An Unexpected Festival Paints A Different Version Of Kabul

In a land where music was once banned, the Sound Central alternative arts and music festival is in its third year of showcasing the growing cultural scene in Afghanistan. Several thousand Afghans are attending this year's festival featuring live music, poetry, short films, painting and skateboarding.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Several thousand young Afghans are attending a music and arts festival of their own this week in Kabul. NPR's Sean Carberry sent this postcard from the third annual Sound Central Alternative Music and Arts Festival.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Chanting in foreign language)

SEAN CARBERRY, BYLINE: While this is going on outside the French Cultural Center in Kabul...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC AND CHEERING)

CARBERRY: ...this is going on inside.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CARBERRY: The Afghan metal band District Unknown has the standing room crowd in a frenzy. Shirtless musicians stage diving and strutting like Metallica in front of a mixed-gender audience is not what most people expect to see in Kabul.

QODRATOLLAH RAJAVI: This is, you know, a shock in Afghanistan.

CARBERRY: Qodratollah Rajavi was born and raised in Iran and his family moved back to Kabul eight months ago.

RAJAVI: I've never experienced any live performance in my life, and I really enjoyed it.

CARBERRY: Rajavi looks in awe at all the activity in the courtyard.

PARADISE: (Singing in foreign language)

CARBERRY: On the outside stage, DJs and Afghan hip-hop artists like Paradise perform as young Afghans twist, hop and spin around in break dance moves.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLICKING)

CARBERRY: Graffiti artists paint giant murals, including one of woman's body. That's definitely not something you're likely to see in Kabul.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CARBERRY: But, the main action is on the inside stage, where the audience is rocking out to Afghan bands like Morcha, Kabul Dreams, or in this case, White Page. They are one of the younger metal bands in Kabul. Hojat Hamid is the lead guitar player. He also plays violin in Afghanistan's Youth Orchestra.

HOJAT HAMID: White Page is a new page for Afghanistan, the page after all the black pages after war.

CARBERRY: He says playing the festival is a source of pride.

HAMID: The world, if could see, they would see they will see the changes in Afghanistan.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CARBERRY: They would also see how massive an undertaking this festival is for a country where it can be difficult enough to track down a set of guitar strings, let alone assemble a complex sound system.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Do you need me on the stage?

CARBERRY: Yet, the event featuring 30 bands, 20 visual artists, other performers, both Afghan and expat, is running pretty smoothly.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (unintelligible) 2013.

CARBERRY: After a blistering set by his band White City, I catch up with Australian guitarist Travis Beard, who founded the Sound Central Festival three years ago. He says it takes him the better part of a year to piece together the funding, artists and other logistics to make the festival happen.

TRAVIS BEARD: The kids want this. They're hungry for it, they're thirsty for it, and all we're doing is providing that place for them to enjoy this alternative type of music and arts.

CARBERRY: He says it's an opportunity for youth to both escape the challenges of daily life in Afghanistan and to express themselves.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Now we're going to do some crazy stuff.

CARBERRY: And there's certainly no lack of expression going on here. Sean Carberry, NPR News, Kabul.

SIMON: This is NPR News.

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