Travis Beard, the Founder of Sound Central Festival, about the hurdles of hosting a music festival in Afghanistan.
The idea of Sound Central Festival was born from a night in Kabul, at a local restaurant, filled with a healthy mix of locals and expats, all up for some good rocking music, back in 2009. It was a Battle of the Bands that I had organized for kicks. 6 Kabul based bands rocking the night out to a enthusiastic crowd and 3 tipsy judges.
After the results of a draw between Kabul Dreams and White City was announced, we sat around chatting about what to do next. It was only a matter of time before the penny dropped and I suggested that this same model could be expanded into a festival format.
It took 2 years to bring that dream to fruition. The first year no one even believed me when I told them there was a festival coming up in 3 months and they needed to practice. In the end lack of faith and support from groups that thought I was mad, led to the 2010 festival being put back on the shelve.
In late 2010 we received news that there were new grants being handed out for cultural activities that included Afghan participation. This was a golden time when the mentality of the foreign presence was not in ‘withdrawal mode’ Kabul and they still believed in spending funds on projects that didn’t equate into nice rounded numbers that slot into annual reports.
Considering our lack of previous grant history we were pleasantly surprised to hear that we had won an award to host the festival. Now all we had to do was learn how to host the damn thing. I contacted several festival organisers in the West and asked them for mentorship on how to make a music festival in a 3rd world country. There advice was concise, but a lot of it was not relative to where we were, more relative to a location where noise pollution and location permissions were the biggest challenges at hand.
Our first hurdle was where to host the festival. We started with the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul. A hotel built in the 60s with a rich history of ‘hip’ musical performances in the 60s and 70s. The management seemed keen and we were already imagining jumping in the pool for the after party. Unfortunately in January the hotel was attacked by the Taliban and held siege for ½ a day, resulting in the death of a number of people. Sadly we crossed the Intercon’ off the list.
The next location we aimed for was agricultural fair grounds within the city. The grounds were massive and the secure perimeter meant that we could control the 5000 capacity easily. We spent 3 months climbing and falling from the snake and ladders game; which we call the ‘Ministry Shuffle’. Trying to get 570 different people to sign off on volumes of paperwork that needed to be stamped, signed and photocopied. At some point we lost trace of the originals and were in this labyrinth of red tape and corruption.
Counting down to the last 2 weeks of the festival, Kabul was hit by a wave of attacks. First it was a brash attack on the US Embassy and ISAF HQ from an abandoned construction site that lasted for 24 hours. Later that week the ex-president, Rabbani was assassinated by a suicide bomber, who hid an explosive device in his turban. Lastly, another vehicle borne suicide bomber hit the square just down from the US Embassy, killing innocent bystanders.
Besides the obvious interruptions this made to our planning it also sent a wave of paranoia across the world to all the international artists that we had lined up for the festival. The former drummer of NIN and Amanda Palmer [with his tickets in hand] pulled out. The only Iraqi metal band to ever make a name for themselves and get out of Iraq, pulled out. Bands from the US all the way to the UK made excuses for not being able to make it.
Ironically the bands that did commit and made it to Kabul were from the region: Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. With a small but dedicated troop from Australia, we had 4 international acts on their way and 4 local acts ready. We had the makings of a festival….
With only 3 days to the festival we still did not have the green light from ministries. We decided to execute Plan G and hire Barbur Gardens. A majestic garden built by the former King Barbur.
We went to the only sound company in Kabul and rented a war torn sound system that was powered by exposed wires, that gave everyone from my brother [the sound engineer] to the singers electric shocks.
There was a myriad of other smaller obstacles that haunted us in these last days:
Bribing the local police to cordon off the block around the venue. Question is always: How much does one pay for such a request?
500 T-shirts ordered with the spelling mistake: Sound Gentral.
Generators arriving at the festival with no operator or fuel.
A custom built stage that was 1 foot too short and therefore had to be propped up with bricks to make it level with the rest of the in-house stage.
Hiring a bunch of locals to steward for the festival, not realizing they had no idea of the concept; to steward.
Hiring a one armed man as the security between audience and greenroom.
One of the largest hurdles to tackle was the promotion of the event. In an environment where security is such an issue, how do we tell the right people to come to the event and how do we keep this information from the wrong people?
We took on the stealth approach and in a sense created the first ever stealth fest. A music festival that we did not promote the date or location until 24 hours before the event. The teaser TV commercials were hyped up with lots of RnR imagery, but lacked the fundamental details of where and when the festival was.
What were we to do? Make an open invitation to all parties present in this conflict canvas? Give elements not in tune with our musical beliefs, time to plan an attack?
No, our main goal of this project, was to make a successful and incident free event, so that we could do it again in 2012 and eventually turn it into a annual happening.
On the day of the festival, we released the location and time through the countries biggest TV and Radio Broadcaster. We had a very enthusiastic and dedicated and small crowd of 500 turn out. 8 bands rocked the historic gardens for 7 hours and the event was covered by every major news agency around the world. We had a mix of head-banging youth, curious elders and at least 20% female audience, that in itself was historical.
We had pulled off the first alternative musical festival in Afghanistan’s history and planted a seed that has now grown into an annual event. This years festival will have more bands, more audience, more days, more performing arts and of course more hurdles to overcome.
written by Travis Beard: Founder of Sound Central Festival