2001. Born to a Mujahideen commander, Gul Agha fought with assistance from the American forces to capture Kandahar in late 2001 from the Taliban. He served as the Governor of Kandahar till 2003 and then was sent to Nangarhar.
Sherzai (literally meaning Son of a Lion) asserts that music plays an important part in the ongoing contestation for political space as much as restoring the damaged social fabric of the society. He further points out to the need of bridging cultural and civilization links of Afghanistan with South Asia. At a time when the Taliban targeted music stores in Jalalabad, Sherzai’s music concerts are postures of defiance to the extremist diktats. The people of Jalalabad are clearly on Sherzai’s side.
Pushtu language and culture has had a long tradition for music, dance and traditional folk songs, producing a number of singers, musicians, and poets. And of late, music in the insurgency wracked Afghanistan, has emerged as rallying point for people who loath extremist violence. In the absence of many radio channels and TV stations, young musicians are taking to the “Web” way to reach their audience. In the music stores in Kabul, music CDs are available along with pirated DVDs on Osama Bin Laden, each for about a dollar.
Afghan expatriate population are playing a crucial role in the great comeback for the music industry. Hundreds of Pushtu songs are available on channels like Coke Studio and the collection is growing each passing day. Not many of them directly address the war or violence. But these narratives of normalcy in their own way agitate against the prevailing state of affairs. The longing for peace and stability is not lost on the listeners.
Not to be left behind, the Taliban too appears to have discovered the power of music as a form of contestation and indoctrination. In the 28 June attack on the Inter Continental hotel, witnesses said its suicide attackers were carrying tape recorders playing war songs as they stormed the lobby of the hotel. Even otherwise, the Taliban in recent times have got into producing songs and video clips, with a view to enlist supporters among the civilians. These are passed from hand to hand or available for download into mobile phones through a variety of channels.
Mass packaging music and their distribution is some sort of an about turn for the radical movement, which had imposed a complete ban on songs terming them as un-Islamic during its rule. The Taliban Ministry for the Prevention of Vice and Promotion of Virtue banned Afghans from singing songs, listening to music and dancing. Afghan musicians were lashed in public. Music shops were shut down. TV sets were given token public execution. Singers were left with the option of either leaving the country or taking up some other profession.
The need to win ‘heart and minds’ and the popular sentiment does produce such desperate measures and Taliban is no different.
From those days of gloom and tyranny, music in Afghanistan has made a real comeback.
(Shanthie Mariet D’Souza, Ph.D., is Visiting Research Fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies (ISAS), National University of Singapore (NUS) in Singapore. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org)