Setting up Afghanistan's First Girl Group - the Burka Band

The idea of shooting an Afghan music video arose at a pop music workshop at the Goethe Institute in Kabul. Thomas Gross from the German newspaper DIE ZEIT tried to make contact with the band’s female singers.

The idea of shooting an Afghan music video arose at a pop music workshop at the Goethe Institute in Kabul. Thomas Gross from the German newspaper Die Zeit tried to make contact with the band’s female singers.

It is quite likely that insomniacs, early-risers and other unorthodox music television viewers recently thought they were hallucinating. There they were, minding their own business, watching a few killer barbie girls vying for screen time with hyperkinetic heavy metal dudes - the usual music tv thing - when all of a sudden the whole pop scene imploded, revealing a barren landscape filled with people leading meagre existences. On screen, images of an obviously female trio tinkering about with microphones and a drum kit were followed by flashes of street scenes from Kabul reminiscent of a hastily shot amateur video. It is impossible to see just who these women are because all three of them are wearing burkas.

‘I have to wear a burka’

In this media age, the irony of it all is that Afghanistan’s first pop group is actually faceless. ‘My mother wears a burka, my father wears it too, I have to wear a burka, the burka it is blue’. These are just some of the lyrics performed by the band in broken English to the rhythm of a stubborn drumbeat. It is also the only bit of personal information given. But the burka - which Afghan women have been obliged to wear since the victory of the Taliban - is not the only veil in this video: in an industry where journalists are usually overwhelmed with more information than they know what to do with, this video also features a veil that blocks communication and has to be drawn back. The singers can’t be reached by phone; only the most important people in Kabul have phones. And while there is an e-mail address by which the burka band can supposedly be reached in a rather roundabout way, my e-mail initially goes unanswered.

Setting up Afghanistan’s first girl group

Then one day, an answer pops up in my in-box: ‘Yes, it’s ironic,’ it reads. The writer goes on to say that the video was indeed intended to be a sort of play on the obligatory burka. ‘No never,’ is the answer given to the question as to whether some women are already wearing the burka like a costume in their day-to-day lives. And how does it feel to have passed such a milestone in setting up Afghanistan’s first girl group? ‘Actually we did it just for fun and we are not real singers’. This is certainly no chit-chat. The young woman from Kabul who doesn’t want to be named for fear of reprisals - let’s call her Faranaz - tells me in concise sentences that while officially it’s no longer obligatory to wear the burka, many women still do; that it is still unthinkable for a women without a burka to appear on television; that she’s heard of Madonna but as an amateur singer, can’t pass any judgement on her. In fact, Faranaz’s longest sentence is about fear: in it she says that while there is music in Afghanistan nowadays, a bomb exploded recently in the Paghman district killing two musicians and several guests at a party.

Secret shoot

To find out more about the casting of the burka band, it was necessary to contact German voluntary overseas workers. Frank Fenstermacher from the band A Certain Frank explains that the idea arose during a trip to the Panschir valley. Last October, the Goethe Institute invited Fenstermacher, his colleague Kurt Dahlke and the drummer Saskia von Klitzing to organise a workshop entitled ‘Pop music instruments and modern recording techniques’ in Kabul. There they got talking to a translator, who was the only woman in the workshop and immediately agreed to play the drums. There was astonishment all around: ‘you meet liberal people where you least expect them’. Writing the lyrics to ‘Burka Blue' was a spontaneous thing; it happened on a whim. The shoot was completed in a safe building protected by troops: ‘we were able to convince two women from the kitchens to join in for the video. And so Kabul’s version of Girls Aloud was born.’

A German-Afghan joint venture

In short, the song that is now being beamed into western living rooms (and is available as a 7” single in all well-stocked record shops) is a German-Afghan joint venture; an ad-hoc project with an element of fun. Now that’s all very well, but what use is it to anyone? This was certainly a question that went through the minds of several music television viewers who, from the comfort of their own sofas, were taken completely unawares by the minimalist sounds and images on their screens. The appearance of the ‘non-face’ of Afghanistan in an industry that thrives on faces raises a few questions: is it a good idea to connect the enforced archaism of the world in which most Afghan men and women still live with contemporary pop? Can stunts like this really act as a link to the Afghan women’s movement that existed in the country before the victory of the Taliban? Did the claim to equality that was hinted at by playing with this symbol of oppression really originate from women like Faranaz or did it come from the outside? And what happens when the overseas workers leave the country and take their good intentions with them?

‘I think that was it’

Whatever answers each of us come up with, our answers will certainly be western answers for a western world and of very little use to the teenagers and twenty-somethings in Afghanistan, whose day-to-day lives remain hidden behind both a veil of tradition and a media veil. ‘I think that was it,’ says Faranaz in her e-mail. She says that no other projects are planned, she has work to do and sends regards to her friends in Germany. Sounds like we’ll have to wait until 2013 for the next sign of pop life from Kabul when a peace Corps from the pan-European entertainment industry, headed by what will by then probably be a fossilised Pete Waterman, will set up camp in the city to search for Afghanistan’s pop idol.

© Thomas Groß

Source: Die Zeit, 7 July 2003, No. 29

If you want to listen to "Burka Blue", the song of the Burka Band ("My mother wears blue jeans now, and I am so suprised, the things are changing faster, I don`t know if its right...", click