Afghan air guitar and expat metal: a scene is created in RocKabul

CULTURE / A documentary tells the story of the rise of the first Afghan metal band and their fall under the weight of the ultra-conservative society that surrounds them.
Director: Travis Beard
Country: Afghanistan, Australia, Turkey, Bosnia & Herzegovina

RocKabul tells the story of the first Afghan metal band, District Unknown. It was shot by Australian photojournalist-turned-filmmaker Travis Beard while living in Kabul. He is very much present on screen as a key player in the group’s genesis, offering up his own house for their first practices, and taking on the role of manager as they score their first tentative gigs.

The band plays mostly to foreigners within the bars, garden compounds and cultural institutes of an expat community that exists largely in a social bubble in parallel to normal Afghan society. In a country where music was forbidden under the Taliban as an activity of infidels, even rudimentary technical know-how is lacking in the budding headbangers, so it’s only natural they look to Travis (and his own band White City) to soak up any tips.

Western influence sparks an underground scene

Travis’s musician pal Archie takes them under his wing as a mentor. His day job of political adviser reflects a social fabric where westerners, who have been brought in on the back of the 2001 US military invasion, unleash their cultural tastes after hours. The undeniably friendly but somewhat paternalistic relationship of Travis with his protégés contains the seed for a more self-aware film. However, the more complex ambiguities of cultural imposition go largely unexamined. This is an aspect that becomes more problematic when it’s mentioned that the music festival Travis spearheads (the first in more than 35 years in Kabul) is funded by the American government, seemingly as an exercise in cultural soft power.

We gain understanding of a climate of such insecurity that leaving the country one loves is considered one’s only hope for a future.

Travis seems more than happy to take credit as grandfather of Kabul’s small underground scene (which by the end of the film has largely evaporated as security becomes more precarious and the window of creative openness closes). This may be all well and good, but with no exploration of Afghani cultural heritage pre-Taliban rule, the slightly arrogant impression proffered is that western music is revitalising a cultural void from ground zero.

RocKabul. Travis Beard

RocKabul does not look too deeply into the clash between western influences and conservative religious forces in Afghanistan, but the film is still a fascinating glimpse into daily life in Kabul. Its lo-fi, amateurish footage is thrown together with a scrappy aesthetic that suits its DIY rock sensibilities. And let’s not forget the band members. The original line-up consists of Pedram and Qasem, two brothers who remember their dad playing Metallica to them as children and count themselves as «air guitarists» extraordinaire, and their cousins Lemar and Qais. Longhaired, chain-smoking and swearing profusely, they have the attitude to walk the walk long before they start to master their sound. Amid the band’s fluctuating membership (Lemar leaves for Turkey to get married; new frontman Yousef joins) we gain understanding of a climate of such insecurity that leaving the country one loves is considered one’s only hope for a future, especially a future enabling free expression, by many young Afghanis.

It’s too dangerous to play music

District Unknown’s music might, at first, seem nothing to write home about. But it’s impossible not to be awed by the band’s pluck, considering how high the stakes are. A Taliban judge has no qualms about declaring it just to kill those who choose an infidel path of playing rock music. When the group has to shift their practice room after a busybody neighbour comes knocking at Travis’ door and orders them to leave, we know disapproving eyes are on them, even before the security situation deteriorates in Kabul and, fearful of repercussions, they take to playing in full-face masks so as not to be identified. From expat compounds to the Institut Français, the performance venues are hardly rock and roll, but the perilous conditions add what the venues lack in edge especially as interspersed footage of suicide bombings underscores the risks.

It’s impossible not to be awed by the band’s pluck, considering how high the stakes are.

A high point for the band sees them obtain visas to play at a 2012 festival in New Delhi, taking their first plane journeys to face a crowd of a magnitude unimaginable for them in Kabul. But the most intense sequence plays out back in Afghanistan, as Travis follows through on his idea for a festival staged out of the back of a truck. They drive over the snowy Salang Pass to play from the mobile stage in the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif, close to the Uzbek border. An all-male crowd is partly enthralled, and partly appalled. Stone throwing brings the intervention of police, and singer Youssef is arrested and briefly detained.

Back in Kabul, the group goes its separate ways as the prospect of a conservative crackdown looms over them and the members find ways to move abroad. We’re left to ponder a product of cultural influence that ambiguously feels equal parts imported discordance and hegemony, grassroots expression, and dissidence.

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Carmen Gray
Carmen Gray
Freelance film critic and regular contributor to Modern Times Review.

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