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Is Heavy Metal a Threat to Afghani Culture? Local Youth Shreds to Differ.

Geo·dissonance: the metal movement is proliferating to all corners of the globe. In its relentless display of vitriolic truths and the ugliest questions of existence, we can hear the resounding riffs of heavy metal in the most conservative pockets of society. As your Punjabi, riff-worshiping correspondent, I've created Geodissonance to report the controversy: as metal unveils dissonance in cradles of brutality around the world.

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To some, the notion of “Western” culture may call to mind dust bowls, the Wild West, and cheesy cowboy flicks; to much of Afghanistan, it represents a threat to a national history, culture, and honor. In the last year in a half, local Afghani bands D.U. and The White Page have pushed for a cultural evolution, via incitation of a movement most notably “Western” in its roots: heavy metal. In November 2010, D.U. ripped out a cover of “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This),” the Eurythmics song that was effectively set into the air-waves by Ohio-based shock rocker, Marilyn Manson. If their intent was to “shock,” their goal was well-achieved; since their appearance upon the stage, as a bunch of raging, Afghani metalheads (à la leather jackets, metal chains, and long black hair whipping across their guitars and bass), many locals have identified the groups as “trashy Western music,” representing the “cultural imperialism” of the Western world.

D.U. furthered their shocky appeal by making their initial appearance at a private party, in a small, Kabul French restaurant. Infamous for being Afghanistan’s “first heavy metal band,” this may have seemed an odd title, given their cover of a pop song constructed primarily by computer-generated sound. In fact, one would argue that it was a harsh divergence from the traditional tabla, harmonium, and robab of traditional Afghani music, but given a culture marked by poetry both dark and brutally masochistic in nature – we’re talking fabled odes written on the walls of hamams (baths) with the blood of its poet, gushing from her jugular veins (the un-exaggerated, final moments of poet Rabia Balkhi) –it would seem heavy metal is evolving a legacy of Afghani music and poetry. This legacy of music, marked by a life in which “death and despair” are inescapable conditions, has prevailed throughout the 1970s, bringing the work of Afghan-born Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi to the forefront of global, best-selling poetry. So, who is to say that D.U. is not continuing a global movement with a similar such dedication to the (truth-bearing, metal) cause?

Through the cultural outputs of musicians such as Ahmad Zahir, Farhad Darya, and the band Stars, D.U. has continued to mix the Afghani style of music with Western sounds, as a part of a youth-led music scene, spawned during the 1970s. Along with the most recent contributions of White Page, both bands exemplify the post-Taliban, Kabul attitude. This attitude is one created and shaped by the events of a nation: giving rise to a musical and political voice that dares to confront the repression faced during the Taliban era, as well as present-day barriers to free expression in the Afghani culture and society.

Sweet Dreams

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While to us, we may simply know Kabul as the capital and largest capital of Afghanistan, to the Kabul youth, it is the single word with which they identify; it is their experience with repression, their home, and growing desire for self-expression and definition in a dynamic world. Thus, explains D.U.’s lead singer, was their motivation for choosing to cover “Sweet Dreams: “it deals with reality. [You] are used and abused by other people as the poor are taken advantage of by the powerful and rich."

What’s more, in a society where the youth has grown up and watched nearly every institution become accused of some corruption or fraud, the output of music packed with aggression and disgust would appear an inevitable consequence. Living in Afghanistan, for youth, is a perpetual paradox; whereas you “can’t sing about to going to get coffee with your girlfriend,” explains the lead singer of D.U., little children play on skateboards, and stroll streets in which bombs, at any second, may detonate, and leave them as forgotten corpses along the road. The cultural paradox is an insidious one, as well as a tragedy, which only serves to feed the aggression of its youth. This is not to say that the vocals of bands like D.U., however projected over long-distances (i.e. interfering destructively with Azan, the calls to prayer), are not masked and concealed; given D.U.’s not-so-popular reputation amongst conservative critics, the band decided that they must conceal their identities: a very testament to the lyrics for which they shred.

