Same Story, New Locale UPDATED

Ok, not exactly the same, but close.

Afghanistan had their first rock festival in “more than thirty yearsover the weekend. One observant in the ways of rock in China, while impressed and excited about the idea and execution of the event, can’t help feeling a twinge of recognition, and disappointment, in the way the event was portrayed. As a result of the allure of rock music outside the West, there’s a nearly-by-the-numbers form that stories like this take.

To wit:

The story is not filed under ‘music’, but rather, under general news, and there’s a suspicious lack of coverage or sampling of the actual music being performed that could, were one a pessimist, be taken for a judgement about the quality thereof (unless it’s a sign that the reporter is not one schooled in or comfortable talking about music). When music journalists are sent to cover the story, we can figure that the interest is less than passing.

There is, always, the “weird” local twist: China has censored lyrics and a tea-sipping Party presence, while in Kabul we have pauses in the action for neighbourhood prayers, no booze and kebabs-only snacking.

There is the requisite reference to the disapproving eyes of onlooking elders: Dressed, in China, in Mao suits and hats; in Kabul, “turbans and long beards” (who were, one must grant, quoth¬†Reuters, “not entirely disapproving”).

There is, too, an element of danger hanging not far into the background of the story, and it is more than any parental disapproval. This sets up the rock-as-freedom paradigm, which tends to (not always incorrectly) colour discussions of rock in these frontier territories. In China, there is certainly an Official disdain of expression a-la rock and roll and political consequences of being on the bad side of it, though these days, when every podunk city of ten million has their own rock festival, it is less severe than in the past, despite what some reports might imply. In Afghanistan, though, the threat is much more imminent: With the Taliban roaming, there is genuine danger in the idea of a gathering for rock fans in Afghanistan’s capital. At least, that’s how one would figure based on the news reports one hears about the country; it’s a reasonable assumption to figure that, like in the case of China, there are massive misconceptions about the country based on the news.¬† But we can surely trust that in Kabul, there is genuine danger in gathering to worship on the altar of rock and roll.

So, in rock and roll terms, is Afghanistan the next China? And: Will it bode good or evil for the nation’s scene? There’s still a mixed legacy of international coverage on China’s journey, a legacy that, one hopes, one’s book-length examination (ok: just plain Book) of China’s rock and roll development will help to improve. Afghanistan certainly has a China-sized obstacle to overcome before news of a cultural sort can be processed by outsiders without being overcome by headlines involving chaos, war and more.

Meantime, check out the organization behind the festival. (One could point out how the international nature of the org adds to the deja vu, what with China’s rock and roll history being peppered with folks from outside the Middle Kingdom and all. If one were looking to name names, one might bring up the French restaurant Maximes, which was the earliest regular host of rock shows in Beijing, or the German Udo Hoffmann, who was instrumental in the early-nineties party and proto-festival scene).

And also, while you’re at it, check out the travels and tales of the festival’s head.

Most importantly, though, be sure to listen to the artists that participated in the festival. And let’s hope there’s more to come.


The Update:

I was remiss for not mentioning the efforts of Luk Haas, who has been collecting and releasing music from hitherthen-uncharted rock/punk/etc territory (including, one is quick to add, China!) at Tian An Men 89 Record for years now. Here’s a guy that skips the ‘this is news’ step and goes right for the music, and there are many others like him, like Jason Flower, who wrote a history of Victoria’s underground scene but also got further afield for tracking down Mongolian fuzz-rock and Inuit metal.

Also, WNYC’s Soundcheck interviewed one of the organizers of Kabul’s festival: Sound Central: The Central Asian Modern Music Festival, as well as talked about rap’s role in the Arab Spring.