In a country where music was silenced in the name of Allah for five years, the beat is back and even rock shares the airwaves with the romantic strains of traditional Afghan songs.
The Islamist Taliban, who banned all music as sinful while they were in power between 1996 and 2001, are now waging an insurgency against the Western-backed government — but they can’t stop the music.
They have even developed an acapella style of their own, chanting religious poems to the glory of suicide bombers and their fighters waging war on government forces and some 130,000 NATO troops.
The Central Asian nation has an ancient tradition of songs built on its rich culture of poetry, ranging from war, heroism and epic tales of life in this harsh land, to delicate love stories.
But there is a vast difference between traditional lyrics and those of the Taliban:
Traditional: “Last night I stole a quick glance at your moon-like face through your dark hair,” goes a famous Afghan song performed in the 1970s by celebrity Abdul Rahim Sarban.
“Your half-open crimson dress was prettier than a hundred roses in the garden… a narcissus shies away before the beauty of your seducing eyes.”
Taliban: “The youth is out on a fedayee [suicide] mission, his heart filled with passion for his religion.
“The youth is out on fedayee mission, the angels are watching him, the paradise houris [pure companions] are watching when the suicide bomber strikes.”
Even in the new forms of pop and rock, imported along with the NATO troops, the war is never far away.
In a makeshift studio in their apartment in west Kabul, four young men have formed a band called Morcha (Ants), which they describe as Afghanistan’s first rock band.
Vocalist Shekib Musadeq, drummer Shafiq Najafi and two bass players Hassanzada and Behroz Shujahi gather daily for practice, rocking their building — and their neighbors — with Western beats.
“Music has been part of the people’s life ever since history remembers,” says Hassanzada.
He describes their lyrics as “neither about love, nor Taliban hatred” but about current realities in their war-shattered country: a deadly insurgency, corruption, the illicit drugs trade and natural disasters.
“Fifteen died in Helmand, the drought ended in Herat… NATO conducted a rapid air strike on a wedding party,” the band sings against the beat of drum and bass guitar while practicing for a big concert in Kabul.
“The Taliban peace plan on the president’s desk, the elders of Paktika endorsed it… The headlines from Afghanistan, thanks to the world are all about these.”
But love songs accompanied by traditional tabla drums and elegant, lute-like rubab strings, remain a staple of the old style:
“I’m a worshiper of flowers, drunk without drinking [because] tonight I’m with a flower,” sings Sarban.
And in a country where many women still wear the all-enveloping blue burqa that was enforced by the Taliban, lyrics are not short of erotic elements.
“I still smell your scent in my bed, feeling your sweet lips all over me,” sang the late Ahmad Zahir, who was nicknamed “Afghanistan’s Elvis.”
The Taliban, who shunned modernity while in power, now use video and the Internet to get their message across.
As a background to a video posted on their website showing dozens of Taliban fighters attacking a US military base in Paktika province, they chant:
“The lion cubs can’t be tamed… you’ll be crying, lost, unable to find your way home, your child will never see you again… leave our home before it’s too late or Afghanistan will become your second Vietnam.”
The Taliban chants are sometimes used as mobile phone ring tunes across southern Afghanistan, the heartland of the insurgency — where they can be a passport through any trouble with the militants.
But the rest of the range of musical styles can be heard on dozens of radio and television channels, and drifting though open car windows as drivers negotiate the chaotic streets of the once silent capital, Kabul.
Abdul Satar Qasimi, a professional rubab player and singer who runs a musical instrument shop in Kabul’s “Musician Street”, says Western-style music has pushed many classical performers to the sidelines.
Qasimi, 45, fled to Pakistan when the Taliban took Kabul in 1996, and his music store was destroyed by the militants. He returned after the Taliban were toppled in a US-led invasion in late 2001.
“Now music has flourished but not for us. More and more people are listening to the new music, rock, pop and all these new forms of music,” he said.