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Rock and a hard place

The expat rock band White City have emerged as a driving force in Kabul’s nascent underground music scene, organising an annual festival in Afghanistan and, now, taking their sound abroad, writes Adam Workman
The band White City, left to right: guitarist Travis Beard, bassist/vocalist Ruth Owen and drummer Andreas Stefansson. Courtesy David Gill
The band White City, left to right: guitarist Travis Beard, bassist/vocalist Ruth Owen and drummer Andreas Stefansson. Courtesy David Gill

Kabul. The Afghan capital city evokes many images and, for outsiders, most will involve war-torn streets and the Taliban. None will likely be soundtracked by the discordant strains of rock music, but it’s fast becoming the noise of underground Kabul, nevertheless.

Rehearsing surrounded by sandbags and reclaimed tyres from wrecked vehicles in a space that doubles as a bomb shelter, if required, White City are at the forefront of that movement. A going concern for eight years, ploughing through about 20 members and such eye-opening monikers as Taliband before solidifying into their current power trio line-up in 2009, the band take their name from a United Nations state of alert that restricts movement of its staff in Kabul.

“All the NGOs and all the institutions tend to follow suit and tell their staff that they can’t go out,” says the band’s British-born bassist/vocalist Ruth Owen. “So that’s why we called [ourselves] White City, sort of thumbing our nose to this slightly alarmist calling of lockdown.”

Completed by Andreas Stefansson (drums) and Travis Beard (guitar), White City are a truly international outfit – the only remaining founder member, Stefansson is Swedish and has claimed links with Kabul since time spent there as an aid worker in the late 1990s; Beard is an Australian who came to the city as a photojournalist (he is currently spending six months based in Beirut); when The Review speaks to Owen, who moved to Kabul to work as a journalist in 2009, she’s in New York. When the security situation in Kabul deteriorated last year, meanwhile, they all temporarily decamped to Sri Lanka.

Owen’s personal rock schooling is an interesting one: her dad tour-managed Roxy Music, King Crimson and Genesis in the United Kingdom, while, as a teenager, she toured as the bassist in a re-formed version of the 1990s Britpop band Echobelly. The band claim inspiration from punk, stoner rock and European psychedelic folk music, as well as the native sounds of Kabul. “It’s been an incredible melting pot,” says Owen. “We were all heavily influenced by Asian folk music and we’ve tried to integrate a fusion of that into our music.”

Concerts in Kabul are almost always semi-ad hoc, with promotion usually limited to word of mouth to avoid attracting the wrong kind of attention, in front of crowds of anything between 50 people up to, at the regular Sound Central festival that White City founded, thousands of rabid fans. Girls-only shows are not unheard of, because of cultural taboos. Tools of the trade are so scarce that White City fly to Dubai to purchase instruments and other equipment.

“You’ve never experienced anything like an Afghan rock concert,” Owen says. “The kids go completely crazy, because it’s something that is absolutely new and exciting to them. When we first started playing, people would point to the drum kit and say ‘Is that a tabla?’ and point to the guitar and say ‘Is that a rubab?’, because they’d never seen these instruments before. It’s very interesting to see a music scene coming up from an embryonic status; to see people learn how to headbang and how to mosh. The reaction has just been incredible.”

Shows also act as an outlet for anger festering in Afghan youths living in a pressure-cooker environment of curfews and ­conservatism.

“When we arrange these gigs for young Afghan kids, it’s a space where they can really let off a lot of suppressed energy. These kids have a much harder life than any teenagers in the West. So this heavy music does play into what is a stressful situation in Afghanistan right now.”

Conflict has, indeed, defined Kabul for decades, but White City are keen to point out that the media depiction of the city in 2014 isn’t quite as black and white as it may appear.

“Kabul, I always compare to Belfast in the 80s,” reasons Owen. “Bad things happen, bombs go off, but people live their lives. As a journalist, I’ve been embedded with troops and I’ve come under fire a number of times, but actually in the city centre, I myself haven’t actually experienced that much in terms of danger, although other bands have. It’s really a case of being at the wrong place at the wrong time. You almost become a bit desensitised to it. You hear a bomb go off, and it will reverberate around the city, but it’s not really worth anyone’s while to get upset about it – it’s better to continue what you’re doing.”

Danger continues to lurk around the corner in the Afghan capital, however, as brought into tragic focus by a Taliban attack on an upscale cafe in the city in January. A total of 21 people died in a dual-pronged suicide bomb/gun attack on the Taverna du Liban, including its owner, Kamal Hamade.

“I spent my last three birthday parties there,” laments Owen, who often dons a hijab in public in Kabul. “It’s a favourite hangout for Afghans and foreigners alike. The owner was a friend. But the attention that it got in the media was sort of disproportionate to other atrocities that happen around the country – Afghan civilians dying all the time, every day, and we don’t see that get attention.”

Attention to Kabul’s violent side, Owen thinks, also means that White City’s rock chops are in danger of coming second to tales of bombs and bullets. That’s something that they’re keen to change, and could well do, judging by the polished rock sounds of their debut album, Landlocked, which was recorded in Sri Lanka and London and released two weeks ago.

“No one really has an idea of what Afghan rock could be like. Sometimes we find the music coming second, so while we’re happy that Afghanistan gets us on the radar, we hope that people will be listening to the music as well.”

That word is set to spread farther this month: White City are currently on a seven-city US tour that culminates in a show at the multifarious SXSW festival in Austin, Texas, on March 13 (www.sxsw.com). The experience will no doubt contrast sharply with the band’s previous jaunt outside of Afghanistan in 2011, entitled the Big in the Stans Tour – a self-deprecating reference to the common suffix of the Central Asian nations that they navigated for six weeks.

“We took a train in Uzbekistan down to Bukhara,” remembers Owen. “The police tried to stop our gig and ended up being part of the audience. We did a gig in the middle of a platform to a bunch of gipsies selling bread.

“We travelled over the border from Kyrgyzstan to Kazakhstan and ended up getting paid for a street gig in dried fish. And the secret police turned up in Tashkent and arrested the support band.”


Updated: February 27, 2014 04:00 AM

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