In a country where some see Western cultural influences as evil, a talent show has fans but critics too.
By Bruce Wallace, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
March 13, 2008
KABUL, AFGHANISTAN -- To a rumbling bass line and the essential mirror ball spinning overhead, nine young contestants spill nervously out from behind the curtain. The audience is mostly young men who have been squirming in their seats waiting for the show to begin. But there are young women too, in lipstick, sneakers and scarves, shivering against the winter chill that penetrates the Kabul wedding hall.
Every Thursday afternoon, this second-floor ballroom is converted into a television set for the recording of "Afghan Star," the country's version of the ubiquitous pop music talent show.
Different culture. Same template: Wannabe singers, a panel of three judges and a host channeling his inner Ryan Seacrest. And just like the contestants on "American Idol" or Any Idol Anywhere, the young Afghan contestants know that how you look can matter as much as how you belt out pop versions of Afghan standards.
So there's a singer wearing an electric-looking white suit and pink tie and another in a black leather jacket. Two more come out in traditional dress with formal, pointed shoes, looking like they might stick around to sing at the next wedding. One of the two female contestants wears jeans and a head scarf; the other is swathed hair-to-toe in bright red fabric.
The clashing fashion, from traditional Afghan to retro rocker, underscores the cultural mash-up that is modern Afghanistan. Since the Taliban's ban on music, television programs and other art forms was lifted when the fundamentalist Islamic group was chased from power in 2001, a wave of foreign culture has washed over the country, reviving music, bringing pirated Hollywood DVDs to downtown shops, and introducing programs as varied as South Korean dramas and "24" on the country's burgeoning private television channels.
Many Afghans have welcomed the disorienting swirl of this cultural revolution as a sign of the country's modernization, but others are alarmed by what they see as the infusion of a foreign virus into their culture -- a split that risks confrontation between generations and can pit the values of rural areas against a rising cosmopolitan ethos in the cities.
"There are tensions because some of these shows -- like the Indian serials -- are very hard for fathers to sit down and watch with their daughters," said Latif Ahmadi, the head of Afghan Film, the agency that has resumed making feature films in the country. "In 15 years, it will be different. But at the moment, these changes still frighten some people."
In recent weeks, some conservative politicians have joined the influential Ulema Council, composed of Islamic scholars, in threatening to seek to strip broadcasting licenses from private television operators unless they curb "immoral" programming.
"There has been a huge change since the Taliban regime went, and many people don't like what they see on TV," says Sherin Aqa Manawi, deputy head of the Ulema Council. "They think their kids are wasting time or being influenced by bad behavior."
But Manawi argues that religious leaders are being used by politicians who are unhappy about being mocked on satirical television shows or scrutinized by current affairs investigations.
"Religious leaders do not want to close them down; it's just a request to change some of the programs," he said. "We need to find something between what it was like under the Taliban and what we have now."
If culture is a front line in the battle to define the kind of Afghanistan that emerges in the next few years, then "Afghan Star" is one of the trenches. Produced by Tolo TV, the most dynamic of the new broadcasters that arose to meet the pent-up demand for entertainment, the show has developed a loyal audience in the three years since it first aired.
This year's edition attracted 2,000 contestants. Most sing Afghan songs, says Jawad Karimi, a musician who helps record the backing tracks from a tiny studio in Kabul, the capital. Karimi is a singer himself, with a CD called "Asheqaan" released last year.
"I write songs mostly about love," said Karimi, 36, who returned with his wife in 2006 after spending 14 years in Tajikistan, where his two sons remain for safety. "I sing some songs about my country and love for my countrymen, but not about politics."
He doesn't even want to be asked questions about the resurgent Taliban. Being a musician in Afghanistan "is dangerous," he said.
There is tight security at the "Afghan Star" taping -- a Tolo VJ was forced to flee the country in 2006 after being repeatedly threatened -- but it doesn't deter spectators such as 20-year-old Ahmad Jawad, who is sitting up front. He sees himself as a singer too. Has plans to try out for "Afghan Star" next year.
As a young teenager during Taliban times, he found a small room where he could sing without getting caught, recording his voice on a cassette player with a small microphone.
"I never imagined I would attend something as beautiful as this show," he said.
Jawad says his mother cannot sing at all, but that she encourages his ambitions.
"There is no problem in Kabul with 'Afghan Star,' " he said, his shoulder-length hair shaking vigorously. "Everybody watches. There may be some problems in the provinces. But the majority of people are proud of it."
"People need music, and 90% of Afghans like the show," echoed Nazir Khara, one of the three judges, who spent the Taliban years working in the Dutch music industry.
"Our show is encouraging young people to go into music," said Khara, an ebullient if aging rocker in a leather jacket. "It's a symbol of the new Afghanistan."
The passion is obvious. Tensions grow as the names are called of contestants who have survived the viewer voting by phone or text message to reach the next round. They almost bounce off stage with relief.
Finally, only Asan Mistan is left. His journey is over. The judges all profess surprise that the voters ejected him, and encourage him to keep working hard. The host offers him the chance to say some final words, and Mistan thanks all those who have voted for him.
"In the future I will sing," he promises them. "Beautiful songs."