Under the Taliban, the thriving Afghan music scene moves towards silence


September 22, 2021 GMT

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) – A month after the Taliban took power in Afghanistan, the music is starting to calm down.

The last time the militant group ruled the country, in the late 1990s, they banned music altogether. So far this time, the government set up by the Taliban has not officially taken this step. But already, musicians fear a ban is coming, and some Taliban fighters on the ground have started enforcing the rules on their own, harassing musicians and concert halls.

Many wedding venues limit music at their gatherings. Musicians are afraid of performing. At least one reported that Taliban fighters at one of the many checkpoints around the capital smashed his instrument. Drivers silence their radios whenever they see a Taliban checkpoint.

In the alleys of Kharabat, a district of the old city of Kabul, families where music is a profession passed down from generation to generation are looking for ways to leave the country. The profession has already been hit hard by the collapse of the Afghan economy, as well as the coronavirus pandemic, and some families now too fearful to work are selling furniture to get by.

“The current situation is oppressive,” said Muzafar Bakhsh, a 21-year-old who has played in an alliance. His family had just sold some of their belongings at Kabul’s new flea market, Chaman-e-Hozari. “We keep selling them … so as not to starve,” said Bakhsh, whose late grandfather was Ustad Rahim Bakhsh, a famous ustad – or maestro – of classical Afghan music.

Afghanistan has a strong musical tradition, influenced by Iranian and Indian classical music. It also has a thriving pop music scene, adding electronic instruments and dance beats to more traditional beats. Both have flourished over the past 20 years.

When asked if the Taliban government would ban music again, spokesman Bilal Karimi told The Associated Press: “At the moment it is under consideration and when a final decision will be made. , the Islamic Emirate will announce it ”.

But concert halls are already feeling the pressure since the Taliban invaded Kabul on August 15.

Wedding halls are usually the scene of large gatherings with music and dance, usually separated between the male and female sections. In three rooms visited by the AP, staff said the same. Taliban fighters often show up, and although they haven’t yet objected to the music, their presence is intimidating. The musicians refuse to introduce themselves. In the male sections of weddings, the rooms no longer have live music or DJs. In the women’s section – where Taliban fighters have less access – sometimes female DJs still play.

Some karaoke lounges have closed. Others still face harassment. A lounge visited by the AP stopped karaoke but remained open, serving water pipes and playing recorded music. Last week, Taliban fighters showed up, smashed an accordion, and tore up signs and stickers referring to music or karaoke. A few days later, they returned and told the customers to leave immediately.

Many musicians apply for visas abroad.

In the family home of another ustad in Kharabat, everyone is ready to leave when they can. In one room, a group of musicians recently gathered, drinking tea and discussing the situation. They shared photos and videos of their performances around the world – Moscow, Baku, New Delhi, Dubai, New York.

“Musicians no longer have their place here. We have to leave. The love and affection of the past few years is gone, ”said a drummer, whose career spanned 35 years and who is the master of a leading music education center in Kabul. Like many other musicians, he spoke on condition of not being named, fearing retaliation from the Taliban.

Another musician in the room said the Taliban broke a keyboard worth $ 3,000 when they saw him in his car as he passed through a checkpoint. Others said they were shipping their most valuable instruments out of the country or hiding them. One had disassembled his tabla – a sort of drum – and hid the pieces in different places. Another buried his rebab, a stringed instrument, in his yard. Some said they were hiding instruments behind false walls.

One who has already managed to leave is Aryana Sayeed, a prominent female pop star who has also been a judge on the TV show “The Voice of Afghanistan”. Already accustomed to death threats from Islamist extremists, Sayeed decided to flee the day the Taliban took control of Kabul.

“I had to survive and be the voice of other women in Afghanistan,” said Sayeed, now in Istanbul. She said she is asking Turkish authorities to help other musicians leave her native country. “The Taliban are not friends of Afghanistan, they are our enemies. Only enemies would want to destroy your story and your music, ”she said.

At the Afghan National Institute of Music, most of the classrooms are empty. None of the teachers or the 350 students have returned since the resumption. The institute was once famous for its inclusiveness and has emerged as the face of a new Afghanistan. Now it is guarded by fighters from the Haqqani network, a Taliban ally considered a terrorist group by the United States.

Inside the institute, photos of playing boys and girls hang on the walls, dusty pianos lie in locked rooms, and some instruments have been stacked in a container on the school patio. Fighters guarding the site said they were awaiting orders from management on what to do with them.

“We’re not interested in listening to these things,” said one fighter, standing next to a set of dhambura, a traditional stringed instrument. “I don’t even know what these items are. Personally, I have never listened to them and that does not interest me.

In a classroom at the end of the hall, a Taliban fighter rested on a mattress while listening to a male voice sing on his cell phone, apparently one of the instrumentless religious hymns common to the group.

Back in Kharabat, Mohammed Ibrahim Afzali once ran the family musical instrument repair business. In mid-August, he puts away his tools, breaks the instruments left in the workshop and closes. Today, the 61-year-old sells crisps and snacks to help feed his family of 13.

“I made this little shop. God is merciful and we will find a piece of bread, ”he said.


Associated Press reporter Ayse Wieting in Istanbul contributed to this report.

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