A house in Central Kabul throbs with the growls of a few boys, rehearsing for their upcoming gig in Delhi. The guitarist strums a gorgeous riff, as the drummer begins to hammer on the drumkit. Suddenly the vocalist tears in, turning into a wolf and growling Two seconds after the blast. An amplified distortion is merged with emphatic beats as the vigorous vocals kick in. The air becomes heavy with psychedelic metal resonating in the obscurity and darkness of a silent war zone.
The lyrics are dark if not mean, “but at the same time, they are socially conscious”, as Pedram Foushanji, the lead drummer of the band, puts it. He mentions that the song was penned after Qasem Foushanji — Pedram’s brother and the band’s bass guitarist — saw a bomb go off at the Indian Embassy in Kabul in 2008. “He was in a queue for a visa but survived the bombing. But the pain and suffering he saw after the blast was horrid. The song describes that moment,” says Pedram, who, along with guitar player Mohammad Qais Shaghasi, Qasem and vocalist Yusoof Ahmad Shah, forms District Unknown, the first metal band from Afghanistan that will headline the SAARC Festival in Delhi next week.
The band may revel in the deliberate menace and the dark and labyrinthine passages from their songs, but its presence seems something of an anomaly in Afghanistan, where the diplomatic mood (extremists earlier, moderates now) governs what people can and can’t do. In fact, the house of band manager Travis Beard, which is also the band’s jam pad, is more used to bullets and missiles than dense tunes paired with even denser vocals.
Music in Afghanistan was considered un-Islamic under the Taliban for many years. The assault on the arts continued in the ’90s, and was particularly focused on music, as tapes and musical instruments were burnt and musicians beaten up. “But for how long will we keep hiding and not express ourselves? Music is a way of expressing what we feel about everything,” says Pedram, a regular at the Sound Central Music Festival in Kabul, a sort of secret music festival that is not announced through banners in colleges, but texted about like a rave, and discussed in hush hush tones before it takes place in a basement. And this counterculture movement, in arguably the world’s most riotous city, has young Afghans sitting up and taking notice. “There is a lot of anger among people and they consider music as a way of letting it out. You should see them at our gigs — headbanging to what we create,” says Yusoof.
The band was formed in 2008 when two cousins, Lemar Saifullah and Qais Shaqasi, met the Foushanji brothers through Beard, a musician and filmmaker himself. “We were just a bunch of students who wanted to play music. In fact, we composed really weird stuff in the beginning, apart from singing covers. We learnt everything while making music,” says Pedram, adding that their initial audience comprised of expats and aid workers but gradually, many students began to come in. The band’s first gig may have been a home performance with friends as the audience but it was soon performing at British Embassy bars and the South Central Festival. In fact, their first professional gig was at the Afghanistan National Gallery.
Hoodies, one of the few clubs in Kabul, has witnessed what these 20-somethings and Black Sabbath fans are capable of, as a few fascinated bopping heads at a recent gig was proof enough of the band’s popularity. “People forget their issues while listening to us,” says Pedram, adding that they also had to keep a low profile for almost six months after some threats.
When in India, they will sing about tragedy and horror in songs such as Joy Vs Sorrow and The Dying Bride, the former being a verse by Kahlil Gibran. But the boys do not wear their masks anymore; distorting it like no Afghan has ever done before. It is time. And they are ready to let go.