Qais Shaghasi learned to play guitar from how-to videos on YouTube and kept hidden his passion for what many here regard as “un-Islamic” music.
These days, the 21-year-old teaches rock’n’roll riffs at Afghanistan’s first school of rock and even strums them as a member of the metal band District Unknown.
“For the first nine months I learned guitar, I never brought my instrument home,” he said. “I would tell my parents I was going to computer classes but I was really going to guitar classes.”
Shaghasi is among many young Afghans influenced by Western culture who are trying to use its forms of music to express themselves. Many older Afghans have become more accepting of the development, the young say, but they are concerned about what the future holds.
When the Taliban seized control of Kabul in 1996, it banned most forms of music, and those who defied the edict were treated harshly. Shaghasi and others worry that the music will stop again if the Taliban regains control of the country or is allowed influence over aspects of Afghan society as part of a peace negotiation.
Shaghasi’s own family was not particularly supportive in the beginning. When his father first saw a video of District Unknown playing at a Halloween party in zombie makeup, he called his son’s performance “satanic.” After his mother and sisters saw him play at a concert, his father softened.
“Before, many people thought playing guitar or drums was sinful, but nowadays people’s thoughts are changing,” he said. “The most important change has been TV ― once people see music being played on TV, they accept it more.”
The rock school is housed at an arts center and cafe. Teenagers learn to play scales, riffs and hope to one day be able to play Led Zeppelin’s classic “Stairway to Heaven.” They strum on instruments donated by foreign workers and coalition troops.
“The idea came from me not being able to learn guitar myself when I was growing up because there was no school around me or any music institution which I could go to,” said school founder Humayun Zadran, who grew up as an Afghan refugee in Pakistan.
“Hopefully, it’ll lead more kids to come up with bands and improve the rock scene in Kabul.”
Zadran is worried about what will happen when U.S. combat forces depart as scheduled, currently at the end of 2014.
“People ask me what’s going to happen after 2014. I tell them, ‘Everything’s going to be fine,’” said Zadran. “They say, ‘You’re so optimistic,’ but really, what other option do I have?”
In June 2011, almost a dozen guests were killed at Kabul’s Intercontinental Hotel in an attack by the Taliban, which cited the playing of music at the hotel as one reason for the killings. In August, militants beheaded 17 people in what was reported as an attack on a mixed-gender party with music and dancing.
The Taliban denied responsibility for the deaths but condemned the “secret music party” nonetheless.
“Since 2006, I’ve been experiencing deep sadness as Afghanistan seemed to be getting much worse,” said Afghan-American singer-songwriter Ariana Delawari, whose parents fled the country in 1980 after the Soviet invasion, and who is in the country to play. “I know that if the Taliban regained control of the country, music could be banned again.”
The violence doesn’t deter many of the young.
On Oct. 2, rock bands from the United States, Australia, Sri Lanka and Central Asia joined Afghan musicians in one of the world’s most unexpected music festivals, Sound Central. Delawari performed ahead of the October release of her David Lynch-produced documentary “We Came Home,” about her musical relationship with the country.
Last year, Sound Central made history as the first music festival in Afghanistan in 30 years. This year, the organizers greatly expanded the event into a three-day program showcasing rock bands, disc jockeys playing electronic music, break dancers, circus performers and a women-only day to encourage more women to attend.
Sound Central director Travis Beard, an Australian musician who has lived in Kabul for the past six years, says international acts have not been discouraged from coming to Afghanistan.
“Every time we have an incident, I try and explain to the foreigners visiting this city that Kabul is a big city ― it’s 5 million people,” Beard said. “The attacks are random and sporadic and never in the same place.”
Arezo Hassani, 16, has been a student at the school for three months. She says her parents have been supportive of her learning to play guitar and she plans to attend the daytime performances at the festival prior to her 5 p.m. curfew.
“I’ve only ever seen bands play on TV,” Arezo said. “I’m really looking forward to seeing a live band play for the first time.”
Shaghasi says he will keep playing, and he hopes his father will relent and come see him play.
“For me, music is more than my hobby, it’s my life,” he said. “Now democracy has come to Afghanistan, parents accept that kids can choose what they want to do.”
Ruth Owen writes for USA Today.