Afghans Celebrate Music Festival, Amid Caution

Hundreds of Afghan musicians and performers are gathered in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif to mark an ancient New Year's celebration known as Nowruz.

The country's largest cultural festival in decades is also a triumph for musicians who were banned from performing by the Taliban.

But the celebration is bittersweet: The Taliban is on the rise, and a spike in crime on the country's roads means that merely getting to the festival poses risks of its own.

Singer Nematallah Kandahari made the two-day journey from the southern city of Kandahar, the birthplace and once the main stronghold of the Taliban. These days, Nematallah says he's able to play with his band freely in Kandahar. But he says that's not the case for his friends in neighboring Helmand province, where the Taliban is active.

There's only one group of musicians left there, he says, and they can perform only in the well guarded center of the provincial capital. It's a tough reminder of the old days, when some of Nematallah's bandmates were jailed and beaten. He says the Afghan music scene still hasn't recovered.

"You know, the Taliban didn't just try to stop music," Nematallah says. "They tried to cut it out from the roots. Now it's under the ground. And we've managed to lift it up only a little bit."

There are many obstacles to a music revival in a country that still lacks many of the basics. Most professional Afghan musicians have moved abroad, and local music stores don't seem to stock many Afghan songs. Most people want better-produced Bollywood and Western work.

But there are new opportunities.

Momenkhan Biltun has been playing tanboor - the Afghan sitar - for 50 years. He says he has more international gigs now than ever before. Inside his country he has more competition. But it's different, he says.

"When the Taliban regime finished, a new kind of music started," Biltun says. "It's not the old music."

Gregory Warner reported on Afghanistan as part of the International Reporting Project in Washington, D.C.

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