The Burqa Band, “The Spice Girls of Afghanistan” – by Adam Thometz

The Burqa Band (sometimes “The Blue Burqa Band”) was one of those special bands that existed against all odds. We are talking about three Afghan women who decided to… form a band. But seriously, in Afghanistan, women are highly discouraged from playing music, even religious music. In fact, under the Taliban, which sees music as the work of the devil, performing music in Afghanistan, privately or publicly, was pretty much a big no-no altogether, even though it wasn’t technically illegal by any other more legitimate standard. Even with the Americans “bringing democracy to the country,” Afghanistan is still among the most conservative and anti-modern countries in the world; citizens still strongly believe that women shouldn’t be allowed to play music. These three women in particular don’t seem to care but they were polite enough to leave their burqas on, despite the inconveniences that wearing a burqa would bring to playing an instrument.

In case you don’t know what a burqa is, it’s that distinctive Islamic garb that completely covers the wearer from head to toe, as opposed to the hijab, which only covers the wearer’s hair. Sometimes the eyes are shown and sometimes they are covered by a net or some kind of mesh sown into the fabric, like in the picture above. (On a side note, it’s sometimes spelled with a “k” instead of a “q” since there’s no established transliteration method from the Arabic alphabet into this alphabet.) I’m sure you’ve seen it in the movies or magazines or whatever. If you’re Western, you probably see it as a symbol of the oppression of women. Well, guess what: you’re not far off from the truth. Yes, it is a part of the culture but they don’t want it to be. While the actual necessity of the burqa is disputed among scholars, most Muslims, at least in Egypt where my mother is from and where I lived for a while, don’t wear it and even see it as a form of extremism. In Afghanistan, where it’s called a chadri, women, including those, who wouldn’t choose to wear it, otherwise must wear it, lest they receive accusations of being a seductress. That custom is slowly starting to wear thin over there (get it? WEAR thin… whatever) in favor of the hijab but women still reluctantly wear burqas just to be safe. For a more in-depth account of the burqa/chadri in Afghanistan, check out this blog post at the New York Times. But I digress…

This band started with the drummer, who goes by “Nargiz” in interviews. She was taking a modern music workshop at Kabul’s Institute of Learning Music in late 2002, sponsored by the country’s Ministry of Culture, led by German pop musicians, including members of Fehlfarben, a certain frank, and Pyrolator. She studied drums with Saskia von Klitzing of Fehlfarben and got the hang of it quickly. One day, wondering why all the burqas in Afghanistan were blue, Nargiz got together with two of her classmates, wrote “Burqa Blue,” which is the song that you just heard, and recorded it with help from the German guys. Nargiz and her two classmates became The Burqa Band. They released the recording on the German Ata Tak label in summer 2003. Their brand of primal ESG-like minimalism became an enormous hit in Germany and their fame only grew when this remix started circulating around clubs in Europe:

The girls were even invited to play in a big show in Cologne. Unfortunately, Nargiz couldn’t go due to her job at an international organization in Kabul but the other two went and she followed the events with great interest.

Indeed, the burqas make the video look cute and silly but they are actually necessary for practical reasons as well artistic. If the identities of these women were revealed, they would face severe harassment in their home country or even be killed since, according to Nargiz, “there are still a lot of religious fanatics here.” They had to make the video discreetly in ‘safe’ public places such as the kitchen at the Institute so as not to be caught by the Taliban. Remember, we’re talking about a place where, at one point in time, reasons for arrest included but were not limited to listening to music, watching TV, flying a kite, eating lobster, playing pool, playing chess, wearing nail polish, clapping at sporting events… you get the idea. Imagine the punishment for three women playing modern music! Nargiz said that only about six people in the entire country know that that’s actually her behind the drums. That would be her mom, her sister, and some close friends.

Ironically enough, being forced to wear the burqas allowed them to use their anonymity to their advantage and protect their identities. I’m no expert at harassing people but I would think that in order to effectively harass someone, you would need to know basic information about them such as name, appearance, etc. With the burqa and their strictly imposed facelessness, harassing them specifically becomes an extremely difficult if not impossible challenge. The result was brilliant tongue-in-cheek subversion that blatantly taunted ultra-conservative religious leaders. I personally love the idea that this was a source of extreme annoyance for the Taliban:

“Burqa Blue” and “No Burqa!” are pretty much their entire repertoire. After their unexpected success with those two songs in Germany and, by extension, Europe, they stopped. They have never given a single public performance in their home country for reasons that must be too obvious to state at this point. They are inactive right now, although Nargiz had expressed interest in playing music again. She and the guitarist have regular jobs and the singer moved to Pakistan, where she has a little more hope to put her talent to use. Right now, it’s not clear what the band’s future is, or if they even have one. Their only hope would be to wait for an American or European label to sign them again and give them the financial support to record an entire album. Nargiz estimated 7 years ago that it could be 10 years before there can be girl bands in Afghanistan. Unfortunately, there seems to be little evidence of the country stabilizing right now, let alone allowing women to perform any kind of music.

For now, the only way that you can listen to them is to watch their videos on Youtube or to buy their “CD-Extra” from the Ata Tak website for €7 (about $8.75), which includes the two songs, two remixes, and the music.

Adam Thometz is a composer and writer who holds a B.A. in Philosophy from The City College of New York as of 2012 (magna cum laude, baby!). He studied jazz piano from 2006-2011 but he’s more interested in composition, synthesizers, and production, as well as the nitty-gritty scientific and philosophical aspects of music. Adam records and produces his own brand of electronic music heavily influenced by rock and extreme music under the name “Mr. Anthrope.”

Adam can be contacted through:
Facebook: facebook.com/adompeace (personal) & facebook.com/Mr.Anthrope.Music (fan page)
Soundcloud: soundcloud.com/mr-anthrope
Email: adamthometzathotmail.com@gmail.com

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