Fly Like An Eagle

The Power of Music in Afghanistan

Music is one of the most fundamental forms of human, and even non-human, communication. Many scientists believe early humans sang before they could speak.

We all know how powerful music is even if we are not particularly fans. It expresses our joy as well as pain, represents our triumphs as well as healing our sorrows, suffering and defeat. It can take ideas and transform them into action. If, as the African American playwright and documentarian Toni Cade Bambara so well put it, the role of the artist is to make revolution irresistible, musicians play their part better than most artists.

Because of its importance to human culture, music has been recognized as a fundamental and inalienable human right for as long as human rights have been thought about and codified at the international level. Of course in the United States it is recognized as part of the First Amendment’s free speech clause; at the international level music is part of the rights that are eligible to every human being as codified in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, specifically article 27, which states that all people are entitled to participate in the cultural life of their communities. But that is just the first of many fundamental rights attached to music and enjoyed by the people who create, record and perform it.

In reality, unfortunately, music has always been repressed when it doesn’t conform to the broader mores or the power structure of a culture or country. Musicians may be celebrated when they reinforce the existing power structure or when they help provide the soundtrack to revolution. But when they’re challenging still hegemonic ideas or practices, musicians are quite often demonized, attacked, persecuted, arrested and prosecuted, exiled, and far too often imprisoned, tortured and killed.

The United States, and American culture more broadly, has not been immune to the persecution of musicians. Those musicians holding unpopular views, especially progressive views regarding race and gender and sexuality, have often been attacked and censored. Whether it’s heavy metal or hip hop, in the last 40 years not only conservatives but moderates have banded together to try to silence musicians and their artistic creation. This is most famously, or infamously, exemplified by the creation of the Parents Music Resource Center in 1985, which infamously went after both metal and rap but wound up doing little more than making them ever more popular with young people, who saw that warning explicit lyrics sticker as the gateway to ideas and sounds to which they knew they were supposed to be listening.

Afghanistan offers a fascinating series of examples of how complicated the realization of the right to musical expression is. On the one hand, Afghanistan has an incredibly long and rich musical culture going back thousands of years. Indeed in this context the arrival of Islam, rather than limiting it, led to an explosion of productivity just as it did across the Muslim world. While there is always been a strain of Islamic dogma that felt any kind of music outside of a very limited kind of singing and drumming in praise of God or the prophet Muhammad would lead men astray from their religious obligations and belief and thus had to be prohibited, in practice the vast majority of Muslims for the entirety of Muslim history have created, performed, and consumed music as one of their primary cultural activities. This has continued, indeed, right to the present day, not only with innumerable forms of secular popular music across the dozens of societies and hundreds of cultures in the Muslim world, but also in terms of expansive kinds of religious music which have become world famous today.

Nevertheless, the more austere and extreme forms of religious expression in Islam have remained implacably opposed to music, sometimes violently so (albeit, often precisely because, in the words of Pakistani rock star Salman Ahmad of the group Junoon, because “they know we’re their competition”). In countries following these more austere forms of orthodox Sunni belief, especially in the Persian Gulf and particularly Saudi Arabia, music was highly constricted at the official level. In popular culture this never really was the case but it was very difficult in many places for music to be openly performed, especially secular music and even more so music performed by women.

It is worth noting that rather than highlighting some atavistic or backwards nature of Islam, these prohibitions are quite modern and even contemporary. They can be seen as part of a reaction against a Western, often colonially imposed, modern political and cultural system in which traditional local cultures were devalued and even denigrated which in turn promoted the kinds of extremist backlash that we see today with the Taliban and their supporters in countries like Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and elsewhere.

The Taliban were certainly not fans of music and under their rule in the 1990s until 2001 it was almost impossible to hear music performed publicly, even though people continued to do so in private when and where they could safely do so. But many musicians were beaten, jailed and even executed.

In that regard, one of the few bright spots to emerge out of the US invasion and occupation of Afghanistan after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, was the open flowering of Afghanistan’s incredibly rich musical culture again. Almost immediately upon the demise of the Taliban government musicians began to appear in public and music began to be heard everywhere. Within a few years many television programs had emerged, most famously Afghan Star, which was a local version of the idol series which became one of the country’s most popular programs and produced several major stars during its time. Workshops and highly gifted artisans began producing traditional instruments like the rabab, singers began singing the once ubiquitous Sufi lyrics of Rumi and Hafiz and their Afghan counterparts, the National Symphony Orchestra became an international phenomenon that toured the world, and the Afghan National Institute for Music saw hundreds of pupils come through it in the last 20 years and many young virtuosos emerge. There was even Afghan heavy metal and hip hop with some artists achieving a high level of sophistication and professionalism, if not the kind of success they’re counterparts have enjoyed in other Muslim countries with more developed youth music scenes.

