Editor’s note: In Hollie McKay’s latest special report for Deadline, the veteran foreign affairs correspondent and Only Cry for the Living: Memos from Inside the ISIS Battlefield author writes from Kabul about the silencing of Afghanistan’s music and musicians as the Taliban consolidates its return to power amidst the U.S. withdrawal.
Hundreds of shining faces, sheathed in sequins and sparkles, filled a majestic wedding hall on Saturday night. Tiny girls through the adults and the elderly danced spiritedly into the early hours of the morning as traditional Afghan music blared through the speakers. The men – always seated in an adjacent hall where the two sides are divided by a wall as per cultural custom – also grooved through the night.
It was beautiful to see Afghans coming back to life for a wedding, a prominent staple of their lives, even amid the trying times of a Taliban takeover. Yet it was somewhat sad too.
“We always have live music at our weddings,” one male guest tells me outside as a storm brews – a clear sign that summer has given way to the winds of fall. “But there are no more musicians. Everyone has left.”
From where I sit, having spent weeks on the ground both before and after the country crumbled into Taliban control on August 15, the self-censorship and fear artists continue to endure is palpable. All the artists and journalists and filmmakers I knew have escaped or disappeared into the barren basements of their homes.
And the music industry is no exception.
While the top echelons of the Taliban – formally termed the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan – claim that they are not the same stringent leadership that imposed harsh Shariah Law two decades ago, music is one aspect they have not let up on.
Music will not be allowed in public; spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid has vowed, adding that no official decree was needed.
The streets in the capital Kabul are slowly coming back to life, with more people flooding the markets and mosques and business centers and the ancient roads clogging fast with diesel-spewing motorcycles and old cars. Yet, the lack of tunes is jarring.
The Taliban has long deemed music a corrupting allure. In Kandahar’s southern province – the Emirate’s birthplace – radio stations have been prohibited from playing music. When I turn on the television in Kabul, even now, the sounds are all but gone.
But as the new leadership continues to cobble together its interim government, meaning that it has not yet issued official decrees stating what is and is not appropriate as per its interpretation of Islamic Law, music professionals and procurers alike have gone into self-censorship mode – triggered by a graveyard of memories from past Taliban times.
When the outfit rose to power in 1996, instruments were burned and bashed into nothingness. Those exposed as having secret stashes of cassettes or vinyl or related “corrupting” influences were chastised via flogging and torture.
However, the Taliban does have its own installment of music, and it’s not uncommon to see fighters moving through the streets blaring a Nasheed, which are recordings of religious vocals-only songs. Live music and instruments have once again become a no-go zone.
Yet traditionally, in the decades and even centuries before the first Taliban rule, Afghanistan has boasted a rich assortment of music centered on the heritage of Hindustani classic harmonies.
Then, after the U.S. invasion of 2001 and the regime’s toppling, an even broader selection of rhythms found their way back into the cultural lexicon. The U.S. poured millions into music programs across the country – institutes devoted to the teachings of instruments opened, live music venues opened, and television stations started their own renditions of American Idol, the most popular being Afghan Star featured on TOLO Television.
A decade ago, Afghanistan even hosted its own music festival – Sound Central Festival – sponsored by the U.S. Embassy. Moreover, the young generation quickly fell for western genres from hip hop and rock to pop ballads and heavy metal. For a while, the most popular ringtone I heard in the streets was that of Adele’s “Hello.”
“I love Justin Bieber and Michael Jackson,” one 25-year-old medical student from the northern province of Baghlan told me last week.
Only now, he speaks in a whisper. The freedom Afghans once had in listening to virtually anything they liked was ripped from them in an instant as the Taliban seized the Presidential Palace on August 15.
Since that day, many musicians have left – but many have not been able to get out either.
The day before the U.S. chaotically withdrew from Afghanistan in August, some 280 Afghan girls from the Afghanistan National Institute of Music – who had devoted their young lives to making melodies – were turned away from the airport gates after 17 hours on a bus without food or water, navigating the dangerous and choked Kabul streets.
The Australia-based founder of ANIM, Dr. Ahmad Sarmast, said via email that the Taliban has not entered nor destroyed the facility, despite internet rumors and erroneous photos circulating social media. Still, the lights have gone out, and images of instruments have been painted over. It is not clear if this was an act of vengeance by the Taliban or a safety bid by institute devotees.
Similarly, there were numerous bungled efforts to safely evacuate dozens of young guitar students belonging to the “Girl With Girl” program, an initiative for street kids founded in 2014 by L.A.-based musician Lanny Cordola’s “The Miraculous Love Kids” foundation.
I first met one of the prized performers, Mursal, some four-and-a-half years ago. In September 2012, she and her two older sisters were peddling trinkets outside the NATO base in Kabul when a 14-year-old suicide bomber on a bike detonated a suicide vest. Both her siblings – and at least four other children from impoverished homes – were killed.
For Mursal and more than 100 other young students, strumming became a source of solace and healing.
“The first time I saw the guitar,” Mursal recalled to me at the time, “I didn’t know what it was. So I said, ‘Mr. Lanny, what is this?’ But now I even have one at home.”
Sadly, most youngsters like Mursal have destroyed their precious items and gone into hiding. Many also scrubbed their social media pages and any evidence of a life that existed before.
Igniting fresh fear, on August 31, a prominent Afghan musician – Fawad Andarabi – was reportedly shot dead in the Baghlan province after being dragged from his home.
And despite the threadbare cloak of safety the U.S. presence in Afghanistan provided, musicians have notoriously been a target of the Taliban and other anti-government groups. For one, a suicide bomber struck a French cultural center amid an orchestral performance in 2014.
But for now, in the holding period that exists as new rules and regulations are yet determined by a group of religious hardliners – all men – Afghans remain uncertain about how far they can push the limits.
“We are a different Taliban now,” one Commander says. “We don’t want to hurt people. We want them to obey Islamic Law.”
It’s a hard swallow for many, who remain deeply skeptical of any words uttered by the old insurgency.