Kabul’s School of Rock

Afghan music student Salahdeen, 7, rehearses with a guitar at "Kabul School of Rock" in Kabul. (Noorullah Shirzada/AFP/Getty Images)

Afghan music student Salahdeen, 7, rehearses with a guitar at "Kabul School of Rock" in Kabul. (Noorullah Shirzada/AFP/Getty Images)

Hard rock is not the first thing that comes to mind when people think of Afghanistan, but thanks to a revolutionary musical initiative in Kabul, that might be about to change. Not too long ago under Taliban rule, all non-religious music was outlawed and anyone violating this law was severely punished. However, a decade after the Taliban’s overthrow, Kabul now has a lively rock scene and even boasts its own professional rock school.

Rock School Kabul was founded two years ago by Boston cellist Robin Ryzek and music enthusiast Humayun Zadran. The school is run by the Sound Studies Projects NGO and regularly welcomes music teachers from abroad to come and teach. One of these teachers is Michael Herrmann, an American musician and composer who came to Kabul in January 2013. “Before I came to Kabul, I only knew the Afghanistan that we see on TV, with constant war and poverty,” Herrman tells The Majalla. “But I soon learned that was only a very small part of life in Afghanistan”

One of the first things Herrmann noted when he started teaching at the school was that they really needed more instruments. Not only were the instruments they had in a bad state, Herrman also realized that carrying a guitar on your back might attract unwanted attraction: “Some students would find it uncomfortable walking to the school with a guitar case in public, as it was dangerous, especially if they took the same route every week. We had to find a solution for that.”

When Herrman went back to the US over summer, he decided to set up a series of benefit concerts to promote Rock School Kabul and raise money for instruments. The concerts were a great success. “I was able to ship a number of instruments over to Kabul, and we raised a lot of money for the school,” he says. These contributions were essential because the organization mostly runs on charitable donations and the very small tuition fees it charges its students. “The tuition fees are really low, but they are important because . . .  [they give] the students a sense of pride,” explains Herrman. “[This] makes them prepare and show up on time. And frankly, it is also what keeps the school open.”

Even though the school is becoming increasingly well known, the organizers cannot do too much promotion in Kabul itself, as not everyone is happy with their activities. Even though the Taliban is no longer in power, Afghanistan is still largely a conservative country and Western influences are often regarded with suspicion. “Some parents need a little convincing, and in some circles rock music is even considered to be satanic,” says Hermann, who adds that teaching this type of music and putting on rock concerts can be dangerous, so the school tends to keep a low profile. “We don’t promote our concerts beforehand. Only a day or two before it takes place we send out an email blast, and word of mouth does the rest. That way, they become like little pop-up concerts and the surprise element makes it less dangerous.”

Despite the lack of promotion, word of mouth has made sure that student demand is higher than ever. “These kids bring their friends to the school and they see them play and get really enthusiastic, and they all want to join too,” says Herrman. Perhaps surprisingly, not all of these new students are boys. Despite a persistent conservatism in Afghanistan dictating that it is inappropriate for women to play music, the rock lessons are becoming increasingly popular with girls. The limited freedom and social pressure in Afghan society affects both sexes, and its impact is felt in the students’ music. Herrman was especially touched by the emotional poignancy of their lyrics: “The songs they write are about love and relationships. This society doesn’t allow boys and girls to mingle very easily.”

For these students, writing and playing music can serve as a form of therapy, as it lets them express their experiences and their emotions. The students are specifically attracted to rock music because it is a perfect outlet for what they have to say. “I’m not surprised that it is rock they choose,” says Herrman. “It allows them to be angry and impolite, and for once, they don’t have to conform.” At the weekly band practice, Herrman has witnessed his students overcoming their shyness when performing their own songs. He adds: “It can have a very powerful liberating effect. When you see a young person coming out of his shell like that, it’s a beautiful thing.”

Herrman feels uncertain about the school’s future after the pull-out of NATO forces in 2014: “No one can predict what will happen. Of course we are worried, but we’ve decided that we’ll just keep on helping the students for as long as we can.”

Rock School Kabul could well be in danger if the Taliban manages to reclaim its power. However, the school has already made a huge impact, and the liberating effect it has had on Kabul’s youth will be hard to undo. As Herrman himself says: “The seed has been sown.”

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