Into this mix entered my dear friend Lanny Cordola. One of the seminal lords of the sunset strip who helped define the era of ’80s metal that came out of Los Angeles as epitomized by bands like Guns n’ Roses, Ratt, Poison, Motley Cru and other hair metal super groups, Lanny was always much more than the sum of his hair. He was not only a virtuoso guitarist, but one who was deeply interested in the relationship between music and religion and spirituality as well as in combining the rock and roll he loved with instruments and styles and sounds from other cultures. In this manner, while far less known than some of the more famous collaborations between Western rock artists like Peter Gabriel, David Byrne, Ry Cooder and others with musicians from the global south, Lanny was still one of the first to do so in a serious and studious manner.

Even as his life led him to work with some of the biggest names in popular music and tour the world doing so, he always felt there was something more for him to be using his talents to advance. At this moment he was in the midst of a slow – and at points, not so slow — descent into addiction and despair with a level of detail and candor he hoped never to tell publicly while his mother still lived (and she’s still alive). Yet even as he became more and more disillusioned with the music he had to create and perform to make a living, and turned to the usual musicians’ trifecta to numb the pain — drugs, booze and sex — his soul kept searching for a song to latch onto, one that could bring him back to a place of hope and redirection.

“I had lots of knowledge but no wisdom; an encyclopedia of facts but no harmony. I thought I knew so much, but the truth of the matter was that I knew nothing. As I began the painful process of self-discovery, a song, and an artist, finally come into view and ultimately took over my consciousness: John Coltrane and his ‘Love Supreme. Pakistan began to beckon, and after reading Greg Mortenson’s (then) celebrated Three Cups of Tea, about how he started a school in a remote corner of Pakistan to support a community that had taken him in and befriended him, I similarly thought that perhaps I could create a music school for the most marginalized citizens of the country. I was committed to becoming what I termed a ‘sonic peacemaker,’ using music to bring a message of peace, and education, that could create new forms of brotherhood against the violence, arrogance and hubris displayed by so many in power on every side, especially vis-à-vis young people.”

While Lanny was moving from the rock n roll life to Coltrane, the parents of the girls who would form the heart of the miraculous love kids recount the almost indescribable fear and then paradoxical and ultimately cruel optimism generated by the US invasion, the toppling of Taliban rule, and the installation of what would become a two decade long occupation that always looked far more fragile when viewed through Afghan eyes than it did through the eyes of successive US administrations and their viceroys and generals and commentariat back home.

As most every student in his school was born during this decade, we see how the hopes, fears, and disappointments of life under the American imposed and (mis)ruled “New and Democratic” Afghanistan, and the constant presence of indiscriminate and too often horrifically deadly Taliban violence throughout Kabul, would define the lives of these families, and almost all Afghan people. But while LA and Kabul were already intersecting in ways no one yet understood, by 2006 Lanny had already determined that he needed to move outside the United States in order to help some of the people who were the most victimized by the very system that made his life and career possible.

The opportunity finally presented itself in 2010 when he determined to visit Pakistan with his friend, musician turned disaster specialist Todd Shea, who armed with experience gained in working in New Orleans after Katrina and Haiti in the aftermath of its massive earthquake earlier that year, decided to go to Pakistan to help with recovery and reconstruction efforts in the Indus River valley. It was there, amidst such scenes of devastation, and particularly seeing the sheer scale of suffering endured by hundreds of thousands of children around him whose lives and families were carried away by the floods, that Lanny realized this particular part of the world was a place where he could help make a difference. At that point “Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan became my Coltrane for Pakistan, just as Afghanistan’s greatest singer, Ahmad Zahir, would play a similar role for me when I arrived there.”

Through connections facilitated by American and Pakistani friends who knew the country’s music industry, Lanny met some of the country’s biggest stars. One in particular, Atif Aslam, who would soon be the country’s premier pop singer, saw the power in Lanny’s story and connections and together they would soon collaborate with Lanny’s long-time friends Slash, Duff McKagen and Matt Sorum of Guns N’ Roses, to do a benefit concert in New York.

