Afghanistan: They play rock music in Afghanistan – and get away with it

15 August 2011
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“What the hell were you doing in Kabul?” Helo Magazine asked the Kabul-based rock trio White City. The three members of the band originally travelled to Afghanistan as expatriate crisis responders. But life in the Afghan capital called for social gatherings and stress relief, so the trio figured, if they could bring clothes, computers, and DVDs to a war zone, why not guitar, bass, drums, and amps?

After headlining a few expat parties and giving advice to emerging Afghan musicians, the group decided to form permanently as White City, focusing on rallying Central Asians who want to produce and listen to rock music.

The multinational band, featuring English singer and bass guitarist Ruth Owen, Australian guitarist Travis Beard, and Swedish drummer Andreas Stefansson, wanted to show that today’s Afghanistan has a place for rock music, even though they are not allowed to perform outdoor, and they have armed security officers check their instrument cases and the audience at every concert:

“In Afghanistan it’s forbidden or it’s not part of their normal culture to play music in public. You can play a cassette or CD through your stereo but live performances are only done behind closed doors and in private compounds,” Travka (Travis Beard) explained in an interview with Helo Magazine. Nevertheless, they hope to soon be able to play concerts anywhere in Afghanistan without fear.

High alert
The expression white city is the United Nations’ highest security alert requiring that all of its personnel remain locked down in their compounds. It is a well-known and long-standing signal to everyone else in Kabul, both Afghan and foreigner alike, that extreme danger is at hand and that they too should secure themselves accordingly.

The rock band White City did not set out to create alerts, but to change people’s minds so that people do not associate the word ‘Afghanistan’ with drugs and terrorism.

Swedish Andreas Stefansson arrived in Kabul the first time in 2000 and worked there for three years. He returned in the end of 2006, working for a Swedish NGO, and was keen on playing music because he used to play music in the past, so he looked around to see if he could find musicians to play with. Travis and Ru turned up in Kabul in 2008 and 2009, and then they formed the three-piece band.

The interview in Helo Magazine was published in connection with White City’s tour in the former the Soviet Republics in Central Asia where they performed in clubs, concert halls, theatres and sometimes even outdoors in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan in May 2011.

The following is an excerpt of the interview where the band members talk about the present conditions for rock musicians in Afghanistan:

Dichotomies and contradictions
Helo Magazine: “What do you think is real, or maybe misunderstood about Afghanistan’s relationship to rock music and punk and that kind of thing? People hear about the Taliban’s ban of recorded music, so they must wonder…”

Ru (Ruth Owen): “There’s sort of a dual attitude here. If you look at some of the Afghan bands’ videos on YouTube, for example Kabul Dreams, and you’ll get comments like, “This is just an example of America’s westernization as Afghanistan’s stringed instruments are banned under Islam.” But there are dichotomies and contradictions in every single Islamic country around the world. I think, much like we found in Central Asia, people associate rock music with the West. They don’t really understand what it is and what it can do and how they can make it. But what we found is a lot of young Afghans are listening to western rock music but not necessarily making western rock music. They’re interpreting it in their own way and they’re making it their own.”

HELO: “To what extent do you think it’s maybe a risk? A risky choice for a young Afghan to learn how to go and play loud music?”

Travka (Travis Beard): “I think it is a risk, but all the Afghans that we know and we work with and we play with, they know the risks. It’s a calculated risk. I think a lot of them would prefer to take that risk so they can have the freedom of expressions through the music rather than be silenced by peer pressure from their community or from certain elements, like the Taliban. They ask me these questions all the time, ‘Can we do this? Can we do that?’ And I always answer them saying, ‘Well you know your country better than me, you make the final decision.’ We are not trying to control these kids or influence these kids. We’re just giving them an opportunity.”

HELO: “Are they ever running into obstacles, like security obstacles when they play at concerts?”

Travka: “There are classic stories, like Jalalabad, a city south of Kabul had numerous music shops where they sell CDs and music being burned down. There have been stories of wedding musicians tied up in trees over night and their instruments being snatched. It does exist but Kabul is a bit of an island, a bit of an oasis where as an Afghan you can live a westernized lifestyle and not have so much pressure from your community as in some of the other regional capitals around the country.”

HELO: “Yeah, talk about a rock ‘n roll irony. To be tied up in a tree and have someone else smash your instrument.”

[Laughter all around]

Travka: “Yeah, it’s kind of cool, huh?! It hasn’t happened to us.”



Click to read more about music in Afghanistan on



The House of Rock
Australian guitarist Travis Beard started ‘The House of Rock’ in Kabul with some Afghan friends in 2009: “We were just playing loud music and having fun and we built a studio and we had our band practice there, and then some other bands were practicing in our studio. We talk about music, we do some mentoring and it’s just a place where people can come with their interest in music,” he told.

In this video, Ruth Owen shows ‘The House of Rock’ in Kabul ten hours before leaving for their ‘Big in the Stans’ tour:



Helo Magazine:
“If you’re in a crashing plane, and you have three minutes left, what do you do?”

Travka: “Turn the amplifier up to 11.”

Ru: “Well, we’d play our shortest song if we only have three minutes.”

Travka: “We don’t have any three-minute songs.”

Ru: “Yes, we do.”

Travka: “No, we do not. We’ll just play two verses and two choruses.”

HELO: “Wow. Playing your music even in the last three minutes.”

Travka: “Fuck yeah. That’s the best way to die, man, playing your own music. For sure.”

Rock festival in Afghanistan
White City is planning to play throughout Afghanistan, Pakistan and possibly Turkmenistan. In addition to the concerts, the group is shooting a video all the countries it has visited.

“This is a film that will help tell about the culture, music, and individual traits of these countries,” the musicians told Central Asia Online.

The next major milestone for White City is to hold Afghanistan’s first rock festival. The band met a number of groups during its Central Asian tour who expressed a desire to come to Kabul and share their art.

Read more…




Helo Magazine – 4 May 2011:

‘SOUNDSCAPES | Rock Band White City Wakes Up Afghanistan and Central Asia’

Central Asia Online – 21 May 2011:

‘Kabul rockers promote peace in Central Asia’

Rock Central Asia Festival profile on Facebook:

‘Rock Central Asia | For Freedom of Expression in Afghanistan’


White City’s tour blog:

White City’s social media profiles:




Related reading on the web
About the two heavy metal / rock bands D.U. and The White Page in Kabul…

Al Jazeera – 19 August 2011:

‘Kabul Rock City’

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