Afghan talent show a hit four years after the Taliban

“Your love drives me mad, and my music is going crazy. Oh white bird, come back to my nest again,” croons Siar Walizada, his body swaying to the rhythm of the synthesisers, his smile gleaming.

Minutes later, the audience is won over and the 25-year-old looks set to spend another week on television’s biggest hit in this war-scarred country, Afghan Star.

The scene, unthinkable only four years ago under the fundamentalist Islamic rule of the ousted Taliban regime that banned music and television, plays out in mid-December in Kabul’s Ariana cinema.

On the set, 12 young Afghans—10 men and two women aged 18 to 24—appear in front of four judges, a hundred friends and relatives, and the cameras that are recording next week’s show for Tolo TV, Afghanistan’s main private television channel.

Some stand rooted to the spot, others are expressive, but they all sing the love songs that were popular in Afghanistan during the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s and that were then driven away by a bloody civil war and the Taliban.

“We knew there was a demand,” says Wajma Mohseni, one of the show’s producers. “There’s a huge gap in the Afghan music industry due to the past conflicts, and we want to fill that gap—but were overwhelmed by the answer.”

Starting in October, more than 1 000 young urban Afghans attended auditions in Kabul, the western city of Herat, Mazar-i-Sharif in the north, eastern Jalalabad and even the former Taliban stronghold of Kandahar to the south.

These cities are one of the few places where it is possible to escape the poverty and illiteracy that blights most of Afghanistan’s population.

Recalling these initial, two-minute unaccompanied auditions in front of the judges, the programme’s presenter, Daoud Sidiqi (25) bursts out laughing.

“It was so funny at the beginning. It was like a comedy,” he says. “Some people were so bad, and I couldn’t stop myself laughing, the cameramen also, the cameras were shaking. But after two months and the first selection, we had to make adjustments, and to make it look more professional.”

Sidiqi played his own small part in defying the Taliban—when he was at school, he had a part time job repairing TVs and radios in a secret shop.

“People were coming hiding their TV in plastic bags,” he remembers.

As Afghanistan begins to rebuild itself after the hard-liners were driven from power by United States-led forces in late 2001, he and Tolo TV are now bringing back the sound of music, to almost everyone’s taste, he says.

“The only complaints I heard about the show were indirectly: people told me that in traditional villages, some leaders regret that it pushes the youngsters towards a bad activity,” he says. “We break traditions by opening music to the whole society.”

However, the show still keeps a local flavour. Female contestants wear Islamically correct veils, while the show also sacked a judge who was too scathing.

“Young Afghans usually don’t have strong morale, because of the past. So we told the judges not to be harsh on them. Getting girls singing on TV is one of my biggest sources of pride,” Sidiqi says.

He means women like Safia Nurizada, from Mazar-i-Sharif, who progressed to the later stages of the competition and in this episode sings for the first time accompanied by a band.

“I did everything I could to keep your love. I couldn’t sleep at night, but you didn’t understand,” she warbles.

Host Sidiqi then appears on screen again.

“You make the decision by voting,” he tells the viewers. “Vote by SMS: for Safia, dial the number you see on your screen and followed by 12.”

It’s no coincidence that Tolo is linked with Roshan, one of Afghanistan’s biggest cellphone companies, which is also profiting from the show’s success.

The following week, one of the 12 will be eliminated and will wave goodbye to the chance of winning more than $3 000—a huge amount for the average Afghan—and a record contract.

Hopeful Walizada clings to this dream.

“Everything has changed in my life,” says the information technician, who returned to Afghanistan with his family in 2001 after nine years of exile in Pakistan.

“People stop me on the street now, they encourage me, it’s great. I think I am among the top three,” he adds.

In a marine-blue costume, he launches into a song by Ahmad Zaher, the “Afghan Elvis” from the 1970s.

His choice symbolises the country’s desire to hark back to the years before the wars but also its hope for the future.

“These young singers still try to copy idols like Ahmad Zaher. But soon they will discover their own personality and way of singing,” says one of the show’s judges, Jamil Sidiq.

Meanwhile, the contestant is still singing along to the tune played by the keyboard. “I was like a blossomed bunch of roses/ You took one of them/ And I fell in love ...”—AFP

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