With Atif the model was shaped bringing together a well-known artist from the region with Lanny’s rockstar friends to collaborate on music that would both blend cultures and raise awareness of the plight of children across the region. What he hadn’t figured out yet was that in the end it was the children themselves who would be the agents of the music and the change it envisioned.

That all changed on September 8, 2012, when Lanny read a New York Times article on a Taliban suicide bombing in the heart of Kabul that killed somewhere between 8 and 12 people, at least 6 of them children, among them two young sisters, Parwana and Khorshid. “I didn’t understand why at the time, but I was moved at the deepest depths of my soul. I knew that soon enough, I’d visit that spot where they died, and help their families, whoever they were, in whatever way I could. Not surprisingly, most everyone I knew thought I was crazy. But I thought they were all crazy for caring so little for people who’d suffered so much because of what our own government did.” Lanny returned several more times to Pakistan between 2012 and 2014, when he finally had the connections to get a visa to go to Afghanistan.

On March 6, 2014 – the anniversary of his grandmother’s passing — Lanny arrived to Afghanistan and one of the first kids I met were Parwana and Khorshid’s little sister, Beshta. “Two days later, on International Women’s Day, I met Mursal, who was then just 10. She was the ‘lucky’ sister of Parwana and Khorshid, who was on the other side of the entrance to the International Security Assistance Force or ISAF when the bomb exploded that killed them. Mursal and Beshta were living with their family in Shuda, on the outskirts of Kabul on the top of a hill in a very small home without running water or a bathroom. As I came to learn later her name means messenger, prophet, ambassador, one who is on a mission.

“The girl’s father had recently left the family due to his drug addiction, joblessness and violent outbursts. I asked her mother what I could do and she said, please help my kids have a better future. This coming from a woman who had lost 6 of her 12 children to poverty, war, terror and other forms of extreme violence. I made the promise and returned in June of 2015. With the funds I raised in the US the family moved into their first secure home and Mursal and her brother and sister began studies in a private school. I also brought a guitar with me and Mursal’s eyes lit up. I asked if she’d like to learn how to play it. When she said, ‘Yes’ our first ‘Girl with a Guitar’ was born. Soon enough she was the top guitar girl and leader of over a hundred kids — mostly girls — learning music, English and other valuable life skills. Mursal was on a mission. And a testament to the immaculate power of Love and Music.”

The bond forged between Lanny and the first group of girls who would compose the Miraculous Love Kids was deep but continually tested. It could not be otherwise – an American guitar player with no history in Afghanistan coming into the country and literally driving finding young kids, especially girls, on the street and befriending them – well, today we don’t need to imagine what nefariousness could have been beneath the smiling veneer. Knowing this, Lanny from the start enlisted the help of Afghan friends and the parents of the first girls. The parents, or the guardians, were approached, the purpose of the school was explained, and they were invited to come visit and see if they felt it was a safe space for their children.

As Lanny puts it, “Mursal, Beshta and I made this little trinity and we did our best to get as many girls off the street as possible. I raised $10,000 over year and a half, and the day I returned, on June 15, 2015, Mursal’s family moved into a new house and the kids started school. And I formally opened the MLKs studio. What started as five students within a month became thirty, within 3 months 60, and at the moment Covid hit and shut us down in early 2020 we had over 200 students.”

Almost without fail, the parents became regulars, brothers as well as sisters began to learn English, math and other subjects as well as music, and a community emerged, albeit it in fits and starts, that would grow significantly in the five years before the Taliban waltzed into Kabul. But families facing extreme poverty, violence, addiction, abandonment and even hunger are  always going to experienced problems that threaten the ability of their children to participate. Whether it’s abusive fathers (or uncles), drug-addicted or even trafficked mothers and sisters, predatory relatives or neighbors, or the need to be on the street making whatever meagre income will enable a bit more bread or beans for the evening’s – and usually day’s only — meal, school often took second place to the exigencies of the moment in Kabul, especially for girls.

The stories behind this reality become clear in the conversations and interlocking dialogs between Lanny and the core group of female students at the MLKs, today aged between 4 and 19. Usually but not always in harmony, sometimes in intense and sustained dissonance, but always with sympathy for their struggles and for the challenges the girls were forced to confront every day even in the best of times, we see through their words how the power of art can reshape people in remarkable ways. If American playwright and documentarian Toni Cade Bambara famously said, “The role of art is to make revolution irresistible,” the stories in these chapters remind us that before there can be revolution, there must be connection, solidarity and even love. And that even when the Revolution never arrives, or is crushed by the forces of reaction, the relationships created through art can change lives and move people in miraculous ways.

