Under Taliban, thriving Afghan music scene heads to silence

  • An Afghan musician plays the harmonium during a portrait in Kabul, Afghanistan, Thursday, Sept. 16, 2021. About a month after the Taliban seized power in Afghanistan, the music is starting to go quiet. The last time that the militant group ruled the country, in the late 1990s, it outright banned music. (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)

  • An Afghan musician poses for a portrait with his rubab in Kabul, Afghanistan, Thursday, Sept. 16, 2021. About a month after the Taliban seized power in Afghanistan, the music is starting to go quiet. The last time that the militant group ruled the country, in the late 1990s, it outright banned music. (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)

  • Dairas, or tambourines, piled up in a shop in Kabul’s Old City, Afghanistan, Sept. 14, 2021. (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)

    Dairas, or tambourines, piled up in a shop in Kabul’s Old City, Afghanistan, Tuesday, Sept. 14, 2021. About a month after the Taliban seized power in Afghanistan, the music is starting to go quiet. The last time that the militant group ruled the country, in the late 1990s, it outright banned music. (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)

  • An Afghan musician poses for a portrait with his dilruba in Kabul, Afghanistan, Saturday, Sept. 18, 2021. About a month after the Taliban seized power in Afghanistan, the music is starting to go quiet. The last time that the militant group ruled the country, in the late 1990s, it outright banned music. (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)

  • An Afghan musician holds a tabla during a portrait in Kabul, Afghanistan, Thursday, Sept. 16, 2021. About a month after the Taliban seized power in Afghanistan, the music is starting to go quiet. The last time that the militant group ruled the country, in the late 1990s, it outright banned music. (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)

  • DVDs of Afghan singers sit in a shop in Kabul, Afghanistan, Saturday, Sept. 18, 2021. About a month after the Taliban seized power in Afghanistan, the music is starting to go quiet. The last time that the militant group ruled the country, in the late 1990s, it outright banned music. (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)

  • Two men plug a TV in the empty fashion clothing shop owned by Afghan pop-star singer Aryana Sayeed, in Kabul, Afghanistan, Monday, Sept. 20, 2021. Sayeed decided to leave Afghanistan the day the Taliban took over Kabul. (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)

  • Afghan luthier Mohammad Ibrahim Afzali holds a bucket with pieces of a broken harmonium inside his workshop in Kabul, Afghanistan, Tuesday, Sept. 14, 2021. In mid-August, he put away his tools, broke the instruments left in the workshop and closed down. Now the 61-year-old sells chips and snacks to help feed his family of 13. (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)

KABUL, Afghanistan — A month after the Taliban seized power in Afghanistan, the music is going quiet.

The last time the militant group ruled the country, in the late 1990s, it outright banned music. So far this time, the government set up by the Taliban hasn’t taken that step officially. But already, musicians are afraid a ban will come, and some Taliban fighters on the ground have started enforcing rules on their own, harassing musicians and music venues.

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Many wedding halls are limiting music at their gatherings. Musicians are afraid to perform. At least one reported that Taliban fighters at one of the many checkpoints around the capital smashed his instrument. Drivers silence their radios whenever they see a Taliban checkpoint.

In the alleys of Kharabat, a neighborhood in Kabul’s Old City, families where music is a profession passed through generations are looking for ways to leave the country. The profession was already hit hard by Afghanistan’s foundering economy, along with the coronavirus pandemic, and some families now too fearful to work are selling off furniture to get by.

“The current situation is oppressive,” said Muzafar Bakhsh, a 21-year-old who played in a wedding band. His family had just sold off part of its belongings at Kabul’s new flea market, Chaman-e-Hozari. “We keep selling them … so we don’t die of starvation,” said Bakhsh, whose late grandfather was Ustad Rahim Bakhsh, a famous ustad — or maestro — of Afghan classical music.

Afghanistan has a strong musical tradition, influenced by Iranian and Indian classical music. It also has a thriving pop music scene, adding electronic instruments and dance beats to more traditional rhythms. Both have flourished in the past 20 years.

Asked whether the Taliban government will ban music again, spokesman Bilal Karimi told The Associated Press, “Right now, it is under review and when a final decision is made, the Islamic Emirate will announce it.”

But music venues are already feeling the pressure since the Taliban swept into Kabul on Aug. 15.

Wedding halls are usually scene to large gatherings with music and dancing, most often segregated between men’s and women’s sections. At three halls visited by the AP, staff said the same thing. Taliban fighters often show up, and although so far they haven’t objected to music, their presence is intimidating. Musicians refuse to show up.

Many musicians are applying for visas abroad.

In the family home of another ustad in Kharabat, everyone’s go-bag is packed, ready to leave when they can. In one room, a group of musicians was gathered on a recent day, drinking tea and discussing the situation. They shared photos and videos from their performances around the world — Moscow, Baku, New Delhi, Dubai, New York.

“Musicians do not belong here anymore. We must leave. The love and affection of the last years are gone,” said a drum player, whose career has spanned 35 years and who is the master of a leading music education center in Kabul. Like many other musicians, he spoke on condition he not be named, fearing reprisals from the Taliban.

Another musician in the room said the Taliban broke a keyboard worth $3,000 when they saw it in his car as he crossed through a checkpoint. Others said they were shipping their most valuable instruments outside the country or hiding them. One had dismantled his tabla — a type of drum — and hidden the parts in different locations. Another buried his rebab, a stringed instrument, in his courtyard. Some said they hid instruments behind false walls.

Mohammed Ibrahim Afzali once ran the family business repairing musical instruments. In mid-August, he put away his tools, broke the instruments left in the workshop and closed down. Now the 61-year-old sells chips and snacks to help feed his family of 13.

“I made this tiny shop. God is merciful, and we will find a piece of bread,” he said.

One who managed to leave already is Aryana Sayeed, a top female pop star who was also a judge on the TV talent show, “The Voice of Afghanistan.” Already used to death threats by Islamic hard-liners, Sayeed decided to escape the day the Taliban took over Kabul.

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“I had to survive and be the voice for other women in Afghanistan,” said Sayeed, now in Istanbul. She said she was asking Turkish authorities to help other musicians get out of her homeland. “The Taliban are not friends of Afghanistan, they are our enemies. Only enemies would want to destroy your history and your music,” she said.

Associated Press writer Ayse Wieting in Istanbul contributed to this report.

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