However unified this young, Afghani band may be on their view of a corrupt and repressive society, they do differ on the infamy that their work has earned them, such as the accusations of producing music that is “Satanic…too dark, negative,” and therefore “un-Afghan.” On the opposite side of the reaction spectrum, the lead singer of The White Page, Mirwais Mohsen, confirmed that the band has given permission to Al Jazeera to publish their names. Put very simply, he stated that “the band has no fear of retribution.”

No kidding.

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My World

Mohsen explains that it was during his refuge in Pakistan that he espoused Western music. He was drawn to hip hop – fell in love with it, truthfully – and transitioned into the world of heavy metal upon hearing the tunes of such “Western” staples as System of a Down and Tool.

It isn’t too surprising that, in his time of personal crisis, that Mohsen fell back on music as his coping mechanism and evolutionary agent. Not only he is the son of the director of Afghanistan’s National Institute of Music, but it was the “very pure topics” of metal that drew him in, captured his heart, and dedication for life: “we have to talk about real issues in society, and metal allows us to do that.” (Amen to that.) He added that he has always felt connected to various genres of rock, and it was this very connection that directed the members of The White Page and D.U. from the CD’s of Iranian Pop artist Farhad Darya, as well as Western classical music, to a full-blown, and totally dedicated embrace of heavy metal.

War Within a Breath

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Being raised in Afghanistan, Iran, India, and Pakistan, groups such as D.U. and The White Page were exposed to very different cultural norms and difficulties. Nonetheless, these individuals were collectively empowered by an in-born determination to create music that was reflective of this very diversity, in a manner that was inflammatory and bent on delivering the truth: metal.

"We want people to know through our music that you are still alive on this day. That you need to solve your problems", said the lead singer of D.U. Sound familiar? Continuing on with an attitude all-too reminiscent of early metal pioneers, he added that life in war zones and refugee camps was both dangerous and: fun. "In art you have to do something that discomforts people. When the audience asks what is that, and thinks it's gross, it's very powerful." Turning on the curiosity sectors of the brain, and appealing to the primal, human drive for danger and violence, D.U. draws on personal experience to arrive at existential truths. Though Mohsen describes this danger as “fun,” he also recognizes that this is only possible because music, itself, is a medium – a means of reconciliation with one’s own experience. "We want peace through our music, but it is not inherently political.”

Despite espousing heavy metal as their sort of spiritual and cultural medium, D.U. and White Page both acknowledge their roots, and wish to incorporate it into their music. Be it poetic references to Rumi, a world-renowned, Persian-speaking, Afghani poet, or the use of Afghani instruments (such as the tabla and harmonium), the bands wish to infuse the traditional Afghani elements into their music; D.U. defines this unique form of metal as "classical poetry, with growling vocals.” By creating this unique form of music and poetry, the bands view themselves as "the tongue for the Afghan youth to speak their feelings. We want them to have their energy spent on something creative and new, not wasted on street fights.”

Whereas many opponents to the local music movement view metal as a threat to a legacy of Afghani music, it may just be a reaction to the arrival of a foreign musical style in a local culture. This reaction gives rise to a unique cultural product, and the “more hybrid the music is, the more people get into it because it really feels like it’s ‘their’ music,” explains professor of history at UC Irvine and author of Heavy Metal Islam – Mark Levine. Resistance to hybrid music, via labels like “Satanic” and “Western imperialism” are often created by authoritarian regimes like the Taliban. They label these new art forms because they perceive them as “a threat to their patriarchal, authoritarian control." By pushing musicians like D.U. into a corner, these regimes “score points with conservative forces,” and maintain a “cooperative” status quo. As an act of defiance against this conservatism, The White Page, D.U., and a dozen other bands from Afghanistan, Iran, Tajikstan, and Pakistan will be playing at the Kabul-held Sound Central Festival. During this rock-metal festival, the “volume of energy [the bands] want to pass on to people will be put on the test.”

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Though D.U. and the White Page continue to face a hell of a lot of criticism from their society, they maintain that “it's not a bad thing to be mixed between cultures.” According to lead singer of D.U., labeling the band’s music as too “Western” is cliché and false. "We never want our music to be too Western," says D.U., of a band comprised of proud Muslims. “We are us. We are Afghan."

Until the festival, the bands will continue to play for local audiences: who can be found moshing, head-banging, and letting the true metal rage flow through the sacred streets of Kabul.

[via Aljazeera ]

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