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By Edouard GUIHAIRE
With a sense of showmanship that would have impressed Freddie Mercury, Salahdeen, aged seven, struts his way through a passionate rendition of “We Will Rock You” — all part of the learning process at Kabul’s “school of rock”.
Founded two years ago in a living room in the Afghan capital, the school has grown into a busy youth club based at an arts centre with a recording studio and 35 students mastering singing, the guitar and drums.
The walls are covered in murals of local life and musical heroes such US duo The White Stripes, while the garden outside is decorated with graffiti paintings including one of a woman struggling with her veil.
“This is the only place in Afghanistan to learn rock music,” Omar Paiman, 18, a spiky-haired fan of Linkin Park, told AFP.
“I am really interested in guitar, and I have had lessons for seven months. My family didn’t want me being a singer or a musician because Afghan people don’t have a good opinion of rock music.”
“Some people threaten to kill artists. My dad is a construction engineer and wanted me to follow him,” Omar added as he strummed through a few chords of the Bob Dylan classic “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door”.
The Taliban outlawed almost all music during their 1996-2001 rule of Kabul, and Afghanistan remains a conservative Muslim country with widespread suspicion of Western influences.
But rock school founder Humayun Zadran said that the hunger among young people for a blast of electric guitar became clear when teenagers clamoured to get involved with jam sessions that he held at his home with friends.
“Kids were asking ‘how do you play this riff?’ and ‘how do you hold this note?’. It got bigger and bigger and we thought about opening a proper rock school.
“We started with a couple of guitars, half a drum kit and seven students.”
Zadran says that finding kit, funds and teachers to keep the project afloat is a constant battle.
“Getting instruments in this country is impossible,” he said. “We have either carried them in from outside, or friends who bought a guitar in the US have left it here as a donation.
“You can’t just go out and buy a set of strings or pick up a guitar.”
‘Music is an unreachable desire’
Despite such limitations, Kabul city does boast a lively rock scene, with mainly male crowds drawn to loud, often angry, music that expresses their frustration and experience of decades of war.
Zadran is the proprietor of the arts centre where the rock school is housed — and he also helps run the annual Sound Central music festival.
“It’s growing, there are more musicians, there are more concerts happening,” he said. “You have to be optimistic to do something like this and I’m very optimistic about after 2014 (when US-led foreign forces pull out).”
Perhaps Salahdeen could develop from singing Queen songs into being a real frontman one day. Or Meena Yousufzai, 22, could charm an audience with her gentle violin music.
Meena is still learning the basics, but she knows she is lucky to be able to take up an instrument when many of her friends are banned by their protective parents.
“It is very difficult and it is not very common here, particularly for girls, to learn music. Girls can go to school to learn how to read and write, but music is an unreachable desire,” she said.
“Most of my friends are interested to learn, but they don’t have family permission. To learn an instrument is a great feeling.”
For Sulyaman Qardash, lead vocalist for top local band Kabul Dreams, the most important message for beginners is not to just copy the West but to find a new sound as the country enters an era without NATO combat troops out on patrol.
“I’m not that Afghan who you saw on the TV with a turban or that Afghan caught up in explosions every day,” he said.
“Kabul sound is a mixture of a lot of things. The rhythm is different, the tempo is different. Musically we are in the middle of nowhere.”