Afghans Celebrate Music Festival, Amid Caution Afghan musicians and performers gather in Mazar-i-Sharif to mark an ancient New Year's celebration known as Nowruz. The country's largest cultural festival in decades is a triumph for musicians who were banned from performing by the Taliban. But the celebration has risks.
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Afghans Celebrate Music Festival, Amid Caution

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Afghans Celebrate Music Festival, Amid Caution

Afghans Celebrate Music Festival, Amid Caution

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Across central Asia today, people are celebrating the holiday of Nowruz. It's a combination of New Year's and the beginning of spring. In the city of Mazar-i-Sharif in northern Afghanistan, this year's celebration includes a huge gathering of musicians, Afghanistan's largest in more than 20 years.

Gregory Warner reports that under the Taliban all musical performance was banned, so the event is a celebration of more than just the change of seasons.

GREGORY WARNER: There's a famous Afghan song about the festival of Nowruz.

Unidentified Man: (Singing) (Foreign language spoken)

WARNER: Let's go to Mazar, go the lyrics, and look at the red tulips. Today it's hard to find the flower in the city, but there is plenty of music. In Mazar's only cinema there's a mostly full house and an overflow of crowd dances around loud speakers outside.

(Soundbite of music)

WARNER: Singer Nematallah Kandahari made the two-day journey here from the southern city of Kandahar, the birthplace and once the main stronghold of the Taliban. These days, Nematallah says he is 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 band mates were jailed and beaten. He says the Afghan music scene still hasn't recovered.

Mr. NEMATALLAH KANDAHARI (Musician): (Through Translator) The Taliban did not just stop the music. They tried to cut it out from the roots. Now it's under the ground and we have managed to lift it up only a little bit.

(Soundbite of music)

WARNER: There are many obstacles to a musical revival in a country that still lacks many of the basics. Most professional Afghan musicians don't live here now and local music stores don't seem to stock many Afghan songs. People want better produced Bollywood and Western work, but there are new opportunities.

Mr. MOMENKHAN BILTUN (Musician): (Through translator) When the Taliban regime finished, a new kind of music started. It's not the old music.

WARNER: 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.

Mr. BILTUN: (Through translator) In Taliban time there was no music, and now there's lots and lots of different music.

WARNER: A few blocks from the festival crowd, local musicians gather on Boktari(ph) Street. It's where you go for tanboor lessons or to hire a band for your wedding. Musicians who fled the Taliban era have come back here with new ideas. Thirty-year-old Muses Savri(ph) is from Mazar. The style he's singing in today's festival he learned as a refugee in Pakistan.

Mr. MUSES SAVRI(ph) (Musician): (Through translator) I used to be no good as a musician, then I get to Pakistan where there is peace, people were friendly. Here in Afghanistan, people were shooting guns, so how can you learn music in this condition?

WARNER: The Pakistani style that Savri is singing at today's festival is described as an Islamic devotional music called Qawwalli. It's uses a different scale than traditional Afghan music.

Mr. SAVRI: (Singing) (Foreign language spoken)

WARNER: Savri is practical. He likes traditional music, but if he wants to make money, he brings his Casio keyboard and keeps it Western.

For NPR News, I'm Gregory Warner in Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan.

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