Emblazoned across Travis Beard’s black t-shirt are the words ‘Fuck you: I’m from Frankston’. I find him on Facebook, his current city listed as Kabul, Afghanistan. This is the guy dubbed Afghanistan’s godfather of rock?
After a brief visit in 2001 for a photojournalism assignment, Beard, now thirty-nine, became fixated on returning. He found volunteer work with the NGO International News on Afghanistan and moved to Kabul in 2006. Making music was not initially on his agenda, rather, a way to relieve the tension of living in a fortified city.
On your off days, Beard says, “you wanted to get outside the compound wall, you wanted to have some fun [whether] that meant you got on your motorcycle, rocked out with your band or defaced public property with a spray can. It gave you something to do.”
More than “being a bunch of hooligans,” Beard’s projects also aimed to engage Afghanistan’s youth, who form sixty percent of the population. During his eight years in Kabul, Beard joined punk rock band White City; formed Pit Panther Party, an experimental three-piece; mentored District Unknown, Afghanistan’s first heavy metal band; ran graffiti workshops; co-founded the Kabul Knights Motorcycle Club and Skateistan, Afghanistan’s first skateboarding school. Sound Central, his proudest achievement, was Afghanistan’s first alternative music and arts festival. Held annually between 2011 and 2013, it was the first music festival the country had seen in thirty years, after all non-traditional music was banned under the Taliban.
When we talk Beard is editing his documentary Martyrs of Metal, which tracks the early days of District Unknown.
“We are the only fucking heavy metal band in Afghanistan,” declares drummer Pedram Foushanji in the film’s trailer. The young men, aged in their twenties, posture like rock stars with all the trimmings; big hair, bling, black clothes.
“No offence, but they sounded absolutely terrible,” Beard cuts in.
Terrible or not, District Unknown had an energy that distinguished them from other bands in the fledgling scene.
“They were the most confrontational, the most political in their messaging; they really pushed it,” says Beard, who noticed how their performances – loud and raw – sucked the crowd in.
“The other bands were cool; they had their songs sounding good, but they were just dead on stage.”
Beard brought the original line-up together by introducing brothers Qasem and Pedram Foushanji to cousins Lemar Saifullah and Qais Shaqasi: four Afghans interested in heavy metal. Since then the band has had several incarnations, with Yusef ‘Yo Khalifa’ Ahmad Shah and Sulleiman Omar ultimately replacing Lemar and Qais in the core group.
On 7 July 2008, a car bomb exploded at the gates of the Indian embassy in Kabul, where Qasem happened to be collecting a visa. Later he described the smoke, the blood, seeing the dead and injured. The experience inspired the track ‘Two seconds after the blast’.
“In those two seconds [after the explosion] you don’t even know what happened. That moment, those two seconds are like being conscious after death,” Qasem told MTV.
It’s hard to imagine the impact of such experiences, which are in stark contrast to the freedoms Beard experienced as a dreadlocked teenager growing up in Australia.
“The things that I got to experience musically and artistically, a lot of Afghans never had that chance…they haven’t had the chance to just be kids at play” he says.
A few weeks after our conversation a suicide bomber blew himself up during a theatre performance at the Institut Francais d’Afghanistan, where Sound Central was held in 2012 And 2013. The teenaged boy killed himself and a young german man during a performance called After the Explosion. Amateur footage shows the performers moving kabuki style around the stage. There’s a loud bang and a few seconds of bewildered silence. A couple of witnesses told the press they’d initially thought it was part of the performance.
“It’s one of the few places young Afghan people can just hang out and express themselves in a safe place. I hate that’s been taken away,” posted White City’s lead singer Ru Owen.
As for District Unknown, it’s hard to imagine their future. Although they released their first album ‘Anatomy of a 24-hour Lifetime’ in August 2014, they’re no longer living in the same county. Beard moved to Beirut, Pedram and Sulleiman are in the US, while Yusef’s in the UK. Qasem, still in Kabul, wants to leave.
Hope rests with Martyrs of Metal and the prospect that, like the 2007 documentary Heavy Metal in Baghdad brought fame for Iraqi thrash metal band Acrassicauda, District Unknown might become another Metallica story.
Beard is circumspect. “You can’t have a band when people are in different countries. [White City] technically still exists because we can fly to x places in the world to play gigs. Being on the passports with visa restrictions like [District Unknown] have, they can’t move around.”
For Qasem it must be excruciating to watch his city slide back into insecurity. As he told the audience during a speech in 2014: “In general, this lovely country is a disaster and I love it.”
This story first appeared in The Big Issue (No. 477, 6-19 February 2015)