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Festival Spotlight: Kabul Dreams Turns Garage Rock into the Sound of Freedom

“My sound, your sound; the sound of Afghanistan. We head toward destiny. We head toward peace.”

Sadae Man (translation from Dari) Kabul Dreams

Kabul Dreams is often called Afghanistan’s first rock band. But as lead singer and guitar player Sulyman Qardash is quick to point out, the band didn’t start out with that in mind. “We didn’t one day say ‘Hey, the country doesn’t have a rock band, let’s make one.’ We didn’t have a mission statement. We were just a band, three guys bonding over music and the bands we listened to growing up.”

But soon, this band without a plan would help show the world a side of Afghan culture no one had seen or heard during years of invasion, civil war, and Taliban oppression. With music no longer banned, their mix of grunge, metal, punk and a touch of rap would provide a soundtrack for their country’s too-brief moment of freedom and possibility. Now they are bringing their high-energy sound to the One Journey Festival. For the band, one of the attractions of appearing is our shared goal of changing the narrative about people displaced by war and persecution.

Born in Afghanistan, the members of Kabul Dreams grew up as refugees, Qardash in Uzbekistan, bass player Siddique Ahmed in Pakistan, and original drummer Mojtaba Habibi Shandiz in Iran. Their families had fled the country after the Taliban came to power. Some of their childhood experiences included poverty and living in refugee camps, but they were also fortunate and grateful to attend schools and find music teachers. And they soaked up songs from bands like Nirvana, Metallica, Green Day, and Oasis. “The experiences of those times, it was like a roller coaster,” says Ahmed. Iron Maiden was his introduction to heavy metal. “What is this?” he remembers thinking and couldn’t wait to hear more.

When the Taliban fell from power, all three were dreaming of doing something with music in their own country. They moved to Kabul, where they met and formed Kabul Dreams in 2008.

These were heady times for Afghanistan. More than a million refugees returned

home. The creative community came to life again. “We weren’t alone,” says Ahmed. “Kabul became a big hub for, you name it, artists, photographers, film-makers, journalists, and musicians. Kabul was a good place to be, which materialized into a lot of great initiatives. And our band was one of them, because we were in an environment where we could play music and do our thing.”

Kabul Dreams would become a leading force in Kabul’s small but burgeoning music scene. But the path was not easy or safe.

“We didn’t have a lot [of resources] on hand,” says Qardash. “We had to become a DIY band and learn how to do things ourselves, whether it was recording or producing or mixing. How do you release music in Afghanistan,” where there was no music industry? To record, they soundproofed rooms in their homes, but were frequently asked to leave by their landlords when they cranked up the amps. Finding venues to perform was also a problem as was promoting concerts. “You couldn’t just put up posters because it might draw unwelcome people from the opposition. You have to [take] a guerilla approach and only invite friends and friends of friends you could trust.”

The band started playing for groups of 20 and 30. The buzz started growing. They also reached out to radio stations, which were huge in Afghanistan where Internet and TV access are limited. They curated the playlist for Kabul Rock 99.2, which played American and British rock bands and helped develop a following for this new sound. DC-based photojournalist Valerie Plesch was living in Kabul at the time. “This was the radio station all of the ‘cool people’ were listening to. It was also where I heard about this hot new band, Kabul Dreams.”

The band’s first songs were in English. Then they released “Sadae Man,” their first song in Dari. “This was the song that put us on the map,” says Qardash. “I was in a cab one day, and it came up on the radio. I thought, I have made it.”

More songs followed. Their message of hope for the future energized young Afghans, and audiences grew, one as large as 2,000. Many songs featured standard rock themes of love and identity, but infused with the band’s experience of life in Afghanistan and always with a sense of celebration and painting a positive image of their country and its culture. At the same time, their music couldn’t avoid the political situation and the impact of war and oppression.

Increased popularity came with a cost. There were death threats. Security issues were making it difficult to organize events. “When you get a lot of people together, you are sitting duck targets,” explains Ahmed. “As time went on, more and more events got cancelled.” Qardash is more blunt. “We had to be more cautious and respectful of others. Otherwise, we might do something really stupid and you will be done, meaning you’ll be gone.”

To continue pursuing its music, Kabul Dreams would have to leave home. In 2014 the band resettled in Oakland, California and made its North American debut at the South by Southwest arts festival. But Afghanistan is never far from their hearts, as you can hear on their two albums, Plastic Words (2013) and Megalomaniacs (2017).

In recent months, Qardash and Ahmed have spoken out about recent events in Afghanistan (see below). “We don’t claim to have the answers,” says Qardash, “but we would like people to see Afghanistan in a different way, as a country of musicians, photographers, poets, painters, writers, and more. But it is super important to ask people to remember what happened in Afghanistan last August and know that it is still happening, has not changed, and is growing worse and worse. We have never seen hunger in our country like this. We don’t want to sound like we know the answers, but we can introduce people to organizations that we trust to help.”

Kabul Dreams appears at the One Journey Festival on June 25 at the National Cathedral. They will perform on the main stage, where you can hear their signature song Sadae Man and 2021’s politically inspired, Butcher of the City. They will also discuss their experiences and hopes for Afghanistan in the Storytelling Tent and share ways to help.

Kabul Dreams will be returning for a second year to the One Journey Festival on Saturday, June 24 at the Washington National Cathedral. You won't want to miss their rocking set! RSVP for free today!

Responding to Events in Afghanistan

We let Kabul Dream’s words speak for themselves about the situation in Afghanistan.

We are heartbroken, devastated, but most of all, we are angry. We are angry about everything that has unfolded in Afghanistan over the course of the last week, and over the last twenty years. We have never felt as abandoned, betrayed, and disappointed as we do today.

We stand with the women and men who are fighting for freedom. We stand with the families who are just trying to keep their loved ones safe. And we stand with the artists and activists who fear that their voices will ultimately be silenced. The people who deserve to tell their stories without polarization, and without being used as another piece of content. Because now more than ever, we need to be shouting from the rooftops.

Now more than ever, our voices need to be heard.

How You Can Help (vetted by Kabul Dreams):


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