“I returned to the US several times to hold benefits. Amazing friends like John Stamos, Sen Dog and Harry Waters (Roger Waters’ son and an established film composer in his own right) performed and we raised $10,000. That’s when I sold everything I owned, my guitars and clothes, packed my bags and moved to the other side of the earth. I had kept my promise to Mursal’s family but I realized that was only the beginning.

Miraculous Love Kids was, from the start, literally a miracle. As someone who spent time in Kabul with the young women who were at the core of the school, I can say it is one of the most powerful and inspiring musical endeavors I’ve ever encountered. Here was a man at the height of his career who gave everything up, literally putting his life in storage, moved to one of the most war-torn and dangerous countries on Earth. He took his life savings and spent it on traveling around Kabul, meeting street kids and their families and convincing them to come study guitar and in the process learn some English and music and other subjects, all with the monthly stipend that would allow their families to avoid starvation and the degraded living conditions that too many Afghan people were forced to live in, even under the so-called enlightened era of US control.

If Lanny’s modus operandi sounds kind of similar to the Taliban, that’s because in a way it is; reach vulnerable kids early, inculcate culture and values that can shape their lives, and give them the tools to enter the world in a way that gives them agency and power. Of course, for the Taliban agency and power came through oppression and mass violence. What Lanny and others were trying to do with Miraculous Love Kids, and similar endeavors involving arts and sports, was to empower young Afghans, especially young girls who were the most marginalized in society, with the knowledge and tools and through music power to have a level of agency they would never otherwise achieve and to be able to express themselves in ways that could move the rest of their country.

Some might imagine that a middle-aged white man coming over to American occupied Afghanistan and teaching girls to play songs like “Fragile” by Sting , Steve Miller’s “Fly Like an Eagle”, or Brian Wilson’s “Love and Mercy”, is simply reinforcing American cultural if not military hegemony. Certainly, I was suspicious when he first explained the idea to me. But when I started hearing the music he was doing and listening to the voices of the girls and understanding what they were learning through his school, I realized that the MLKs — the acronym of the school’s name is deliberately meant to echo the philosophy and life of Martin Luther King Jr — was as subversive against the aims of the US occupation as it was against the Taliban. After visiting the school and talking not just with the children but also with their parents, it was clear they all realized the same thing, which is why the school had well over 200 students a month and many more who wanted to come. Lanny was being asked to open branches in other cities in Afghanistan as well.

Then, tragically CoVid hit the world and within a few months everything came to a halt. While he continued paying the stipends of all the students and urged them to continue practicing at home, and did see them occasionally at the school when the pandemic was at its lower ebbs, aside from the dozen or so core girls it was very hard for him to meet regularly with anyone. Nonetheless even in the last two years Lanny has been able to record some amazing songs with the core group of most advanced students, making videos with some of the biggest names in the music business including the Beach Boy’s Brian Wilson, Tom Morello, Sammy Hagar and country legend Blake Shelton. Releasing the videos out into the world as a way of raising money and even more important awareness about the girls, their problems and struggles, and their dreams and achievements.

But already by this time last year, the disruption caused by CoVid was being challenged by an even greater threat, the Taliban’s slow but inexorable advanced throughout the country. Regardless of what US generals and politicians and mainstream media were saying, it was clear to everyone I knew in Kabul that it was only a matter of time before the Taliban took over the country although no one was ready then, in the midst of the pandemic, to devote the energy necessary to figure out how to deal with that reality. Lanny began gaming out scenarios to get as many girls out as he could but without a plan in place by the US and a clear idea of what was going to happen. It was really impossible to figure out any coherent strategy for protecting and even getting out his students.

The situation became even more urgent, however, when former President Trump signed an agreement with the Taliban in February 2020 that mandated that the US withdraw all forces by May 31st of this year. Regardless of one’s opinion of the invasion and US occupation, or the present situation in Afghanistan as of 2020, it was almost impossible for anyone who cared about women, religious and ethnic minorities, young people, and the future of the country in general to imagine that US withdrawal would lead to anything other than an abrupt and rapid Taliban takeover, and the destruction of whatever small gains for previously ultramarginalized groups that had occurred during two decades of US occupation with all the blood and money spilled.

