TRAVIS BEARD Charting District Unknown

You don’t often hear the phrase ‘Afghan metal band’. The Australian documentary Rockabul looks at the life of District Unknown, a heavy metal band that formed as the country was liberated from the Taliban. DAVID O’CONNELL spoke to director Travis Beard about this extraordinary story, and how he came to document such events.

How the hell did you end up filming a heavy metal band in Afghanistan?

I’m a photographer by trade, and I was travelling the Middle East a lot during the late 90s to early 2000. I was in Iran at the time, and I met a BBC journalist who said, “hey do you want to go to Afghanistan?” It’s a kind of offer you don’t refuse. The Taliban had gone down in September… it was November… so I went “fuck yeah”. So we cross the border. The Americans were entering from the northeast, so we got the exodus of refugees and reported on that. So I got what we’ve now termed the Afghan bug. That insatiable itch for a country that’s just enchanting. In 2006 I found a way to get back there and work as a volunteer. I thought I was going to do a three months stint and ended up there for seven years.

Could you explain to readers what the attitude towards music was like due to the Taliban?

The ideology of the Taliban from 1996 to 2001 was anything musical, besides the call to prayer, was forbidden. That was not just Western music, that was all music. So Bollywood, their own traditional ethnic music… was all banned. There were underground meetings, but that was more for the traditional genres. But after 2001, and the introduction of the internet, the Afghans kind of got to know about other styles and genres of music from around the world. Then with the 2003 building activities, that face to face exposure came through.

Given that metal often has negative associations from religious and conservative groups in the West, was that perception heightened over there?

Absolutely. But in a sort of grander scheme of things, a conservative Afghan, or conservative Muslim, didn’t really know how to differentiate between rap music, metal music, or any type of foreign style and genre. They saw it as non-religious, therefore a threat to their culture. So when we interviewed the Taliban, and I asked him, “what’s rap or what’s metal”, he didn’t know the difference. They just knew it was not from his culture, his country, and therefore they forbid it. As metal music was introduced to Afghanistan and starts to develop, opinions evolved that it was a threat, no matter what it was. So they call it Shaitani (Satan worshipers or Satanists) which something they just gravitate towards, not really an educated guess. Because if you listen to the lyrics of someone like District Unknown, they’re talking about the war and the problems in Afghanistan. It’s an easy way for conservatives is to put a tag on the genre.

What is it like to try and practice as a band in an area that’s prone to blackouts, and where the neighbours can be a bit more aggressive than just calling the cops?

It’s a challenge. Logistics was a massive issue, whether it was electricity, or blowing up equipment, soundproofing rooms, or not pissing off your neighbours. Even when the boys were travelling with their guitars, coming to the studios, they’d get harassed in the streets. Just a constant barrage of social pressure. You don’t have the same institutional pressures in Afghanistan as you do in Iran. The government wasn’t putting on the pressure, it was society itself.

Rockabul covers a snapshot in time, a musical Renaissance. What’s left of that in Afghanistan at the moment?

My standard answer to this question is, the only thing that survived this Renaissance was hip hop. And hip-hop survived because all you need is a sound card, a microphone, and a laptop. So, therefore, your footprint in society is a lot smaller, so you can produce music without pissing your neighbours off. But that’s something I have to take back because in recent months I’ve been contacted by young Afghan, that’s making metal music by himself. And he’s kinda started the band (5 years after District Unknown) and is now trying to find himself a drummer, find a place to practice, and find himself a gig. That seed that we planted back in those days, is actually being nurtured through time, and there seems to be a new sort of sprout coming through. Wherever that turns into a whole new scene, time will tell. The country still has a lot of security issues in place.

Given those security concerns, what convinced you to tour District Unknown?

After doing several festivals and a lot of shows in Kabul I was frustrated that were only successful in the existence of what we call the “Kabubble”. Which is what we call the area around Kabul, because of the security levels being higher. I wanted to see if the model of bringing music to the youth would work outside of Kabul. So, I have the idea to put the concert on the back of a truck and take it out of the city. So went north went to Mazza-e-Sharif, which was a moderately safe city. We proved it works, because we rocked up to a location, played music, and it was a success. But it was only momentarily because there was a point that we knew that we’d overstayed our welcome, and if we stay there any longer, shit would hit the fan. That’s why the truck was so effective. Basically, I just threw the generator in the back of the truck and told the truck driver to hit the gas. It was a great way to be able to manage the fluid environment that we’re in. But I wouldn’t do that now… probably.

And District Unknown actually managed to get international publicity?

The band got to the point where, they were maybe not the most popular band in Afghanistan, but they created a dynamic with their live shows. Again, I was happy with that, but I wanted to see if that was just existing inside this bubble. We got invited to India, and that gave me a chance to get them in front of bigger audiences, on a big stage, with bigger gear. So they could actually experience what it’s like for bands globally. It was a really interesting experience for them, because they played in front of thousands of people, instead of hundreds. It verified that they did have enough chops to play against the bigger boys.

You mentioned that you were currently in the editing suite, what are you working on?

I’m punishing myself, making another film about Afghanistan. So trying to do a trilogy, Rockabul was the first, looking at the micro level of a band in Kabul. Now we’re zooming out to the macro level and looking at the country. The film’s called Cogs of War, and we’re looking at the players involved in the current conflict, why this war’s been exacerbated, and elongated to 18 years. We’ve got a journalist, a soldier, an NGO, a Diplomat, a member of the Taliban and a few other members that are part of these cogs that get the war going. Questioning whether the country is better off because of the West’s intervention. It’s a tough one. I don’t have the answers, but hoping to throw a few people into the mix and see what comes out.

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