White City, the Little Afghanistan Rock Band That Can

White City was the first Western influenced band in post-war 2000’s Afghanistan, formed by people from all over the world. This March, Americans will experience the trio’s until now secret-to-the-Western-hemisphere rock music.

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What are you expecting from your first SXSW performance?

Ru: We’ve been fans of SXSW from afar for years. It’s one of our go-tos to find out about new and exciting creativity: arts, films and, of course, music. We know that we’re just a drop in the ocean, but if people are as enthusiastic as we are, it’ll be one hell of a show.

We don’t just do music. We’re film-makers and artists, also. Our show is a mixture of performance, poetry, film and animation as well as kick ass punk rock, of course. What we expect is to have the opportunity to show our slice of Afghanistan, of rock in Central Asia to one of the most exciting gatherings of artistic people in the world.
As for the reaction, though, we can’t predict that. Positive, negative, questioning or dismissive – as long as we get a reaction, we’re happy. We’re also hoping to make friends. This will be our first trip to America, so we’re looking forward to the chance to make some lasting connections.
Are you going sight seeing in America as well?
Ru: Of course! It’s only a short tour of three weeks, but we don’t intend on getting any sleep. We want to do it all, from the Statue of Liberty to the Texas State Capitol. But, first and foremost, we’d like to visit any famous music sites.

Were you ever afraid of how people would perceive your music when Afghanistan was still facing local political problems? Or do you think it’s never too early to change the local mood into a good message?

Ru: Never afraid. There are Afghan rock musicians who have received death threats, and people have even been killed for playing music in Afghanistan. We don’t ever want to make light of that, but we’re mostly keen for people to understand how open and welcoming people are in Afghanistan to music. The country has a long history of cultural music and is a melting pot of fusion in that way. What we found is that, as opposed to “forcing” our music on people, we acted as a platform or stepping stone for many to enjoy music in their own way, whether that be dancing, singing along or finding the encouragement and motivation to make their own music.

A big part of our mission touring Central Asian countries is to enable locals to put on shows. Often, there are people way more talented than we are, but because of financial or social constraints, they can’t play or enjoy music. In reply to that, we provide equipment and a safe space for young people to enjoy music. They can then take it from there.Just to anticipate a question we get quite often, to hand over to Ru….most people ask me what it’s like to be a woman frontperson in Afghanistan. As a 6 foot tall white girl, I have a very different experience in Afghanistan than many Afghan women. Western women are commonly thought of as a “third gender” – not quite a man, but also, not quite a woman. That actually lends me a lot of freedom to move around and do what I want to. But when I’m on stage, especially in front of Afghan girls, I really try and take that opportunity to show them that you can be a woman on stage without being a sex object. All they see is the Shakiras and Rihannas or even the Bollywood singers of this world – timid and exposed. I want to show them that they can lead on stage without sacrificing modesty or integrity.
How are you educating the world about Afghanistan’s positivity? Many people are unfamiliar with that part of the world or don’t know more than what we read in the media. There has to be another side of Afghanistan we don’t know.
Ru: There is! It’s a beautiful, rich country that deserves to be taken seriously, to be explored and not be dismissed as “medieval” or “backwards.” The learning, art, poetry and culture would put many “first world” countries to shame.
We know that words are cheap, so we try as much as we can to get out there, by motorbike mostly, and play in remote or cut-off areas. If we can show people a light-hearted video of us riding around Kabul or playing in an old Soviet cultural centre (see videos for “Perfect 10” and “Space Cadet”), it does so much more than just entertain. It shows normal Afghan people enjoying themselves, being compassionate, friendly, fun. That’s not a surprise for us. We live there, they’re our neighbours and our friends. But, sadly, it’s a surprise to many out there, who don’t know about the country.
All we see on the TV is dust and bombs. But did you know you can go skiing in Bamian and Badakhshan? There’s a national park with rare, protected animals like snow leopards and eagles? Did you know that Herat makes some of the best ice cream in Central Asia? Or that a girls climbing team practices just outside Kabul every week? All these things show a country that’s far more diverse than anyone might think.
How did the Sound Central festival come about, and was it difficult to put into action?
Ru: SCF11 came about from my frustrations with the lack of a real festival style event in Afghanistan. From 2006 to 2011, we had built the scene. Very slowly, brick by brick, amplifier by amplifier. In 2010, we hosted the country’s first ever battle of the bands. It was a hug success and after that, people wanted to see more.Instead of just doing a bigger battle of the bands, I wanted to explore a festival style event. From my years growing up in Australia, the Big Day Out was in its prime, and I was at the front of the mosh pit. I wanted Afghans to experience the same.

For sure, there was a lot of skepticism from the local community, and we had to do a lot of smooth talking with the local authroities to get them to not only “OK” the event but also give us security for the day itself.

With assistance from the international community, we held the 2011 event; eight bands in a day. It was such a success that we grew to 16 bands over three days in 2012 and 24 bands over four days in 2013. Over the three yearsm more than 4,000 Afghan youth have experienced music, theatre, film, poetry, skateboarding, graffiti, photography and break dancing, all in a safe environment.

2013 was also the year we launched the Womens Only Day. Female performers, female audience, female press. The only males present were the stage crew. This day was by far our biggest achievement.

You can find vids, photos and a lot more at soundcentralfestival.com

Some of your press, such as The Times of London feature, only discussed how you were a band in Afghanistan. But what if we looked at it another way and this wasn’t a big thing to people? What is awesomely special people would notice about you if you were a band in Brisbane or Los Angeles, and no one would have that “band from Afghanistan” selling point to world journalists?
Travka: It’s true, if we weren’t from Afghanistan, we might not have received the press we do. But we’d still be playing and still be playing in hard to reach places.
By trade, we’re a journalist, photographer and charity worker, so it’s unlikely we’d stay at home in London, Melbourne or Stockholm respectively. We have a very high energy show with a mix of aggressive punk/prog/stoner rock that you don’t find much of these days, especially with a female singer. But I think it’s unlikely that we’d exist as a band, if it weren’t for Afghanistan. It’s the experiences we had there that shaped us as people and as songwriters. In fact, Ru had given up on music when she went to Afghanistan – it took her experiences there to convince her to pick up a bass again!
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