Afghan band Kabul Dreams lament Taliban takeover: 'Musicians have to protect themselves'

The rock group fled Afghanistan in 2013, owing to death threats

Afghan rock band Kabul Dreams, featuring singer and guitarist Qardash, Siddique Ahmad on bass and drummer Jai Dhar. Kabul Dreams
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With the Taliban regime retaking control of Afghanistan, one of the country's celebrated rock bands are left to wonder what will remain of the country’s thriving independent music scene.

Since forming in the capital in 2008, Kabul Dreams’s brand of fuzzy garage rock and do-it-yourself ethos garnered a loyal following at home and abroad.

In addition to well-received albums Plastic Words (2013) and Megalomaniacs (2017), they toured Europe and the US, including performing at the influential South by Southwest festival in Texas.

That all came at a price, however.

Constant death threats from Taliban sympathisers forced the three-piece to flee Afghanistan in 2013 and seek asylum in the US.

Speaking to The National from their new home in San Francisco, singer and guitarist Sulyman Qardash (who goes by stage name Qardash) says the images of a US military plane leaving Kabul full of fearful Afghans are heart-rending.

“It was hard to watch because not only did it bring a lot of memories back, but because it doesn’t mean that they are suddenly now all of safe. It’s actually the beginning for more fear and uncertainty,” he says.

"It is going to be so hard for them to prove that their lives are in danger. A lot of my friends, some of whom are artists, went to Europe and had their asylum applications denied because there was no proof. Not only did they have to prove their life was in danger, but they have to relive that trauma all over again for one person to eventually decide if it was true or not.”

A guitar and a dream

Qardash speaks from experience.

Born in Afghanistan, his family fled when he was 3 to neighbouring Uzbekistan in 1994 to escape the Taliban regime and ensuing Afghan civil war.

The 13 years away had Qardash enrolling in a music school where he learnt the guitar and getting his fill of the latest rock music from Russia and the US through a steady supply of CDs.

With the Taliban forced out of power, Qardash returned to Kabul in 2008 with the sole aim of starting a rock band in a city with no music venues.

“We had some problems finding a place to rehearse,” he recalls, with a chuckle. “A lot of Afghan traditional music is played with an acoustic guitar. Once we found a place, plugged in the speakers and started playing, within 10 minutes the landlord would come and kick us out.

“To be fair, he would say we had to leave because he would lose all his other tenants. Eventually we found ways to soundproof the rooms.”

The same challenges were faced in finding venues for gigs, with Kabul Dreams playing everywhere from cultural centres (the few that would accept them) to local parks.

It was during these shows the band realised the scourge of extremism never left Afghanistan, instead it lurked – sometimes, literally – in the shadows.

“We would receive notes or be confronted by people who are extremist,” he says.

“We knew this from the way they dressed and the references they give when they are talking to us. They would say our music is western propaganda and it belongs to the infidels. One person said this was the second time they watched and if there will be a third time you will disappear”

And how did the group respond? “We would normally keep a low profile for a while before we came back,” Qardash says. “We would also walk around with a large group for safety.”

Songs of celebration and revolution

Despite those measures, the growing danger forced the group to the US.

Despite the heartbreaking decision to leave home, Qardash says Kabul remained a vibrant city, powered by its love for culture and its re-embracing of education after the first Taliban regime.

"This is not the same Afghanistan as the one 20 years ago," he says.

"There has been a lot of changes and there is freedom of speech and expression. I have been in Central Asian countries and the freedom of speech we have in Afghanistan is much better than what they have over there.

“And that’s because people worked very hard to make those changes.”

It was for this reason Kabul Dreams kept the songs sung in Dari – Afghanistan’s most widely spoken language – celebratory. These include the popular tracks Sadae man and Fasl. They saved the political missives, meanwhile, for English tracks, such as Good Morning Freedom and Butcher of the City – the latter’s title being a veiled reference to brutal former Afghan warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.

"We were adamant when we started the group in that our English songs were meant to show the world our experiences and what we went and are going through," Qardash says. "There is no point singing those in Dari because the Afghan people don't need to be reminded of those times."

With the country back on the brink, Qardash says Kabul Dreams will release more songs chronicling the struggles of his people.

This is the least the band can do, he says, now that they are part of Afghanistan's sizeable US diaspora.

He describes the past week as spending evenings checking up on relatives back in Afghanistan who would have just awoken, and following the news during the day, raising the alarm through social media on Afghanistan’s dire situation.

“The Afghan community here in the US is very strong and they do have that sense of community,” he says.

“Now, while it may not have tangible results, there is that sense of responsibility of making Americans know what is happening at the end of the day, through various means like social media and reaching out to government representatives.”

The music lives on

Despite the bleakness of the situation, there remains hope.

The city’s indie music scene, which Kabul Dreams helped to spawn, remains resilient, even if the volume is low for the foreseeable future.

“We still get messages from musicians who want to start bands that ask us about how we did things, what kind of gear we used and how to play certain chords,” Qardash says. “So we provide advice and our main point to them is that if you want to start a band in Kabul you need to be very strategic.

“When we were back there it still wasn’t even safe then and with what is going on now you have to be even more careful," he says. "Musicians have to be able to protect themselves and be responsible to their band members, the other people involved and the audience as well.”

Updated: August 19, 2021, 1:47 PM