Songs of Hope

The Taliban banned Afghans from making music. But Simon Broughton finds harmony returning to their capital

14 May 2004
Simon Broughton

"Thank God they're not killing me." That is the assessment of the musical situation in Afghanistan by Farhad Darya, the country's biggest pop star. He has lived in the United States for the past 13 years, and is on his first visit back to Kabul. His latest release, Salaam Afghanistan, a greeting to his country, sold 5,000 copies in one day at a single shop in Kabul and was top of the charts for seven weeks.

I first went to Kabul in January 2002, a couple of months after the fall of the Taliban, to make Breaking the Silence, a film for BBC4 about the return of music. In burning cassettes, breaking instruments and beating musicians, the Taliban had enforced one of the severest bans on music ever known. Despite the devastation and the hardship, what was apparent as Kabul reawakened was the hunger for music. People were dusting down tape players, and crates of cassettes were flooding in from exiles in Pakistan.

Now tracks such as "Salaam Afghanistan" blare out from juice bars, stalls sell pirated DVDs, mostly of Bollywood films, and there's been a revolutionary musical event: in March this year there was the first new television broadcast since the early 1990s of a woman singer. The honor went to Rita Wazhma, a Pashto singer. "I'm very happy that we're able to sing again," she told me. "As I performed I was continually remembering the last time I sang on television, 13 years ago."

Restrictions on music in Afghanistan began before the Taliban. When the mujahedin took power in Kabul after the Soviet withdrawal, they forced women singers off television. Most of them, like Wazhma, went into exile. When the Taliban took Kabul in 1996, they banned television altogether, forced women to wear burkas and stopped them working. Women had a brutal five-year purdah.

With the fall of the Taliban, television was back on the air within 24 hours and women were on screen as presenters. Music, though, remained taboo. Women couldn't sing on television or radio or in concerts. While there was plenty of music on the box, it was mostly recordings from the 1980s, and it featured only men. When I produced a concert of Afghan music in Kabul 18 months ago for the 70th birthday of the BBC World Service, we tried hard to get a woman on the bill. But, in the end, the interior ministry said that a performance could put the singer in danger from fundamentalist groups.

What heralded a change was the arrival, three months ago, of a new boss of Afghan radio and television. Ghulam Hasan Hazrati authorized the broadcast of an archive recording of the singer Salma (currently in exile). It elicited a letter of condemnation from the Supreme Court, saying that it was un-Islamic. Hazrati answered by broadcasting more songs, with support (he claims) from President Karzai himself. A stronger condemnation came from the court, but Hazrati continued to broadcast archive recordings of women singers, although only of those who were conservatively dressed.

That prepared the way for Rita Wazhma's broadcast for the Afghan New Year, in March. It was a quiet musical revolution, and one that passed without much comment in the media.
A few days ago, I organized another concert in Kabul, and included two women singers - Wazhma and Zamzama. It was to mark the 10th anniversary of the hugely successful radio soap opera New Home, New Life, the everyday story of rural Afghanistan, which is produced by Afghan Education Projects and broadcast by the BBC. The concert included the first male/female duet for 12 years - a jockey but intimate love song performed by Gul Zaman and Wazhma. I noticed a quiet sense of disbelief in the audience. This simple duet was something sensational.

One other thing that may have smoothed the way for women singers is Kabul's private radio station, Arman FM. Since April last year it has been broadcasting music 24 hours a day - Afghan, Bollywood and Western music, by men and women.

Farhad Darya feels young musicians in Afghanistan lack direction and facilities. "There is currently no recording studio in Kabul, and musicians need role models. But most of these people are out of the country. There is a new generation just starting to make music, but they don't know where to go."

He sees music as part of a solution to Afghanistan's ethnic divisions: "We have many different peoples but we don't have a nation. But 10 different people who won't talk to each other will all listen to one of my songs." The point is clearly illustrated by another song on his latest release, which states: "Whether from Bamyan or Kandahar/ Whether from Kabul, Balkh or Takhar/ We are all brothers."

Simon Broughton is editor of 'Songlines', the magazine of world music, and introduces extracts from the Kabul concert in 'World Routes' on Saturday at 3pm on BBC Radio 3
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