When President Biden declared his intention to withdraw all troops even more precipitously than was necessary, panic began setting in and around Kabul even before outlying provinces began falling like proverbial dominoes to the Taliban. All of a sudden, literally as Lanny was in the studio recording, calls began coming in almost hourly, with frantic friends and comrades telling him that this and that city or area fell to the Taliban; each one 10 or 20 km closer to the capital than the last. By late June it was clear that it was only a matter of time before Kabul would be overrun no matter what Presidents Biden or Ghani said publicly about the ability of Afghan forces to hold off the Taliban for months or even years.

And then, literally in the blink of an eye, it was over. The Taliban literally walked in, smiling and dancing without nary a shot fired. Thank God for that, certainly, but before anyone could even figure out what was happening the Afghanistan of the last 20 years was no more and a renewed Taliban ruled Afghanistan suddenly created trapping millions of people in their homes, fearful for their lives.

We all know what happened next; hundreds of thousands of people rushing to the airport and to border points into Iran, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Pakistan, desperate to leave. It wasn’t just those who helped the Americans or NATO or the EU or the UN, but liberals and freethinkers and musicians who were scared for their lives. Despite the rapid takeover of the country, the Taliban had never been that popular and if there was ever an election in a free and fair competition there is no way they would win. But they have the guns, the viciousness, resources and the manpower to enforce their will on the rest of society (thanks to external money, the opium trade, and a seemingly unlimited supply of young uneducated and almost starving young men with little to do but fight who can help enforce their rule).

Not surprisingly among the first casualties of the takeover were musicians, several of whom were literally dragged out of their homes and executed in the street. The Afghan National Institute of Music closed, pasted every other cultural institution. And the artist who could get out got out or is still trying to get out, though the Taliban have said they will not inflict vengeance or punishment on women or artists or those who supported the old system even as they impose their new and much more strict views on society.

Unfortunately as of the time of writing, only one student from the school has managed to make it out of Afghanistan, ironically to the United States. All the other corps members, girls and young women who have appeared in videos with hundreds of thousands of views, who’ve played on Afghan television and for the former first Lady, are all now living in great fear and danger, their lives literally hanging in the balance of whether the men who only a month ago were still protecting them and driving them around might wrap them out to the Taliban for a small reward or a place in the new system.

We have been trying, since the Taliban were close, to get them out but the level of incompetence and greed of almost the entire official system of extracting at-risk Afghans is hard for someone who wasn’t part of it to comprehend. The US government, as well as several major foundations belonging to major US politicians, multiple times offered to get the girls out but each time the offer was accepted the process was so badly botched that they never made it to the border, never mind the airport. By the time the last American soldier left it was almost a relief to know at least the girls wouldn’t spend another day sitting on a bus like Godot, waiting for directions that would never come to a freedom that as of now is still not theirs.

It is very hard to imagine that these girls, who when I visited them were so happy and so excited to be playing music and so inquisitive about everything around them, are all now suddenly back locked in their homes, unable to leave, unable to open their guitars and strum them or even to listen to music and anything other than headphones. Even that is dangerous for the Taliban can come and grab their phones in their homes and see if they have Spotify or any music on them and if they do no one really knows what might happen.

Twenty years after September 11th, new casualties are still occurring in the ashes of that horrible day and the half a century of war, violence and greed that proceeded it and made it inevitable, as well as the next twenty years of war and violence and greed that continued with even greater intensity in its wake. The girls of the MLKs are only one tiny slice of the victims that are still suffering from the entire world system that made 9/11 and its aftermaths, to the present day, an extremely profitable cost of doing business. Indeed, as of now they are, thankfully, not even the worst victims, although this could change soon as the Taliban consolidate their rule and impose what at least ideologically remains their very harsh and unforgiving and unmusical vision of their religion on a country and a culture that is overflowing with art and music.

It’s no doubt true that every society must in the end grapple with its own fissures and demons and figure out on its own how to create a balance between religion and tradition on the one hand and culture and freedom and modernity on the other. But Afghanistan’s path has been so twisted and distorted thanks to 50 years of foreign interference, invasions, occupations, war, and a military, industrial and drug mafia system that will never stop extracting whatever value it can from the country precisely because there’s so much value to be extracted from the suffering of the vast majority of the people.

But at least those of us who care about not merely Afghanistan and its girls but also the future of humanity as a whole can continue to support the forces and voices of light against a darkness that continues to grow and spread. It may not do any good but if we don’t even try we are surely, all of us, deservingly, doomed.

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